Legacies of colonialism: Democracy and national imaginations in Swedish popular education (english)

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von Henrik Nordvall und Magnus Dahlstedt

When it comes to adult education – especially in civil society –, Sweden is in several respects quite unique compared to many other countries. Most significant are the so-called study circles and folk high schools, often referred to as folkbildning in Swedish (roughly translated as "popular education"), which receive substantial state subsidies and involve a large part of the population in Sweden. There, folk high schools have historically been an alternative educational pathway for groups who have not gained access to universities and other established educational institutions. The pedagogy developed at the folk high schools is characterized by horizontal relationships between teachers and students. In Sweden, and even more so in its home country Denmark, this school form is regarded as an alternative to the established educational system, which focuses on competition and formal merits.

Popular education in Sweden

Folk high schools have historically been emphasized as an important force in the emergence of democracy in Sweden. During the last century, democracy and popular education became more or less key elements of the Swedish self-image. According to this self-image, Sweden stands out as a democratic role model for other countries and vigorous popular movements are one of the factors that make Sweden unique. [1] Such national self-images are not only reproduced within Swedish borders, however, they are also distributed outside Swedish borders. In Sweden and among Swedish popular movements, there has long been a great willingness to share "Swedish experiences" such as folk high schools with countries in other parts of the world.

Folkbildning – or popular education – is a contested concept. When it was first coined, during the 19th century, the linguistic structure of the concept, consisting of folk (people) and bildning (education), could be seen as revolutionary in the sense that it put together two supposed opposites. Education had been seen as a privilege for the established classes, which by definition was not the same thing as the people, in the sense of the broad masses. What is usually referred to as the first initiatives of popular education, however, were not at all intended to bring revolutionary social change. During the second half of the 19th century, so-called social pacifist popular educators argued that popular education among the broad masses was a way of preventing the rise of rebellions and the attraction of socialist ideas.

One of the critical questions raised is what actually constitutes "the popular" or "the people" to be educated. An important theoretical point of departure here is the idea that the category of people is not given but rather defined in an ongoing struggle over meaning, reflecting as well as affecting power relations and hierarchies in society. Critically analyzing categories such as "the people", with its historical connections with notions of race, ethnicity and nation in the shadow of colonialism, has been an important challenge for the wide range of researchers working in the field of post-colonial theory.

Popular education and the colonial project

Post-colonial researchers have argued that today's society is still influenced by the history of colonialism. This is also true in the case of contemporary Sweden. "Sweden was never a colonial power, but the colonial mentality is very much present in the Swedish history of ideas". [2] A number of post-colonial scholars have highlighted how the image of the West as enlightened and modern was based – and continues to be based – on descriptions of "alien" continents and peoples as outdated, mystical and traditional. Race, culture, ethnicity, nation and religion are some of the markers of identity used in order to make distinctions between us and them. The relationship between "the West and the Rest" is described consistently by the use of binary oppositions, where Europe and the West is associated with culture and reason, while Africans, Orientals and other peoples, on the peripheries of the world, are associated with nature and emotionality. In these dichotomies, one side appears to be more desirable – or at least more enlightened – than the other.

In the Western public perception Africa has long been described as different and under-developed. This has helped to legitimize the idea of the "white man's burden", the idea of Westerners' responsibility to "bring[ing] light to the dark places and peoples of this world by acts of will and deployments of power". [3] However, the representation of Africa is not one-dimensional: The African others have been portrayed as bearers of characteristics sometimes highlighted as desirable and lust-filled in the West. In time, "the African" has come to be represented as natural, spontaneous and unspoiled. However, both the exoticism and the explicit condemnation of the others help to reinforce the image of them as fundamentally different from us.

Swedish popular movements and popular education emerged and developed in the context of Western modernity and in the tradition of the "Enlightenment". Although the roots of the various movements go far beyond Swedish borders, they soon, step by step, became carriers and administrators of what was seen as specifically national Swedish values, ideals and traditions. Similarly popular education is primarily understood as something "typically Swedish". In the self-image of popular education, people, democracy and nation were woven into a natural trinity. With the logic that a democratic spirit can be a fundamental feature of a certain "people", it follows that "other people" can be fundamentally undemocratic. Democracy thus becomes a marker that somehow distinguishes "us Swedes" from certain "other people".

