Circles Of Belonging

David Brooks is one of those columnists who vacillates between truly thoughtful essays and self-referential, self-important cant. Just when I want to tell him to get over himself, he comes up with a thought-provoking and undeniably accurate assessment.

One of those was a column, some months back, about Scandanavian education. Here’s his lede:

Almost everybody admires the Nordic model. Countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland have high economic productivity, high social equality, high social trust and high levels of personal happiness.

Progressives say it’s because they have generous welfare states. Some libertarians point out that these countries score high on nearly every measure of free market openness. Immigration restrictionists note that until recently they were ethnically homogeneous societies.

But Nordic nations were ethnically homogeneous in 1800, when they were dirt poor. Their economic growth took off just after 1870, way before their welfare states were established. What really launched the Nordic nations was generations of phenomenal educational policy.

Brooks attributes the social and economic success of Scandinavian countries to their  successful “folk schools”–deliberately fashioned for the least educated among them, and focused upon making lifelong learning a part of the natural fabric of society.

The core difference between the American concept of education, according to Brooks, and “Bildung”–the approach in Scandinavia–is the very definition of “education.”

Today, Americans often think of schooling as the transmission of specialized skill sets — can the student read, do math, recite the facts of biology. Bildung is devised to change the way students see the world. It is devised to help them understand complex systems and see the relations between things — between self and society, between a community of relationships in a family and a town.

In other words, the idea of Bildung was to introduce students to connection; to a sense of their place in ever wider circles of belonging — from family to town to nation — and to emphasize the students shared responsibility for each “circle of belonging.” According to Brooks, the results of that emphasis, of that approach to educating the whole person, is largely responsible for the Scandinavian balance between individuality and social responsibility.

That educational push seems to have had a lasting influence on the culture. Whether in Stockholm or Minneapolis, Scandinavians have a tendency to joke about the way their sense of responsibility is always nagging at them. They have the lowest rates of corruption in the world. They have a distinctive sense of the relationship between personal freedom and communal responsibility.

High social trust doesn’t just happen. It results when people are spontaneously responsible for one another in the daily interactions of life, when the institutions of society function well.

In the U.S., at least before Betsy DeVos and her assault on the very idea of public eduction, fights over education policy have been between those who see schools essentially as providers of consumer goods– skills their children can use in the marketplace–and those who see them as guarantors of democracy, as places where, in addition to those skills, children learn how to learn, how to understand their government, and how to relate to other Americans who may not look or worship as they do.

The public schools are the single most important integrative institution in most countries. Scandinavian countries understand that, and have developed a “whole person” approach to education that has strengthened their societies.

In the U.S., we are still trying to repel the unrelenting attacks of religious fundamentalists, racists and market ideologues on the very concept of public education, let alone education that emphasizes circles of belonging.


  1. Sheila says;
    “In the U.S., we are still trying to repel the unrelenting attacks of religious fundamentalists, racists and market ideologues on the very concept of public education, let alone education that emphasizes circles of belonging.”


    I guarantee you, there is nothing like this educational system in the United States! I like the one section on ignorance, it’s completely opposite of what is promoted here.

    constitution of the court

    Ignorance {f} ; Folly {f} ; Lack of education ignorance [listen]
    Ignorance / ignorance does not protect against punishment . Ignorance is no excuse .
    School education {f} ; school education {f} [school] schooling
    only a small school education ( boast ) have to have little schooling
    Origin {m} ; To emerge ; Formation of {f} ; come {n} ; Formation {f} [listen] [listen]

    copy and paste the link above and listen!

    This is fascinating. And how I wish there were programs like this in American schools. If you have children, it really makes you want to get out of here just for the sake of those children so they actually learn something!

    Oh, there are programs similar in schools here, but they are extremely selective on who has access to this type of education. And, I highly doubt that what they call BEOLINGUS is available for students on the whole anywhere in this country. No wonder they have a different world perspective, “Belonging and Building” being educated from the beginning in this manner, educates the whole person, gives the person a sense of responsibility and ethics, teaches compassion and empathy, reinforces belonging to and working for society as a whole.

    Any wonder why the crooks, and the racists, and religious fundamentalists want to avoid this type of education? Obviously, it would be kryptonite to them.

