Philippine Encounter with Grundtvig 

by Edicio del a Torre

Lands of the Living: An International Symposium on the Influence of N.F.S. Grundtvig  

University of London, UK

“Grundtvig cannot be exported; but he can be imported.” I have heard this phrase more than once from Danish friends who were critical of previous efforts to promote Grundtvig and the folkehøjskoleto other countries and cultures, especially in the South.
I confess that I played a significant part in “importing” Grundtvig into the Philippines, with more than a little help from friends in Denmark. This is the story of our Philippine encounter with Grundtvig.
— Edicio G. dela Torre - Chairperson, Education for Life Foundation

Meeting Grundtvig by accident

Compared to others who went to Denmark purposively to learn more about Grundtvig and the folkehøskole, I got to know about Grundtvig by chance, accidentally - a case of informal, incidental learning.

When I first visited Denmark in late 1987, I knew nothing about Grundtvig or the folkehøjskole. My visit was not even related to them at all. A church group had invited me to speak at a mission conference held in Nyborg. From there my hosts brought me to another conference on the theme of North-South Solidarity, which was held in Hillerød. They told me that the conference venue was a folk high school.

“What is a folk high school?” was my naive question. After their brief explanation, my next question, as expected: “Who is Grundtvig?”

Starting with that accidental encounter, my appreciation for Grundtvig’s ideas is an example of the Latin aphorism from Thomas Aquinas that I learned during my seminary studies: Quidquidrecipitur, recipitursecundummodumrecipientis. Whatever is received, is received according to the condition of the receiver.


A Grundtvigian moment

Why did Grundtvig’s ideas and the folkehøjskoleresonate with me so positively? I think it was because I “received” them during what I consider a “Grundtvigian moment” in the Philippines and in my life.

What I call a “Grundtvigian moment” is a specific situation in the political and developmental process of a country, that provide favourable conditions for the appreciation and adoption of his ideas.

The initial sign of this “moment” is when the dominant elite become open to reforms. They welcome, even initiate, rather than resist, democratic change. The moment becomes more fully Grundtvigian when the people, especially the grassroots, do not content themselves to be passive beneficiaries. They use the openings initiated from above as opportunities to become citizen-participants,   and actively push for changes and reforms even beyond the limits set by the dominant elite.

My encounter with Grundtvig took place at such a moment. It was soon after “people power” had successfully restored democracy in the Philippines after more than a decade of authoritarian and repressive rule starting with the imposition of martial law in 1972 up to 1986.

During those years of repression, I actively participated in the clandestine resistance movement against the martial law regime, though I must admit that I wasn’t very good at it! I was captured twice, and spent a total of nine years in various military prisons.

Had I encountered Grundtvig during the time when I was in the resistance or in prison, would I have appreciated him as much as I did later? Probably not.

But having being released from prison into the democratic space that we had just won, my mind and heart were full of these questions: “How do we insure that those who benefit from the changes are not only the elite and middle class but also the grassroots majority? How do we go beyond merely restoring the same elite-dominated, pre-martial law democracy? How do we promote a more broad-based participatory and popular democracy?”

Together with kindred spirits, I devoted myself to promoting popular democracy, and pursuing three interrelated programs that are integral to it - community organizing, popular education, and the formation of grassroots  community leaders.

We also continued learning how to navigate the needed shift from the previous politics of resistance to the new politics of participation.

That was the situation and the frame of mind that primed me for my encounter with Grundtvig and his ideas.

Grundtvig as mirror

Learning about Grundtvig and the folkehøjskolefelt like I was looking into a special mirror.

In that mirror, I saw a shape of our emerging Philippine dream of higher education for the grassroots. Although from another place and time, it was validated by more than a century of practice - Schools for life, where grassroots leaders from rural communities learn to be more than token citizens, and to become as politically active and significant as the urban intelligentsia.

I especially liked what Grundtvig said about democratization in Denmark, that the farmers in Jutland should be able to participate in the democratic consultations and debates, which should not be limited to the intellectuals in Copenhagen.

In 1992, with a team of social activists, some of them former political prisoners like myself, I set up the Education for Life Foundation (ELF) to apply the ideas of Grundtvig and the Danish folkehøjskoleto the Philippines. Our core program was “grassroots community leadership formation for grassroots community empowerment.”

We called our core program by many names: Paaralang Bayan, PaaralangBuhay (School of the People, School of Life). Philippine-Danish Folk School.

We understood that we were not simply transplanting a Danish seed to Philippine soil. It was more like nurturing a child of two parents - Grundtvig and the Danish folkehøjskolein partnership with our Philippine tradition of popular education.

Grundtvig as melody

Let me shift metaphors from mirror to melody, since Grundtvig wrote more than 1500 songs. The central melody that kept playing in my mind was his idea of “education for life.”

Our team had limited access to his writings, so we concentrated on that generative idea of “education for life,” interpreting it in relation to our context and concerns after 1986. We took this central melody and improvised on it, in the manner of Filipino jazz musicians.

Applying it to our experience in training grassroots leaders before, during, and after martial law, we interpreted Grundtvig’s idea of “education for life” as educating grassroots leaders for the whole of life.

Education should not be only for economic life, focused on livelihoods, although that is an urgent need. It should not even be narrowly focused on political life, even in the sense of progressive politics that we valued. We wanted to develop grassroots leaders who have a well-rounded sense of what it means to be human and empowered.

We designed a six-week residential course, which we called “Leadership and Empowerment.” The course starts with Kwentong Buhay, or Life History Workshops during which the participants share their life stories and the lessons they have learned, both from their achievements and from their failures and frustrations.

The financial support we received from Denmark, through Danchurcaid, enabled ELF to organize 50 residential courses for more than 2000 grassroots leaders in a span of 10 years.