With the interweaving of people and popular education, nation and democracy, "educated" and "uneducated people" tend to appear as each other's absolute opposites. In order for them to be able to "lift themselves" to our previous "level", they need – in short – to undergo a radical transformation. This means that the idea of popular education may in some sense be understood as part of a broader colonial project. A number of studies show how movements engaged in solidarity work around the world are still strongly shaped by the global divisions and inequalities developed in the wake of colonial projects.
The colonial legacy can be identified, for instance, in the striving for global solidarity in foreign aid, the women's movement and the trade union movement, as well as in adult and popular education. A post-colonial approach helps draw attention to the fact that also a well-meaning defense of "democratic values" can rest on colonial ideas, which even today too often tend to be uncritically taken for granted.

"Exporting" popular education

The empirical material on which this study is based consists of documents from the voluntary association Karibu (which means "welcome" in Kiswahili), a Swedish "friend association" for the Folk Development Colleges (FDCs), formed in 1982. In particular, the article draws on material from the "Karibu Kontakt", the official member journal published by the association. [4] The project to establish the FDCs represents the most large-scale attempt to disseminate Swedish popular education abroad.

Karibu was an important actor in the process of developing the extensive exchanges between folk high schools in Sweden and FDCs in Tanzania. As a result of Karibu's efforts, a number of schools across Sweden are still involved in formalized friend relations with Tanzanian FDCs. When it comes to the FDCs, Karibu is by no means the only link between Tanzania and Sweden. For example, Linköping University, the Swedish Association of Folk High School Teachers and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency have all been highly involved in the FDC project.

Inspired by the "decolonizing" approach developed for instance by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln, the aim of the analysis has been to problematize taken for granted assumptions about Swedish national identity and its relation to the Tanzanian other, as a way to challenge "hegemonic structures that have traditionally and historically neglected and impeded the intellectual, social and cultural contributions of African ... knowledge". [5] Our questions on the material have been: What characteristics are attributed to the Swedish popular educators and their Tanzanian partners? How is the relationship between Swedes and Tanzanians described in the FDC project? In this context, how are binary oppositions, such as nature and culture, reason and emotion, modern and traditional, construed?

Folk Development Colleges in Tanzania

Between 1975 and 1980, 51 Folk Development Colleges were established in Tanzania, as a result of a large-scale project in Swedish foreign aid policy. Today, there are a total of 58 FDCs. The model for these colleges was initially the Swedish folk high school, and they have sometimes been called "the Tanzanian folk high schools". In addition to financial support, a number of counselors with a background in Swedish popular education helped to design and establish the FDCs.

The country of Tanganyika, which later, together with Zanzibar, formed Tanzania in 1961, had gained its independence from colonial Britain. In the building of the new state, Julius Nyerere, President and leader of the ruling party Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), launched a Tanzanian version of socialism (ujamaa), where adult education played an important role. Nyerere, who had good personal contacts with Swedish Prime Ministers Olof Palme and Tage Erlander, was familiar with Swedish popular education and expressed an ideological affinity with Swedish Social Democracy. These ideological and personal connections with Swedish Social Democracy were an important reason for Sweden's extensive foreign and development aid to Tanzania, where FDCs was a large part.

However, relations between Tanzania and the Nordic countries go even further back in time. Swedish missionaries had worked in Tanzania long before independence. In an early study of the international spread of folk high school ideas, Jindra Kulich mentions Kivukoni College, an important training institution for the TANU Party, as an example of schools influenced by the Nordic folk high schools. The entire FDC project was also preceded by significant Swedish foreign aid activities in Tanzania and a striking presence of Swedish adult educators in the country. But it is not until after Sweden had received an official request for special aid for building folk high school-like institutions from the Tanzanian government that the establishment of FDCs took off.

"Educating" autonomous democrats

The interest among Europeans in contributing to the "civilization" of people and countries, considered to be in certain respects "underdeveloped", has a long history. For most popular educators this historical legacy, closely associated with the colonial project, is now regarded as both oppressive and disgraceful. Hence, the ambition among Nordic popular educators has been, rather, to fight colonial relations and fantasies. Here, popular education has been seen as an important force in the process of decolonization, making it possible, for instance, for the former colonies to "reclaim" their "own" culture and language.

