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Finland 100: Education & the Construction of a Finnish National Identity


Last Wednesday, Finland celebrated Independence Day (itsenäisyyspäivä)–marking 100 years since Finland declared its independence from Russia. A marked difference between the independence day celebrations I have experienced in Finland and those back in the States is that celebrations here seem to be touched by a level of melancholy. Because of the relative recency of Finnish Civil War (and the Continuation War with the Soviet Union in the 1940’s)–both conflicts fought on Finnish soil, memories of war still permeate the public consciousness in powerful ways.

Over the last couple of months, I have also observed critical dialogues over what constitutes a “Finnish” identity in the first place, and who does and does not have the power to define that identity. Given my personal interest in questions of education access, these conversations have made me interested in looking deeper into the role of schools in the construction of Finnish national identity, specifically in light of claims that the Finnish education system is grounded in equality. So, in honor of Finnish Independence Day, I will delve into a little bit of Finnish history to better contextualize the education system the nation champions today.

Back in September, I attended the Diverse Learners in Policy, Practice, and Teacher Education conference at the University of Helsinki. It brought together Teacher Education departments from Finland and Israel to exchange best practices from their respective teaching and research contexts and marked the beginning of the Israeli representatives’ “study tour” of the Finnish education system. As such, the conference began with an overview of the structure and history of reforms of the Finnish education system. While much of this overview was a reiteration of the information I had come across during my research already, one point made during this presentation has stuck with me and continues to inform the ways I think about Finnish attitudes towards education.

The argument was this: the birth of the school in Finland represented the birth of the Finnish nation state. Upon Finland’s transition to an independent republic, it was understood that each village needed their own school. The result was that communities developed a deep sense of pride and connection to their schools. Because schools also included religious instruction, the teacher was understood to be a representative of the Church, and therefore a moral authority.

This was the argument as it was presented to me, but I did a little bit of research to better understand the historical forces driving this phenomenon. It has been surprisingly challenging to this particular articulation of this argument online, though that may just be because such literature is written in Finnish. That being said, thinking about the changes experienced by Finland around the time of independence illuminates some interesting similarities between the role of schools in Finland and the US.

Role of Schools in “Civilizing” Rural Populations 

In 1917, Finland was a largely agrarian state: “84.2% lived in the countryside and 74% of the population earned their living in agriculture.” Though Finland began to urbanize more following its independence, a large proportion of the population continued to live in rural areas. Part of the reason for this is that Finland implemented a land settlement policy, whereby land was given to those who did not own any. This meant that more Finnish citizens were able to remain in rural areas because they could now own, rather than rent, farmland. Because of the compulsory education law of 1921 and the district decree of 1898 (which required no student to travel further than 5 km to access a school), the distribution of the population in dispersed rural areas resulted in the skyrocketing of village schools, until the mid-1950s. Prior to the compulsory school act, only one-third of rural children attended school

Leena Krokfors, a Professor at the University of Helsinki’s Department of Education Sciences, notes, “If we look back at Finland’s history, teachers have always been seen as the people who brought civilisation to small villages.” When one considers that Finnish independence marked the end of 600 years of Swedish rule and 100 years of Russian control, the impact of the concurrent increase of rural schools cannot be understated.

Teachers at this time were considered the “candles of the nation,” and were in charge of organizing cultural activities for villages. The Catholic Church and eventually the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland also became invested in the education system, instating a policy that literacy was a requirement for marriage within the church.

Finland, today, has become known for its teacher education programs, but I was surprised to learn that the first professor of Education in any of the Nordic countries was placed in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki. That meant that student teachers were instructed by a professor who was also a pastor in the Lutheran Church, so there was a heavy emphasis on the role of religion in a basic education. By the 1970’s though, the Teacher Education Act of 1971 reassigned all teacher training to occur within colleges in universities, thereby professionalizing the training of teachers and beginning the model for teacher training that Finland has become known for.

Commonalities with US Education System 

So, what does all of this mean? Though this is far from a full history of the role of the teacher in Finland, I do think this provides some critical context for understanding the relationship between Finland’s education system and their broader national identity, and the historical similarities between the Finnish education system and that of the US.

It is hard to read about the spread of “civilization” to Finnish rural schools without being reminded of Horace Mann and the Common Schools Movement in the US. Mann similarly proposed that all children should have access to a basic education provided by the state and advocated for expanding access to quality teachers in rural schools. Similar to the movement in Finland, the Common Schools movement was an attempt to construct a national identity by training students to be citizens of a democracy: “From the perspective of the common school founders, the new American republic in the mid-nineteenth century was still on shaky ground, and its survival depended on a citizenry with a fully developed sense of civic virtue” (Labaree 44).

One of the biggest questions I have been grappling with is how Finland seems to be able to understand education as an unequivocally public good, when nations like the US have shifted to understanding it as private. Vouchers, school choice, and other such policies endorsed by Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos all, at their core, rely on an understanding of education as a private good. Schools are not a value to communities in and of themselves; rather, educational historian David Labaree aptly argues that US education policy has become dominated by an understanding that the primary goal of education is as a tool of social mobility, “reshap[ing] education into a commodity for the purposes of status attainment and [elevating] the pursuit of credentials over the acquisition of knowledge.”

All of this is to say that, to really understand the success of certain models of education in Finland and whether or not those models might be scaled to other nations, I do not think it is possible to isolate these conversations from the historical contexts of such policies. When we praise the Finnish system for allowing the autonomy of their teachers and deeply investing in their training and then ask “Why doesn’t the US do the same?,” I think it is important to nuance that discussion by considering the deeper educational values held by those respective nations.

There is so much more to be considered here, so this is by no means a conclusive history or analysis of these dynamics. I hope that this history helps to begin to provide the context necessary to continue to think about the Finnish education system though and to continue to ask critical questions regarding the role of schools in contributing to and/or enforcing particular conceptions of national identity and “citizenship.”

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