Enlightenment - a tool to sustainable education and global citizenship

Rikke Schultz, Vice-president of Association for World Education

This article will introduce the term “sustainable education” as an educational concept, where focus is education for all and education that qualify individuals to be active participants in the development of their society. If we want education to be sustainable, it must be of high quality, reach all students and give higher priority to life skills than academic skills.
The article also demonstrates, that Danish enlightenment tradition, which was founded 150 years ago by the Danish public movements as the Folk High School movement, the cooperative movement and civic education associations meets the criteria of a sustainable educational concept. This concept has been and is still essential for the development of Danish society and the creation of the so-called Nordic welfare system.
The article will also discuss sources of light in the Danish Enlightenment traditions. In this tradition we consider light coming from above, below, outside and inside, and it is in the interaction between traditional wisdom and science, that knowledge can lead to an inner understanding of life being. Finally the article looks into what Enlightenment in the 21.th century can be, and what kind of life competences are needed today. This part of the article includes inspiration from Ken Wilber’s integral theories about human behaviour. Combining Ken Wilber’s integral Theories with the Danish enlightenment tradition gives a unique answer to the questions, how we can meet the 2030 goal no. 4 and especially goal no. 4.7 – which I consider as the most ambitious goal about education, set by UN in 2015.


Why do we need a new educational paradigm?
A formal education system has traditional had at least three sociological tasks to solve:

  1. Socializing young people to be active participants in the society

  2. Sorting young people so that the best minds are getting the best education and the most important jobs

  3. To allocate the necessary manpower to different industries

In the traditional Danish education system, when I was a child, this was done in a way, that everybody was invited into school as if they were going to be Doctors, Layers or professors. After 7 years in school the students was divided into three groups.
One group was early school leavers. At the age of 14 – 16 years old they went to the labour marked as unskilled workers or apprentices. Many of them left school believing that they were too stupid to learn. But training in the labour marked, sports clubs, unions and other social movement recovered their self-confidence and assisted them in becoming active citizens.
The second group finished lower secondary education and continued in various kinds of vocational training and became qualified for a job in the public or private service sector.
The third group included less than 5 – 10 % of a class, who got an education at an academic or professional level.

Today all over the world academically skills and university degrees still seem to be the only way to gain social, political and cultural status in the society. Everybody fight for academic skills, and therefore we have developed an education system driven by competition for the best grades in academic skills only. And since not all of us can be doctors, lawyers and professors, this is not a sustainable education system and it will never lead us toward a sustainable society. We cannot talk about a sustainable education system, before we have a system with dynamics and goals, there are able to meet the society's need for professions and problem solving.

What is Sustainable Education

Let us for one minute listen to this conversation by Stephan Sterling:

It was early 2001, and the publisher of the Schumacher Briefings and I were having a chat in his office about the title of the new education Briefing. I had just made a bid for ‘Sustainable Education’. His reply was along the lines: ‘surely, you mean “education for sustainable development”, or “education for sustainability” don’t you? Are you implying “education that lasts?” - it doesn’t make a lot of sense’.

‘No’, I said, ‘I don’t want to call it education ‘for’ anything, and yes, ‘Sustainable Education’ is exactly the title I want’. The reason I went for this title, is that I wanted it to provoke a little cognitive dissonance and the question: ‘what does that mean?’. I wanted people to move from ‘how do we educate for sustainable development’ towards deeper attention to education itself: its paradigms, policies, purposes and practices (these are linked of course) and its adequacy for the age we find ourselves in. In the Briefing, I define sustainable education as:

“a change of educational culture, one which develops and embodies the theory and practice of sustainability in a way which is critically aware. It is therefore a transformative paradigm which values, sustains and realises human potential in relation to the need to attain and sustain social, economic and ecological well being, recognising that they must be part of the same dynamic” (Sterling, 2001:22).

According to Stephan Sterling sustainable education implies four descriptors: educational policy and practice, which is sustaining, tenable, healthy and durable.

Sustaining: it helps sustain people, communities and ecosystems;
Tenable: it is ethically defensible, working with integrity, justice, respect and inclusiveness;
Healthy: it is itself a viable system, embodying and nurturing healthy relationships and emergence at different system levels;
Durable: it works well enough in practice to be able to keep doing it.

Development of the Danish Enlightenment Concept

Enlightenment is Non-formal and it is supplementary to the formal system. The tradition goes back to 1849, when Denmark had its first democratic constitution.
The founder or better the brain behind the Danish enlightenment tradition was N.F.S. Grundtvig. He was a priest, a philosopher, a poet, a writer, a historian and a politician. He was a member of the assembly which was writing the constitution and he was elected member of the first parliament. As a politician he was supported by the farmers and some of the more liberal religious movements.