    Everyone craves the knowledge, but to fundamentally keep knowledge from the youth is a crime against humanity. Knowledge is power, and to live one’s life ignorant, well, that would make you less of a threat to those who are attempting to manipulate the masses. Politicians have lost their way in this country, no matter which side they are on! There needs to be a reckoning, and that reckoning has to start with education, and that education will rebuild a much better society!

    But, will that happen? Nope, Nein, Nicht! See? I’m learning already!

    What is happening in this country right now is antithetical to this sort of teaching, and those who want to control the masses will never allow it to come to fruition.

  2. When people are not ignorant, when they realize the benefit of society being inclusive to everyone, as example in my above comment on ignorance, which was just one really small snippet of the curriculum, it’s like a disinfectant.

    The criminality that the Betsy DeVos is involved in concerning the children of this country, and promoting religious fundamental teaching at taxpayers expense, should be prosecutable. Because it does violate the Constitution.

    I guess you don’t have to copy and paste the link because it’s available to click on in the comment, sorry about that, I thought I was a little more educated, LOL!

  3. There seems to be a notion that education is done at schools. If this were true we would most certainly be doomed. Education must start at home with parents and other adults reading to their children and encouraging their children to read on their own.

    Children are naturally inquisitive and they start asking questions as soon as they can talk. We need to answer those questions. Maybe that means going and looking up the answer with the child or maybe that means a flight of fancy to give an answer and encouraging imagination in the child. Sounds great, doesn’t it. Where do families find the time to do that?

    They find the time when their paychecks are big enough to support their families and they no longer have to work two or three jobs just to keep a roof overhead and food on the table. They find the time when they no longer have to worry about being laid off, when they know they can transition to a new job seamlessly, if necessary.

    All of that requires a decent social safety net. Are Americans willing to pay for that yet? I frankly doubt we’ve matured that much as a nation.

  4. The way our schools were constructed in the 19th century reflected the demands of the industrial revolution. As is the situation today, corporate/banking America dictates how and what will be taught in our schools. Community understanding? Pffft. Getting the kids ready to make money and make the rich, richer is the thing here.

    In my unread book from 2011, “A Worm in the Apple: The Inside Story of Public Schools”, the evolution of public schools from quaint, semi-private learning centers to mass education/money-maker factories is chronicled. In short, the Scandinavian model was predicated on community improvement via a world view IN ADDITION to their industrial revolution. In the United States, we focused on money, war and wealth acquisition.

    I don’t think we’ll ever change our education model. The fact that over 60 million Americans think that Donald Trump and the Republican party are good for America is testament to the failure of our school philosophy. Sure, we make cool stuff… or did, once upon a time. Sure we went to the moon, but that was part of the cold war. We’ve only been at peace for about 8% of our national existence. That was something Brooks missed too.

  5. The Folk Scools in Denmark also welcome people who have ascended the normal age of “schools”. I had the opportunity it to attend a Folk School in Denmark several years ago through what was then Elderhostel (now Road Scholar). It was a wonderful experience.

    These schools believe learning is a lifelong endeavor. Some of us, probably most of Sheila’s followers…you guys…no doubt also have followed such a life path.

    Look around, many of us see no ending to expanding our knowledge base. Let’s see where these things are happening and bring attention to them. Perhaps anext alternative way to point out the positive rather than always going to what is not working so well. Contrast the two ways, support change to the other way. Please don’t just get caught only in the negative, that may just do us in.

    John Campbell School in North Carolina was formed on this model of the Danish Folk School. Also Berea College in Kentucky.

    If you are interested, check out Scandanavian Studies programs, they abound.

  6. Great comments and for once, I agree with Brooks. He’s pointing out the Scandinavian model devised and operated in democratic socialist countries where societies are people-centered versus market-centered or profit-centered.

    This comment could have come straight for Einstein’s dictum which addresses education as well. As Vernon notes, we are still manufacturing widgets along an assembly line which is also being guarded and protected by a corrupt teachers union; but this, “According to Brooks, the results of that emphasis, of that approach to educating the whole person, is largely responsible for the Scandinavian balance between individuality and social responsibility.”

    It’s all individuality in this country from the moment they are born. As changes have been made, I can still hear the voices decrying over “participation trophies” while clamoring that only “winners” got trophies when they were growing up. Not sure if they were winners or resentful losers, but this group doesn’t grasp the concept of the “whole person.” They haven’t been liberated from their ego.

    As a collective, we aren’t there yet. Not even close. I say this as a military surveillance jet encircles Portland and Pompeo pushes for aggression against China. Hell yeah, who needs education when we have the world’s largest military!!!

