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Blast from the Past! Nikolaj Grundtvig, Highlanders, Nova Scotia & the Folk School Movement


Coming out of a recent conference called Thrive, I find myself reflecting on the value of some ‘old’ methods of community building based in the folk school movement founded by Nikolaj Grundtvig – a Danish theologian, writer / poet, philosopher, historian, educationist and politician in the 1830’s.


Why might this bit of history be relevant to community building today you ask?


Two of the most famous children of the Danish folk schools are the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, and the Antigonish Movement in Nova Scotia.


Rooted in the age of the Enlightenment, Grundtvig identified a growing democratic need in society; to help people engage as active members of society, to give them the means to change political situations from below and be a place to meet across social borders. It would seem we could use some of that again today.


There are many ‘conferences’ going on these days, many community building ‘learning opportunities…’ and yet, we seem to be struggling still to find our way to building a truly more just, fair and inclusive society. One that is focused on the well-being of ALL people - and the planet. If anything, sometimes we seem to be going backwards.

Are we missing the trees for the forest?


Some of the core beliefs that Grundtvig put forward could be helpful in pondering how we create a better world today...


Practical Knowledge; individuals needed practical knowledge to help them feed themselves for example - so participants in the schools learned the latest in farming techniques.


Knowledge of Oneself; participants in folk schools were encouraged to develop ‘a sense of themselves’ - as human beings and citizens who are responsible for the welfare of each other.


Knowledge of One’s Culture; participants were also encouraged to know their history, culture and stories - a sense of who they were as a people, and how to organize as people.


Knowledge of the World Around Us; what is our place in the world, and how do we make a difference in it?


I’m not trying to romanticize this time - they had a variety of complex struggles, just like we do now. But - I wonder if we sometimes forget what we really need to know to be engaged as ‘citizens’ of the world.


Founded in the 1932, The Highlander Folk School describes itself as a ‘catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building in Appalachia and the South… work(ing) with people fighting for justice, equality and sustainability, supporting their efforts to take collective action to shape their own destiny.’


The Antigonish Movement - which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year also saw itself, and continues to see itself, as a catalyst for change.


At the turn of the 20th century, Nova Scotia faced a number of challenges that helped ignite the Antigonish Movement. Many communities, especially in rural areas, were in a state of despair, with families unable to feed themselves. Fish merchants acted as powerful and unfair intermediaries between the ocean and the markets, and in the poorly performing mines and mills, corporations strategized to take more out of the pockets of their workers.


Out-migration of youth to urban centres across North America since the 1870s was devastating. Traditional ways of life were drastically altered. The move from rural to urban life led to many new types of problems, such as unsafe and unfair working conditions, poor sanitary and housing conditions, overcrowding, and poverty in general.


Sound familiar?


Nova Scotia is not alone. There are many places in the world that are struggling in various ways, and there are many people trying to make the world a better place. Could a resurgence of the folk school movement be a way forward to help us do more? And do it more quickly?


Sometimes I feel like I’m on a very fast moving train, like many others, just trying to hang on and do what we can to make a difference. But if we don’t slow. down. once. in. a. while.... to really think about what we are doing, how we are doing it, who we are doing it with, or not… then I think we are on dangerous ground. We may think we are doing good - but are we really being as effective and efficient as we can be?


What do we need to do to REALLY make a difference?

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