As a historian Grundtvig was very scared by the experiences of the French Revolution, which took place in 1789-92.
The French revolution has in many ways been a beacon light for political movements worldwide, and the slogans about freedom, equality and brotherhood are still heartbreaking stuff in liberal and socialist political movements and in almost every constitution around the world. But in France itself it resulted in social chaos– with publican BEHEADINGS (remember the guillotine?) of first the royal family and later on the most important intellectual brains behind the revolution. Public order in France was re-established when Napoleon came to power and declared himself the new emperor. And that led to war in Europe in the beginning of the 19. Century. Grundtvigs conclusion was, that democracy depends on an enlightened people. If people are not able to judge by themselves, charismatic political leaders can easily manipulate them.

Enlightenment before academic skills

Grundtvig did not care much about literacy. Indeed he feared, that if people got too interested in reading, they would turn their back to their daily work. But he also new, that democracy is depending on an enlighten people. Throughout his life Grundtvig fought for the spoken language. In schools, in court and in parliament – the spoken language was the best way to ensure peoples participation in the development of their community and society without turning everybody into academicals. Enlightenment was not a matter of literacy; it was a matter of bringing knowledge to people.

Grundtvig strongly believed, that encouragement was more important than know how. Denmark in the middle of the 19.th century was a country undergoing rapid economic and political changes. War had reduced the size of the country. The new democratically political system was still week. Land reforms had changed peasants to farmers owning their own land. But at the same time, imported wheat from the United States of America had eroded the grain prices. So what to do? No teacher could tell what to do.

The Danish constitution from 1849 made it possible for the farmers to organize themselves, to form cooperative movements and start cooperatively owned industries such as diaries, slaughter houses and feeding stuff industries. They introduced quality systems: trademarks as “Lurpak” (Danish

butter) and blueprinted Danish Bacon and they exploited the new opportunities. In short – they were self confident and self-reliant and it was a sustainable development. But there was no masterplan. It happened so, because they were able to understand the world, they were engaged in the development, they saw the possibilities and they were allowed to do so.

Denmark 1849-1899

Farmers organizes themselves as landowners with:
Co-operative diaries, slaughterhouses and Feeding-stuff industries

Free schools (private schools without accreditation)
Free Continuous Schools (efterskoler) Folk high schools

Evening classes
Gathering houses
Political party (The Liberal party)

The development took place during a 50 years period. In the same period about 80 Folk High Schools and as many free schools offering education for children up to 18 years was established in rural areas. First it went slowly, but gradually the process was speeded up, it culminated 1870-1880. About 1890 all farmers in rural areas had the possibility of being a member of different co- operative industries. Rural people (Landboer) had become an articulated economic, political and social factor in Denmark. Rural people were not only farmers. It was a movement of people living in the countryside and it included all kind of services: Veterinaries, dealers, diarists, teachers, consultants, farm workers, and many more. They had their own identity, their own movements, their own free school system without any accreditation, their own gathering houses, their own evening classes, their own youth movement (4H), their own university (Landbohoejskolen) and there own political party, the Liberal Party (Venstre), who came into power in 1901 after a major change in the parliament system1. They were an example of good practice for the upcoming labor movements in the bigger cities.

In 1905 this rural movement was divided into two movements, the farmers and the small farmers represented by 2 different political parties in parliament the liberal party (Venstre) and the social liberal party (Radikale Venstre). The rural movements (landbobevaegelserne) was numerous until 1950’s.

The enlightenment concept

The basic concept of enlightenment was life long learning (LLL). It started in the Free Schools and the Free continuous schools. Both school forms recognized, that parents sometimes needed the children’s labor power, so the school year was responsive to the annual cycle of farm work in the fields.

The Folk high schools had four-month courses for farm workers in the winter period, when there was no farming, and two-month courses for girls in spring.
The students learned life skills, civic education, and also sports were an important subject. Back in the villages, the young people were engaged in volunteer work in the local associations and in sports clubs.