  7. It’s easier to keep ’em poor if you keep ’em dumb. That, in a nutshell, is America’s education policy.

  8. Sheila hits another home run (I guess baseball is back, sort of). I have the same feelings about our Mr. Brooks. Aside from the import of what he is saying, one of his phrases needs, in my view, special emphasis: “ High social trust doesn’t just happen.” This is an essential building block of prosperity, national unity, and safety. It is also being absolutely destroyed by you-know-who and hs merry band. Of all the terrible things he has done, his attack on social trust is the most corrosive, likely long-lasting and damaging.

  9. My sister just retired from teaching. She taught for 40 years. One of the issues I see is that we educate so that students can pass a test. Teachers complain often about how they are not allowed to use their own expertise in the class room. Devos has never taught and should not be in her position. She has no idea how to teach kids. She supports a lot of useless theories and policies that further support system racism in our educational systems.

    It is obvious to me that our educational system aims to teach students how to succeed individually. There is not enough teaching about one’s responsibility for the greater good. Obviously Scandanavians believe it is essential to teach kids the importance of caring for the welfare of their societies at local and national levels.

    Last night I was kept awake by someone who thought it would be just fine to ride around on his loud motorbike in the middle of the night. This lack of consideration for one’s neighbors is something I repeatedly notice in my neighborhood ie don’t play your music loudly in your car after midnight.

    Obviously those individuals were not taught much about respect for one’s neighbors. At times like that, I wish I had been born in Denmark.

  10. From an article:

    The Finnish school system might sound like a restless American schoolchild’s daydream: school hours cut in half, little homework, no standardized tests, 50-minute recess and free lunch. But the Finns’ unconventional approach to education has vaulted Finland to the upper echelon of countries in overall academic performance, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

    Finnish students have ranked at or near the top of the Program for International Student Assessment ever since testing started in 2000. In the most recent assessment in 2009, they ranked sixth in math, second in science and third in reading. By comparison, U.S. students ranked 30th, 23rd and 17th, respectively, of the 65 tested countries/economies.

    While U.S. public schools are locally funded, usually from property taxes, and rewarded based on high performance through programs such as the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top grants, Finnish schools are nationally funded based on the number of students. Schools are provided additional funding if they have a higher proportion of immigrants or students whose parents are uneducated or unemployed, he said.

    Darling-Hammond, who wrote about the Finnish educational system in her book The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, also contrasted America’s test-based teaching to Finland’s more flexible system.

    “The [Finnish] curricula are very much focused on critical thinking and problem solving, project-based learning, and learning to learn,” she said. “There is a lot of collaboration in the classroom.”


    My Side Bar: As a draftee type Vietnam Combat Army Veteran, our education system reminds a lot of the Army. One of the first things you learn is to take orders, then marching, staying in step or cadence with your comrades. As expected everything is very regimented for the most part, when you get up, when you eat, etc.

    Another article I had read years ago in the Smithsonian Magazine drew comparisons to the Finish system of education to Montessori here in the USA.

  11. Apologies for repeating myself for the umpteenth time here…”Teaching As a Subversive Activity” – Postman and Weingartner…..

  12. I urge lifelong learners here on this blog to read the following, it is right in the same spirit of Sheila’s topic. Thanks! Spoiler alert: The author emphasizes “Work That Reconnects” that helps people tell the truth about what they see and feel is happening to our world. It also helps them find the motivation, tools, and resources for taking part in our collective self-healing. It is both an education model as well as a new way of being a person in community. The author of the op-ed is Joanna Macy, an American Buddhist scholar. Enjoy!

  13. I married a Swedish American. She later earned her doctorate and was a university professor. She, her mother (who was fluent in Swedish) and I have visited Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen. I was impressed by the respect these Nordics have for one another and their social and economic institutions. Generally speaking, I think these people really understand that “we are all in this together,” an attitude missing in countries mired in capitalist instincts, ideology and supportive propaganda (where per the old adage) “It’s every man for himself.”