The explicit anti-colonial ambition is evident also in the case of FDCs in Tanzania. In recent decades, there has been an ongoing discussion about the necessity of critical awareness of the history of colonialism in the establishment of the FDCs. For example, in the mid-1980s, Johan Norbeck, one of the pioneers in the FDC project, talked about the risk of spreading popular education through foreign aid turning into a neo-colonial project.

Democracy, popular education and (under)development

The desire to disseminate an understanding of how Swedish folk high schools work can be linked to notions of modernity and development, which several post-colonial scholars have highlighted as key coordinates in a colonial world view. The following quotation, taken from the journal "Karibu Kontakt", is a telling example of a way of describing us and them in terms of different "levels" of development: "Being at a Folk High School in Tanzania gave a sense of having access to a time machine. Despite the different conditions, it must indeed have been like this here, when the Swedish Folk High Schools were established." [6]

They thus are considered to be in the same situation as Sweden was a century ago. Following this line of thought, it is imagined that if folk high schools functioned as a road to democracy and prosperity for us, they could also provide a way forward for them. Using the metaphor "time machine", learning and democratic education is described as an evolutionary process, whereby the other is explicitly transferred to another time. The idea of a parallel between our history and their present time was wide-spread in the Swedish and Danish folk high school debate during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

The linear notion of development

This way of reasoning is based on the same kind of linear notion which has long dominated the public debate as well as research on the so-called Third World. In recent decades, this notion of development has increasingly been questioned as both simplified and Eurocentric, not least by post-colonial scholars. The linear notion of development creates an illusion that Europe and large parts of Africa exist in two completely different worlds and eras, when they are in fact part of the same global world system, in the same historical era, where the economic and political subordination of one party is directly related to the dominance of the other party.

The idea that we can help them to follow our path in the development of democracy and prosperity, by introducing the notion of popular education, is also based on another assumption. It presupposes that there exists among Swedish popular educators some kind of inherited knowledge, which is possible to teach, of how folk high schools can contribute to social development and democracy in an environment like that of the agricultural society in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Although there may in fact exist an idea that folk high schools have had such a historic role among many Swedish popular educators, of course none of them here and now have this kind of practical experience or knowledge. It is, rather, the case of a self-image based on a particular interpretation of history, according to contemporary ideas, interests and needs. Obviously, the ideas about ways of organizing folk high schools that dominated during the period studied in this article do not necessarily have much to do with the way in which folk high schools were actually organized in Sweden in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The metaphor of mutual learning

Although most of the descriptions of the exchange between Swedes and Tanzanians in the material seems to be based on the assumption that we (the Swedes) know something they (the Tanzanians) might benefit from, it is repeatedly emphasized that the relationship between the two parties has to be characterized by equal and mutual learning. In the following quotation from the journal "Karibu Kontakt" we can see an illustrative example of this idea: "When we build and develop a good contact between the FDCs in Tanzania and the Swedish FHS, we must remember that this contact shall be on equal level, i.e. we must be aware that it is not only we who have something to give them, we also have much to learn from them." [7]

The parties are described as equal, but fundamentally different. What, then, should be learnt from one another? As mentioned above, there is an explicit ambition in the FDC project that the Tanzanians should learn about Swedish popular education. However, what the Swedish popular educators should actually learn from the Tanzanians is not made clear. In the material there are glimpses of what it might be: "Our friend-school-contacts are needed, and in particular the dialogue between Swedish and Tanzanian folk high schools is needed, to strengthen the Tanzanians in terms of discussions about democracy, participation, 'folk high school-pedagogy', etc. They need our solidarity, not primarily material things. It is our own commitment as popular educators they need to meet, all the enthusiasm that makes us tirelessly working for the ideals of popular education: democracy, social equality and gender equality, community, responsibility, solidarity. In the same way that we ourselves need to take part of the Tanzanians' culture, warmth, pride and joy. We have much to learn from each other." [8]

In this quote, we can see a self-image of Swedish popular education, which contrasts with the Tanzanians and their imagined characteristics and assets. Swedish popular education is related to the pathos of "democracy", "equality" and "responsibility" – historically associated with the white, enlightened, male European and his intellectual abilities. This is, in turn, contrasted with the Tanzanians, who are associated with "warmth, pride and joy", that relate to more emotional abilities. In line with a chain of ideas resembling the kind of exoticism that post-colonial scholars have drawn attention to, the picture emerges of the natural and spontaneous Africans contrasted with the intellectual Europeans, pressured by their responsibility.