Gathering houses gave room for local associations, evening classes and public lectures about important subjects for the communities.
But the Folk High Schools also provided two-year terms with a more academic approach including arts and science for the good achievers. This gave some of the young people, who grew up in the rural areas an opportunity to swift from the non-formal into the formal education systems such as university, teacher training, nurse schools and other educations on a bachelor levels.
The common concept of all this activities was and they are still simple:

  1. Everybody can participate – whatever educational background they have

  2. The content is decided by the need of participants

  3. No examination or accreditation – the output depends on who you are - and what you need to know

  4. It is oral.

Enlightenment is a matter of bringing knowledge out to people, where they live and when they need it. It is not to bring everybody to big cities to be taught a lot of academically stuff; they will not be able to benefits from in their daily life.

1 Cabinet responsibility is introduced in Denmark after a longer period with provisional laws. After 1901 the government is forced to retire, if the parliament votes against it.


Where does the light comes from

Former president of AWE dr. Ove Korsgaard has researched this matted, and in his work defined four sources of light that are important for our understanding of the concept of enlightenment: the light from above, below, outside and inside.
The light from above is our spiritual light; it comes from the universe, the goddess, the infinite, the sun and the stars. It is the light that brings meaning into our life. It gives us the reason of being. The light from below comes from the people. Peoples spiritual life –where ever they live and whatever they believe- can be described as an on-going dialog with each other’s and the above (Good) about how to behave and which way to move. This vertical axe of understanding the axe between above and below was for many years the most important understanding of enlightenment. Also Grundtvig considered this axe as the most important.

He had the idea that if people know why a change is important, they can themselves find out what to do about is.
But during history of man a new axe occurred. Philosophers started to claim, that man has an obligation to investigate and reflect. The outside-inside axe became more and more important, and in the modern westernised school system this axe has become the dominant axe.

Figur 1

Over time our understanding of enlightenment has developed toward a more holistic view of enlightenment. The main objective of enlightenment is development of Life Competencies. To do so we need to include all sources of light.

A school of enlightenment will therefore include many basic activities besides academic knowledge. Quoting Albert Einstein: Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think. But to develop critical thinking and common

sense factual knowledge plays an important role. Therefore Enlightenment needs to be both fact- based and reflective. We need to reflect on our knowledge of Art and Science together with what we have learned from experiences of daily live. And we need to do it in a way which corresponds with our human values, our view of nature and our belief in the infinite.

Enlightenment in the 21. Century

The world has changed dramatically since 1849 and so have the educational systems in Denmark. But the Free schools, the Continuous Schools, Folk high schools, Evening classes and Gathering houses are still there. Why? To get closer to an answer to this question, we must understand: what constitutes us as human beings. The American Dr. Ken Wilber has given some answers that can help us to understand the meaning of enlightenment, and why it is still important in the 21. Century.

Dr. Ken Wilber stressed that we as human beings have an inner and an outer world. The inner world is what we fell inside. The development lines of our inner selves are determined by our thoughts, experiences and our feeling of belonging. Ken Wilbers speaks about our I and our we. Part of our inner is also shadow sides. Spiritual live is important for us, because it helps us to cast light over our shadowy sides.

Figur 2

The formal school system focus only on what Ken Wilber calls our outer or exterior. The focus is on skills, competences and social behaviour. The development of our interior is left behind.
Our I and We are important, when we speak about sustainable education and global citizenship. Our I – our thoughts and feelings are responsive to our understanding of belonging. And from a sustainable and global perspective, it is important, that we feel we belong to the world as such, as well as to our nation and our local society, wherever that might be. It is important we can judge based

on relevant knowledge and follow an ethical compass. To develop such skills, we need to meet and share views as peers in a cross-cultural setting, where we meet people with different levels of education, different professions, different classes, casts, culture and religion. This can only happened in non-formal settings.


The Danish Enlightenment tradition has proved its sustainability. After 150 years it is still going even though the average educational level in formal education has risen dramatically during this period.
It helps sustain people, communities and ecosystems;

It is ethically defensible, working with integrity, justice, respect and inclusiveness;
It is itself a viable system, embodying and nurturing healthy relationships and emergence at different system levels.
It meets the criteria of sustainable education as formulated by Dr. Stephan Sterling. It is also a concept, that easily can frame Life Long Learning environments with focus on fulfilling the SDG 2030 §4.7 about Education:
§4.7 By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non- violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

Journal of World Education (2012-13), Volume 42,
Lifted by the Heart (2009), ed. Chris Spicer, Circumstantial, New York
Korsgaard, Ove (1997), Kampen om lyset, Gyldendal, Copenhagen
Stephen Sterling, 2001: http://www.developmenteducationreview.com/issue6-perspectives1 UN Development goal 2030 on education (2015), New York http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/70/1&Lang=E

Rikke SchultzDylan Pardue