The fact that popular education is so intimately linked in the Danish tradition with the concept of learning for life is mainly the work of Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872), a clergyman and writer. One cannot think about Folk High Schools without think- ing about Grundtvig.
Grundtvig was a contemporary of two other eminent Danes – Hans Christian Andersen and Soeren Kierkegaard – both far better known in the world at large. Yet from a Danish viewpoint there is little doubt that it was Grundtvig who left the most indelible mark on Danish culture.
Of course, no one can tell what the course of history might have been if Grundtvig had not lived, but we would venture to claim that life in Denmark – our whole cultural environment, church life, edu- cational system, political culture, atmosphere and mentality – would not have been quite the same – and probably a little less festive and cheerful than it is.
As a young man Grundtvig was not much different from most others of his calling in Denmark. He believed that human life on Earth was something transient, insignificant – a sort of temporary exile – and that the essential task for man was to turn his attention towards “the eternal life” beyond death. But in his late forties, between 1829 and 1831, he undertook three study trips to England and these marked a major turning point in his life in several respects. One of the changes they brought about was a completely new outlook on human life and the world. At the same time he also began to develop the basic educational ideas that were to inspire the creation of the Danish Folk High School.
The schools’ educational freedom does not just rest on an idée fixe. The entire structure rests on a very special view of human beings and a very special view of the relationship between the individual and the state.
Any educational approach is based on a certain view of mankind and that view cannot be dictated by the state. In Grundtvig’s words, man is a “divine experiment” and no one can take out a patent – neither state nor church, or any other institution.