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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ely riding the growing folk school phenomenon


A delightful phenomenon is sweeping across the country and is particularly strong in our region.

In the past 20 years, the number of folk schools in the U.S. has grown to about 100, according to the newly-formed Folk School Alliance, a national network of folk schools. That represents an 800-percent increase from the 1990s, with concentrations in the Northwest, the middle Atlantic, and here in the upper Midwest. That doesn’t even include many other organizations that have folk arts education as part or all of their mission.

The term “folk school” was coined in Denmark in the 1830s by Nikolai Frederik Severin (NFS) Grundtvig who was a philosopher, poet, theologian, educator, historian, composer of hymns, translator, and social critic, but education was one of his primary concerns. At that time, classical education was prevalent, emphasizing Greek and Latin studies, which he felt separated learning from life, so he advocated for popular education. He believed in lifelong learning and recognized the need for imaginative and expansive education, with creativity and community at the center rather than books and grades. The majority of the population were farmers, and he felt that schools should bring dignity to rural people along with pride in the farming life and Danish culture in general.

From 1660 to 1849, Denmark was ruled by an absolute monarchy, but a series of land reforms and other changes in the early 1800’s brought the promise of a more democratic government. Grundtvig felt that his vision for education was critical if Denmark were to have a successful transition to democracy with the necessary skills to create a peaceable and a just society. He felt that human identity was comprised of an individual identity, a cultural identity, and a democratic identity, that the individual identify cannot be separated from community, and so wholeness depends on connection with community. Conversely, he thought the “Schools for Life” would help people understand their own identity and therefore strengthen and empower communities.

Grundtvig did not actually found any schools, but Christen Kold put the Grundtvigian philosophy into practice, based on the belief that education should be available to all and that the main purpose was not to teach factual knowledge but “life’s awakening.” Grundtvig said, “The school should be for life, for the spiritual, and for that which is of the heart.”

So, the folk schools became part of a decentralized grassroots movement that gave farmers a means for personal and social transformation. Major change did indeed come to the Danes with the first democratic constitution in 1849 based on a parliamentary liberal democracy and a national citizenship based on a universal set of rights and obligations. Grundtvig’s work for public education and the folk school movement are given credit for helping the Danes in the successful transition.

In the United States, folk schools have taken many forms. Political progressives in the early 1900s liked the Danish folk school model since they wanted to bring together economic, political and educational experiences. Poconos People’s College in Pennsylvania and Waddington People’s College in West Virginia evolved from these motivations. Highlander Folk School in Tennessee is probably the best known early folk school, founded in 1932 to empower the mountain people of Appalachia. Myles Horton, one of the founders, felt area schools were offering a generic education that did not reflect the needs of the people or the region. Highlander’s folk education includes sharing culture through food, stories, and music; group sharing and reflecting; developing resources for collective action; encouraging leadership; and supporting grassroots organizations working for justice. Some community leaders who participated in this unique training were Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, and Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” was adapted from a gospel song by Highlander music director Ziphia Horton (Myles’ wife) in 1946. Shortly afterward, it was published by folksinger Pete Seeger. The school is still operating under the name Highlander Education and Research Center.

The John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, was founded in 1925 and is the largest in the country with over 8,000 students annually. Its mission reads, “The Folk School seeks to bring people to two kinds of development: inner growth as creative, thoughtful individuals, and social development as tolerant, caring members of a community.” Locally, the Ely Folk School’s mission statement also follows the Grundtvigian philosophy: “…to build community by providing learning experiences that celebrate the wilderness heritage, art, history, culture, and craft of the people of northern Minnesota.”

Students find that they can relax and try new things without fear of judgment or bad grades when they are in an environment that focuses on building community, appreciating individual differences, and valuing the process, not just the end result. As the program coordinator at the Ely Folk School, I have often heard people say, “I’ve never done anything creative before,” or “I never thought I could do that” with broad smiles. The sounds of the folk school are lots of conversation, laughter, and often relaxed, concentrated silence while students are practicing their new skills.

That silence may indicate people are getting “in the flow,” a term coined in 1975 by Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi (pronounced “Me-High Chick-Sent-Me-High”) a Hungarian academic and psychologist. A flow state is characterized by a loss of self-consciousness when you are so absorbed by an activity, often something creative, that nothing else seems to matter; you can easily lose track of time. Csikszenthmilalyi suggested that ‘flow’ is highly correlated with happiness and that people who experience it regularly seem to develop other positive traits, such as improved concentration, self-esteem, and performance.

Just this week a college student who has a full class load, a demanding part-time job, and is actively involved in extracurricular activities, told me that she liked to draw and knit to relax, that it felt meditative to her. An old friend who is a university chemistry professor just told me she is the advisor for over 100 students in addition to teaching, and she’s usually exhausted at the end of the day. But every Monday she goes to an open studio type of art class with an incredible teacher who knows how to encourage and support students in their individual and unique efforts. My friend said she’s surprised by some of the abstract pen and ink work she produces, isn’t sure where it comes from or why it does, but she leaves intrigued and energized and hasn’t missed a Monday in several years.

I’d guess both these women are getting “in the flow” and reaping the benefits. Next time you think you’re too busy or tired to “waste time” doing something fun or creative, think again. And check out the folk school website at www.elyfolkschoolorg or stop in and visit at 209 E. Sheridan St.

Thanks to the Folk School Alliance and Marine Mills Folk School for contributing information to this article.


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