    While there we visited a fellow lawyer and his wife (she was the relative) who lived in a large condo at 1 Kungsgarten in downtown Stockholm. They were well off, had a condo on Majorca in the Mediterranean, a Swiss chalet which they sometimes flew to for a weekend of skiing, and were world travelers. I decided to play Republican right winger in search of a democratic socialist response and told him I understood that Swedes paid very heavy income taxes of some fifty percent and said: “That’s a little high, isn’t it?” I willl never forget his reply: “Well, Jerry, that depends upon what you get for your money.” After running through a long litany of what Swedes don’t pay for (including single payer healthcare coverage), I then determined that we pay higher income taxes here than the Swedes do there, netwise and all things considered, and get far less for our money in terms of patchwork social and economic benefits doled out by politicians and their capitalist overseers in just sufficient amounts to keep the rest of us and our pitchforks out of the streets.

    The key distinction, of course, is trust in government. The Swedes trusted their government to collect revenues and fairly disperse them through several programs when we were there; here we are taught by those who otherwise benefit that government is bad, especially “big government,” and that programs such as those of the Nordic countries are socialist and in derogation of free market philosophy and therefore bad. Our capitalists and their political lackeys have done a good job. Witness, for instance, that forty one percent of total bankruptcies here are medical bankruptcies while such is unknown in Sweden. Wages there are high, the workforce is productive and the Swedes run a trade surplus; here productivity is marginal resulting in billions in trade deficits and moves to low labor cost jurisdictions, and with a president who mindlessly and to make things worse employs tariffs in his trade games which raises the price of imports on American consumers.

    It was an interesting and eye-opening trip. The Swedes, like us, have a mixed economy, but they have a system which spreads their productive wealth and income more evenly and equitably than we do with our outsized rewards to the investor class, a correctible situation this November.

    Final reflections > I have been on every continent except Antartica but learned more on that two week Nordic sojourn than on any other such visit (some of which were during and shortly after WW II where we had other fish to fry and economic philsophy was rarely if ever a topic of discussion). I am told that Sweden has become more conservative today than it was years ago when we three visited there in search of relatives, finding twenty one, and if so, they have a long way to go to catch us as we have now totally destroyed the New Deal correctives and are moving even further right with one of our major parties now openly in favor of authoritarian control and a continuation of a minimum wage that has not been adjusted for eleven years. What to do? Endlessly agitate for reform. Endlessly.

  14. One might want to consider, just a bit, that until recently the Scandinavian countries were not very diverse demographically or culturally….could be a slight factor?

    There are no silver bullets for the complexity that is 21st Century America. There is work, hard grueling work to take us further toward our ideals.

  15. However Scandinavian education is set up or why it is working; it is the lack of civics education and comprehension in this country that has led us to the copied and pasted quote by Sheila.

    “In the U.S., we are still trying to repel the unrelenting attacks of religious fundamentalists, racists and market ideologues on the very concept of public education, let alone education that emphasizes circles of belonging.”

    I keep reading that it is Trump’s reaction, or lack thereof, on all levels of the Covid-19 Pandemic and no assurance of a future for any of us in this country is sinking his presidential chances. Trump’s current trip to Florida is for that $580,000 plus per person campaign fund raiser. We have seen the report of the remaining Koch brother’s support for his campaign and the stimulus plan will be credited to Trump simply because he signed the bill with his trusty Sharpie. All of this may work to keep him in in office rather than forcing him out if his campaign dollars are distributed to those who believe voting for him will be their personal economic salvation. The lack of civic knowledge and what Trump’s remaining in the Oval Office actually means to this nation is beyond their understanding. Big Business and major corporations always have their hands out for a handout, never more than now when threatened with economic failure due to the Pandemic.

    Mitt Romney has already stated he fears Trump will remain in office. That is the scariest forecast of this coming election I have seen; Mitt doesn’t need Trump’s money to “belong”.

  16. The religious right and Republicans in general like to employ the rhetoric of “teaching students to think critically”. Of course, we all want that, so who could complain, right? They mean, though, that students need to question all the science they are taught — evolutionary theory, primarily, but much else, too — because our scientific understandings change over time. In other words, nothing can be trusted, so go to the bible for truth.

    The Scandinavian model _actually_ teaches students to think critically. I love that. 🙂 Perhaps that is one of the reasons their religiosity has been declining steadily for decades. As a corollary, I suspect they may also have fewer –per capita — conspiracy theorists, too.

  17. Lester, I am starting to think that bred into the way of American thinking is that diversity or lack of diversity is a critical key to everything. I know that immigration to Scandinavian countries is not a non-issue, but I suspect it does not loom as large in the minds of Scandinavians as it does for an American who has been brainwashed since Bacon’s rebellion that race is what divides us.

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