Just as every jazz performance is different, each course is different, since the life experiences of the participants are integral to the course content.

Learning sessions are not only in classroom settings, but in a variety of actual life contexts: A field visit to cooperatives to observe their projects and to interview their members and leaders, a meeting arranged with government officials inside their office for practice negotiations on actual issues, or a live interview in a radio station.

After finishing the residential course, the leader-graduates pursue their own improvisations upon returning to their communities.

Some exercise leadership by reviving inactive cooperatives and mediating conflicts among their members. Others practice what they have learned about reflexology and promote community-based primary health care. Many mobilize their communities on pressing environmental issues. In different ways, all of them serve as community educators.

We succeeded even if we failed

Our courses do not focus only on the subject matters of a curriculum. Above all, we seek to build self-confidence of the grassroots participants, and demystify the process of learning. We remind them: We not only learn for life. We learn from life. In our native language, hangosabuhay, tungosabuhay.

While we help them develop their self-confidence, we also challenge them to develop a commitment to service, as servant-leaders.

Grassroots leaders also need to shift from the politics of resistance which they engaged in during the years of repression, to the politics of participation they need to exercise in our newly-restored democracy.

The course seeks to develop three core competencies and clusters of skills they need as leaders: Communications (in small groups, public presentation, through media), negotiations, and non-violent conflict resolution.

Using these competencies, grassroots community leaders promote citizens’ participation to solve community problems and insure democratic governance. In the process, a number of leader-graduates have enhanced their credibility and influence, and have been elected to village and town councils. They continue to play an important part in the continuing transformation of Philippine democracy, from below.

 After ten years, with the benefit of internal and external evaluations, we felt that we had achieved a significant part of what we hoped for. But a question kept coming up: Instead of renting different facilities, should we not set up a permanent campus for our residential courses?

Given our limited resources, we finally decided against it. Later, we were consoled and amused by the Danish dry humor of an external evaluator: “Among the many efforts to apply Grundtvig’s idea of the folkehøjskoleto countries in the South, you are one of the most successful, even if you have failed.”

Toward a community of leaders and learners

We still dream that in the future there will be a Philippine network of different Schools for Life, with their own campuses for residential courses. And toward that dream, we work to help build a community of leaders and learners - who keep learning how to lead, and lead others to keep learning.

Thanks to support from Danchurchaid, we have helped at least 2000 grassroots community leader-graduates from 800 villages. But these are still relatively few, if we consider that the Philippines has 42,000 villages, called barangays, most of them in rural areas.

We realized that if there are no other initiatives, our impact will remain limited. Hence we have convened learning conferences to inform and persuade others to launch initiatives to develop grassroots community leaders, hopefully influenced by Grundtvig’s ideas. We need to do more.

In addition to the six-week courses, ELF has taken two initiatives to expand our work and to sustain it. The first is a distance learning program which reached an additional 2500 grassroots leaders. They meet regularly in learning groups in their own communities. The sessions are facilitated by leader-graduates, called kaagapay, whom we trained to be community learning facilitators.

ELF has developed learning materials to be used by the learning groups. Based on suggestions from the leader-graduates, the topics we prioritized are: Leadership and Enrepreneurship, Participatory Barangay Governance, Citizens Advocacy, and Popular Education.

The second initiative is to work in partnership with the alumni associations that have been organized by leader-graduates of the six-week course, based in the area (province or region) where they live and work.

One common project the alumni associations are working on, together with ELF, is to design a new leadership course for the next generation of grassroots community leaders.

A new Grundtvigian moment?

There is a third initiative that is in its early stages. During a visit to the southern island of Mindanao, I met friends who have been working for decades on peacebuilding, especially in the conflict affected Muslim communities.

In the course of our conversations, I talked a little about this conference. They asked me questions about why and how ELF adapted Grundtvig and the folkehøjskoleto the Philippines after 1986.

The interest we generated led to still another discussion: Have Grundtvig’s ideas and the folkehøjskolebeen adapted to Muslim communities? They asked me to pose the question at this conference and bring back to them whatever answers I gather.

I share their keen interest because I believe that we are moving toward a possible “Grundtvigian moment” in Muslim Mindanao. After decades of armed struggle by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) a protracted peace process will finally lead to a new organic law that gives more significant autonomy to the Muslim communities, with a new regional government that is expected to be led mainly by former rebel leaders.

We have the beginnings of a Grundtvigian moment. The dominant elite in Manila are open to accept change. We expect that the rebel leaders, once they assume government authority, will also initiate reforms “from above.”

The new opportunity and challenge is for the citizens and the communities in the Autonomous Bangsa Moro region – Muslims, Christians, and indigenous people – to actively participate in order to push “from below” the reforms that respond to their aspirations.

Grundtvig, between honesty and hope

I end my brief presentation with an aphorism from Søren Kierkegaard, a well known contemporary of Grundtvig: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

Looking back to 75 years of my life on this earth, what can I say about the role of Grundtvig and the folkehøjskolein my lifelong commitment to bring about the changes needed to build a Philippine nation that we aspire for as a people?

Honestly, Grundtvig and the folkehøjskolecame rather late into my life, though their impact on my thinking has been significant. But I think that my work that they have directly inspired and influenced would have made greater impact if we had known about them earlier. I hope that ELF will have better success in convincing others to take similar initiatives.

While honestly acknowledging those limitations, I am quite convinced that without the influence of Grundtvig and the folkehøjskolethe impact of the work that we have done would have been much less. I know that the lessons that we learned from our encounter with Grundtvig, including both our achievements and our failures, will continue to guide us in what we do.

Grundtvig and the folkehøjskolewill continue to be an important part of the hope that I keep alive within me, as I live my life forwards.