October 1998                            

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          BOOK REVIEW

Adult education on the defensive against narrow vocationalism

By the People, For the People: The Tradition, the States of the Art and the Future Prospects of Finnish Liberal Adult Education,  edited by Timo Toiviainen, published by the Finnish Adult Education Association for the Finnish Ministry of Education and the Alfred Kordelin Foundation, Helsinki1997; ISBN 951-97339-2-2 (77 pages)

by Brian Groombridge 

The FAEA (The Finnish Adult Education Association) is NIACE's (National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) sister organisation in Finland; this booklet, edited by Alan Tuckett’s opposite number, provides a selection of seminar papers presented at the 1996 (28th) international ‘Meeting in Finland’.

Toiviainen describes it modestly as an introduction to the Finnish liberal adult education system for those not familiar with it, but it is useful even for old Nordic hands like myself. The papers do more than offer a brief guide to the longstanding values and purposes of Finnish adult education, with some indication of how its structures are being modernised. They also comment on factors which have made a strong impact in the recent past -- including the recession (which hit Finland particularly hard, coinciding as it did with the collapse of the huge Soviet market); the waning of the welfare state; joining the European Union; and the country’s emergence as a world leader in telecommunications and IT.

Toiviainen outlines the shared history of the four main Nordic countries, Denmark and Sweden, the two colonisers, and Finland and Norway, the two colonised (in Finland’s case by Russia as well as Sweden). He stresses the deep significance levels of their common Lutheranism, foundation of the advanced levels of literacy and of participation in adult education for which these countries are famous.

Alongside the familiar name of Denmark’s polymath theologian, Nikolai Frederik Grundtvig (1783-1872), he invokes two others: Oscar Olsson (1877-1950), the Swedish father of the study circle movement, through which adults co-operate in furthering their own learning outside the formal system; and Zachris Castren (1868-1938), the Finn identified with the municipal sector of Workers Institutes (alternatively called Civic Institutes or Adult Education Centres), whose central tenet became the basis of Finnish policy to this day -- the state has an obligation enshrined in law financially to support liberal education without controlling its curriculum or its pedagogy.

Even so, Toiviainen depicts such adult education as on the defensive against narrow vocationalism, and suffering cuts of 26% and more, though he admits the historic level of funding was exceptionally high. (It emerges later, for example, that the Folk High Schools are still going strong, with 90 or more such long term residential study centres for a population of 5 million or so, and in 1995 the Green Movement joined such traditional bodies as the churches and the WEA in running study circles).

There are three pieces on the Folk High Schools. They are much in demand, diversifying in curriculum, course length and ages of participants. Two papers deal with economic development and the labour market system -- the relevance of the seminar venue itself (the Kiljava Institute, Nurmijärvi); and of the consortium for learning to improve the competitiveness of companies in the region of the Lakes. The intimate connection between Nordic democracy and adult education is well illuminated by a paper on study circles. There are commentaries by two visiting adult educators, Albert Kudsi-Zadeh from Canada and Ingrid Ellinghaus from Lower Saxony.

In the liveliest, because most personal article, Professor Jukka Paastela (Tampere University), tells one of the best ‘It-changed-my-life’ stories I have come across lately. He came from a very tough, crime-ridden quarter of Helsinki, hated school, was written off as a failure, and became an errand boy. At the age of 12, a chance visit to the opera entranced him and for the first time he started reading for sheer pleasure. When he was 19, he spent two formative years at a Folk High School (The Workers’ Academy).

In an ‘introduction’ more information about how social movements and citizens actually set up subsidised but autonomous Folk High Schools would have helped. Data on how much the state actually spends is sparse. However, By the People, For the People does provide uptodate indicative answers to the big question: What is happening to the highly distinctive, humane and profoundly democratic tradition of Nordic adult transition and resources, the reassuring rhetoric of the title is not just a nostalgic reflex.

This article was originally published in the February 1998 issue of Adults Learning, published by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

Brian Groombridge is Professor Emeritus of Adult Education, University of London, and Vice-Chairman of the Council of the Finnish Institute in London.

See also:

Seminar on Higher Education (July 1997)

Index of back issues

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