"The West and the Rest"

In the material from Karibu, the Tanzanians are described as representatives of the "Third World". They may, among other things, share their insights into and experiences of economic vulnerability with us in the relatively prosperous part of the world. Referring to the post-colonial scholars Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer, one could say that the Tanzanians bear the "burden of representation". They not only have the right to speak, in a way they are required to speak, not for themselves, but as spokespersons, "ventriloquist[s] for an entire social category" [9] – the "Third World".

In the descriptions of the establishment of the FDCs, mutual and equal learning is repeatedly emphasized as a pedagogical ideal. However, the picture emerging in the material indicates the following logic: We teach them popular education and democracy, while they teach us social and emotional skills. In addition, they are themselves living examples of "under-development", which may be useful for education in folk high school courses in international relations. In other words, there is a tendency to construct the Tanzanians as a collective group, characterized by their emotionality, lack of economic assets and democratic skills. In contrast, the Swedish collective is imagined to be a collective characterized by its specific knowledge and democratic values and preparedness to help.

This description very much resembles a Swedish national self-image, imagining the "Swedish people" as the vanguard of Modernity. In a broader context, this also has similarities with the descriptions of the meeting between the "West and the Rest" problematized by post-colonial scholars.

The Swedish myth

National stereotypes of the genuine "democratic Swedes" do not in any way belong solely to the past. In popular education, myths about Swedes as "the most curious, concerned and enlightened people" still belong to common sense, a characterization very much reminiscent of national mythologies of earlier times. The post-colonial approach applied in this article is fruitful when trying to critically reflect on how contemporary thinking may still retain colonial patterns, regardless of intentions.

Given this, the question is whether it is in such a context even possible to create relationships that are not characterized by colonial patterns. Exchanges between North and South, either cultural/ideological or economic, always bring to the fore the importance of global hierarchies still marked by a colonial past. This applies also to those democratic and emancipatory endeavors trying to transcend these global conditions. This does not mean, however, that such efforts are doomed to failure. Nor does it mean that it is possible to draw simple conclusions about the actual effects of the work carried out within the FDC project at different levels.

Although traces of colonial legacies may be found in the Swedish identity formation related to the development of FDCs, the FDC project as a whole needs to be further investigated in relation to a social and historical context, if conclusions are to be drawn about its role in transforming and/or reproducing colonial structures.

This article was first published in: Adult Education Quaterly, Vol. 61, Issue 3, August 2011. Shortened and edited version by

End notes

[1] However, the Swedish origin of the study circle could be questioned. According to Bjerkaker the study circle was originally an American idea, developed in New York during the 1870s.

[2] de los Reyes et al., 2002, p. 18.

[3] Said, 1993, p. 33.

[4] In this study, we have analyzed thirteen issues of the journal "Karibu Kontakt", published between 1982 and 1992. The authors are generally members of the board and members who have visited Tanzania. In addition, mass correspondence to members, activity reports and information material have been taken into account.

[5] Dillard, 2008, p. 278.

[6] Kihlén, 1984, p. 14.

[7] "Karibu Kontakt", 1985, p. 23.

[8] Marcusdotter, 1992, p. 4.

[9] Julien/Mercer, 1996, p. 454.


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Magnus Dahlstedtis Associate Professor in Ethnicity at the Institute for Research on Migration, Ethnicity and Society, REMESO, Linköping University, Sweden. Among his primary research interests are the politics of inclusion/exclusion, multiculturalism, democratic education and social movements.
Henrik Nordvallis Associate Professor in Education and the Director of Mimer - The Swedish Network for Research on Popular Education at Linköping University. His research interests include social movements, popular education, pedagogy and political mobilization. Contact: