Harold W. Stubblefield


In the interwar period, the term adult education became widely used in the United States. Americans seriously began to consider the importance of education in the adult years and how those educational needs might be best met. Adults were not without opportunities to learn, but no national effort had been focused on adult education. In this venture of national scope, Americans were without precedent but not without example.

They found these examples in other countries--particularly in England, Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, and Germany-where adult education had become a national movement, and adult education had taken a particular form. The Danish Folk High School was one form that attracted the attention of many Americans, not only in the interwar period but in the 19th century as well.

The Danish Folk High School (DFHS) resisted the pattern of transplantation that occurred with English adult education forms, such as learned societies, the Young Men's Christian Association, university extension, and the social settlements. Once transported to the United States, these institutional forms adapted to American conditions. Their origin became obscured, and they were then incorporated into the American institutional structure. The DFHS proved, however, to be less adaptable to American conditions. This paper examines how the DFHS as an educational idea and institutional form was transported to the United States in the 1870s-1930s. This process has thus far been an unexplored part of the American experience in educational borrowing.




Contemporary interpreters sometimes describe the DFHS as a version of the American free university, distinguished by the absence of entrance requirements, examinations, or certification. How the DFHS came into being is an often-told story and does not need to be repeated in detail here, but it is important to understand the nature of the folk school (and the historical context in which it arose) that Americans attempted to transport to their country.

Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872), Lutheran pastor, poet, hymn writer, and historian, gave birth to the idea of the folk school, which his followers implemented. The Grundtvigian ideological system and folk school emerged from a turbulent period of Danish nationalism, democratic change, and economic crisis. Grundtvig's ideas helped to restore national pride after disastrous military defeats of the 1860s, to rebuild a depressed economy, and to equip the peasants for suffrage.

Michelson's (1969) analysis of how the Grundtvigian religious movement contributed to economic change is instructive. After 1828, following Grundtvig's resignation from church office, he began to articulate his ideas in print, and they gained acceptance among a group of people who became active in his behalf. Persons applied the name "Grundtvigian" to these ideas and the theology that accompanied them, and the name became common in Denmark. Grundtvigians valued self-expression and regarded conversation as recreation. They possessed strong egos and had few doubts about their own country and their role in building it. They did not fear innovation and believed in showing people what they could do. On the other hand, they were also dependent on one another, cooperated in common endeavors, and compromised to make the situation work for others.

Grundtvigians developed several mechanisms for implanting these ideas: singing, the "meeting," the church, grammar schools, and the folk schools. Of these several mechanisms, the folk school has been linked to the establishment of cooperatives, which resulted in Danish farm prosperity. Credit, as Michelson (1969) cautions, does not belong to the folk schools. The folk schools could not have existed during that period of Danish history except as part of a wider Grundtvigian community, and they were only on of several mechanisms by which the Grundtvigian idea system was disseminated and internalized. The folk schools did not teach economics nor advocate cooperation. Yet, the Grundtvigian ideas predisposed people for structural change, which did involve cooperation.




Danish immigrants soon transported the Grundtvigian folk schools to the United States. Between 1820 and 1870 Danish immigration numbered only 22,634, but 31,771 Danes emigrated to the United States between 1871 and 1880. The number continued to increase in the decades that followed, before World War I (Larson, 1980). The first Danish pastors came to the States in 1871. The following fall, a Danish seminary to train mission pastors coming to the United States opened at Askov Folk School. At the same time, in the United States, the Mission Society and the first Danish church paper were founded.

At a meeting of Danish Lutheran ministers in Chicago in 1876 the idea of establishing a folk school in the United States was first proposed. The plan to open a school in Chicago did not materialize, but interest continued, and in November 1878 a school at Elk Horn, Iowa opened. Between 1882 and 1911 folk schools opened at Grant, Michigan; West Denmark, Wisconsin; Nysted, Minnesota; Tyler, Minnesota; Kenmare, North Dakota; and Solvan, California. In 1921 the Dalum Folk School opened in Alberta, Canada.

These schools were short-lived, and none survived the Depression. The Grundtvigian branch of the American Lutheran Church supported them, and pastors who came from Denmark with folk school experience served as principals. The folk schools clearly served to prevent these Danes from being assimilated into the "melting pot." Because the Grundtvigian Lutherans wanted to preserve Danish culture in America, the schools remained closely tied to the Danish colonies. They attracted no publicity and thus made little impact on the larger American society.

American educators learned about the DFHS through their travel in Europe and their study of educational systems there. One such traveler who visited Denmark in 1896 later recognized the relevance of the DFHS to rural education and to the Appalachian Mountains. He was Philander P. Claxton, who served as executive secretary of the Conference for Southern Education and Professor of Secondary Education at the University of Tennessee before becoming U.S. Commissioner of Education in 1911.

Claxton believed that the church mission schools in Appalachia had outlived their usefulness and that now the curriculum should be adapted to the life of the people. In 1908 Claxton found a way to promote the DFHS as the new model through the work of John C. Campbell and his wife, the former Olive Dame Medford.

In May of 1908 Campbell attended the National Conference of Charities and Corrections in Richmond, Virginia as the guest of Mary Glenn, chair of the section on needy families and their neighborhoods. Campbell was then 42 and at a turning point in his career. For health reasons, he had recently resigned his position as President of Piedmont College, and he had just returned from Europe after six months of vacationing with his new wife.

At the conference he heard Bruce R. Payne, Professor of Secondary Education at the University of Virginia, call for an expert study of the region. After the session, Campbell expressed to Mrs. Glenn his agreement with this need and his desire to undertake such a study if resources were available. Mrs. Glenn relayed this information to her husband, John Glenn, who was Director of the Russell Sage Foundation. Campbell presented a proposal for the study which the Foundation funded in 1908. Campbell's study continued until October 1912, when the Foundation established a Southern Highland Division and Campbell became the Division's Secretary.

Claxton had also attended the Richmond conference, but it was in Knoxville in October 1908 that he talked with Olive Dame Campbell about the "grown-up" schools in Denmark and Sweden (Whisnant, 1983, pp. 127­-130). Claxton urged the Campbells to investigate the folk schools, and in 1909 Campbell began to make inquiries of persons in Denmark and of principals of Danish-American folk schools. The Campbells wanted to visit Denmark but the outbreak of the War prevented it.

When Claxton became U.S. Commissioner of Education in 1911, he immediately had pressure to deal with the problem of rural education and illiteracy. The 1909 Country Life Commission Report claimed rural education was in crisis, and the 1910 Census data reported widespread illiteracy, particularly in the south. In the winter of 1913 Claxton dispatched three persons to Denmark to study the applicability of the folk school to education and economic development in rural America: Harold W. Foght, one of the Bureau's specialists in rural education, and L. L. Friend and W. H. Smith, special collaborators in the Bureau's Rural Education Division. The reports of Foght and Friend, submitted to Claxton in 1913 and published as U.S. Bureau of Education Bulletins in 1914, endorsed the applicability of the folk school model to the Southern Highlands.

Foght solicited information from John C. Campbell about Appalachia to include in the report, and he also reported on Cora Stewart's literacy "moonlight" schools in Kentucky. Foght believed that the Danish folk schools were most appropriate where American conditions were most like Denmark. The Foght and Friend reports were, Shapiro (1978) claimed, "the most important body of information concerning the folk schools published before the 1920s" (p. 234). Educational reformers turned to these reports for information about the Danish example in redirecting rural education.

Evidently Foght's contact with Campbell in late summer or early autumn of 1913 marked a turning point. His interest in the DFHS as a model for an alternative education for mountain life was tied to the emergence of Appalachia as a distinct region with a distinct, but not inferior, culture and concern about how best to preserve the culture and equip persons to live in it. In 1914 Campbell attended several conferences where he called for the Danish folk schools to be adapted to mountain work, and he and his wife became leading advocates of the Danish folk schools in the United States. Nothing, however, resulted from the Campbells' advocacy before the World War.




Campbell died in 1919, but before his death he had begun, at last, to organize his survey data and experiences into a book length interpretation of the Southern Highlands. His wife, Olive Dame Campbell, completed the manuscript, which was published in 1921 as The Southern Highlander and His Homeland. In it she reflected her husband's strong belief in the value of Danish-type folk schools for the Southern Highlands and advocated their establishment. In 1922, supported by an American-Scandinavian Foundation fellowship, Olive Campbell went with her sister, Daisy, and Marguerite Butler of Pine Mountain Settlement School to study the Danish folk school (Whisnant, 1983). Going about her task diligently, she later distilled her observations into a book, The Danish Folk School: Its Influence in the Life of Denmark and the North (1928).

In 1925 Mrs. Campbell founded the John C. Campbell Folk School at Brasstown, North Carolina. By 1930 the school's basic programs were in place: a demonstration farm, cooperatives, a community program, and a residential school. Campbell called the school "a venture in adult education" that attempts "to adjust to existing conditions in North Carolina the basic principles of the Danish folk school" (Campbell, 1930, p. 251). Americans had turned to Denmark, she claimed, because they had had little experience with adult education for country life.

Despite the Campbells' high expectations, the Southern Highlands did not prove receptive to the Danish-type folk school. The John C. Campbell Folk School has survived as a mountain handicraft center, but the residential school, while it operated, was never large nor well supported. Campbell helped initiate a folk school at Berea College (1925-1950), but the College provided little support and depended, instead, on the volunteer efforts of staff and faculty.

What Claxton, the Bureau of Education investigators, and the Campbells had believed to be the educational solution for the Appalachian Mountains proved not to be transportable. Others would also learn the difficulty of transporting this educational innovation. During the interwar period other schools patterned after the Danish model were organized. In 1923 Soren A. Mathiasen founded Pocono Peoples College near Henryville, Pennsylvania, the first non-Danish folk school in the United States (Mortensen, 1977; Schact, 1957). The problem of financing proved insurmountable, and Pocono closed in 1930. Mathiasen apparently remained optimistic about the receptivity of Americans to such a school, and in 1934 he founded the American Peoples School at the Van Courtland Center in the Bronx, New York City. The school closed in 1945, probably because Mathiasen's poor health made it impossible for him to provide leadership.

A local group of Danish-Americans, who held the title to Ashland Folk School in Grant, Michigan, attempted to revive the school in 1928 under the leadership of an American educator. The school operated until 1934 (Landis & Willard, 1933; Larson, 1970).

At the age of 75, Jens Jensen fulfilled his dream of operating a folk school when, in 1935, he established The Clearing in Wisconsin (Takemoto, 1987; 1988). Born in 1860 in the Danish province of Schleswig, Jensen was a product of the folk school movement for cultural preservation, attending first the folk school in Vinding in 1879 and then Tune Agricultural School, a common educational sequence for Danish farm youth. Emigrating to the United States in 1884, he finally settled in Chicago where he had a successful career in the Chicago Park District and was a leading proponent of "native" landscape architecture. Jensen incorporated several Danish folk school traditions in The Clearing program. The Clearing did not address economic and social issues. Rather, Jensen implemented the Grundtvigian idea, seeking, in Takemoto's words, to "develop the inner self and foster moral character, civic pride, and a democratic spirit" (1988, p. 424). After Jensen's death in 1951, the folk school phase of The Clearing ended.

Other adaptations occurred in universities. In 1931 Chris L. Chistensen, Dean of the College of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin, redesigned the Farm Short Course after the model of the Danish folk school (Schact, 1957). Christensen, in a visit to Denmark in 1922, had seen how the folk schools had helped Denmark.

On November 13, 1936 the University of Minnesota's Center for Continuation Study was dedicated. Harold Benjamin, the Center's first director, had previously taught at Danebod, the International People's College in Elsinore, Denmark, and the Danish-American folk school at Askov, Minnesota (Alford, 1967). He linked the University's center to the Danish folk school by following its example of using a residential setting for general education.




In the nascent adult education movement of the interwar period, Joseph K. Hart and Eduard C. Lindeman share credit for incorporating elements of the Danish folk school idea of adult education into an American theory of adult education. Their educational theory was primarily informed by progressive education, and both had written books on community organization supporting democratic participation before they began to build an adult education theory.

One has only to read Hart's published works, beginning with Educational Resources of Village and Rural Communities (1913), to understand why the Danish folk school idea so captivated him. Hart visited Denmark in 1925 while education editor of the Survey Graphic after he had already established himself as an authority on education through books written while he was professor at several universities. What Hart discovered in Denmark revalidated his own vision of education and society: the school using the community educatively, a community social intelligence center for dealing with community problems, citizen control of the community through community councils, and adults applying scientific method to social problems.

Hart reported his experience in three articles in the Survey Graphic in 1926. These were later published as Light From the North (1927a), a book that did much to make the DFHS known to Americans. In his book, Adult Education (1927b), Hart devoted a chapter to the Danish experience and returned at the book's conclusion to the "Danish People's Colleges" as an example for Americans. His articles on the folk schools were part reportage, part analysis of his educational pilgrimage, and part criticism of the American educational system and regressive thinking.   

Hart (1927a) was impressed that at a uniform early age Danish young persons began to study important issues and examine the meaning of life. In these five-month terms, students began to develop a "life-hypothesis," a basis for their lives to be tested in the reality of the community. Students also had to grapple with the forces that govern community life-including traditions, culture, and institutional prerogatives. He admired the cooperative spirit that pervaded the life of the people: they were individualistic but cooperative. The Danes had achieved their success, which Hart witnessed in 1925 through preservation of their culture, history, folkways, and communities, coupled with the application of science. In the Danish experience Hart had found the social education he had sought unsuccessfully in America: an education that developed and released a social intelligence capable of promoting social change.

Lindeman presents a more difficult case to interpret. In 1920 Lindeman visited Denmark for the first time, and that experience apparently made an indelible impression on him. David Stewart (1987), Lindeman's biographer, has argued that Grundtvig's educational ideas greatly influenced Lindeman, and he applied them to the American situation after first stripping the ideas of their Danish nationalistic and Lutheran religious trappings. The development of Lindeman's adult education ideas appears to be more complex than that, for the Grundtvigian views found reception in a mind already fertile with other ideas.

Lindeman came to Denmark with ideas about adult education derived from his experience with the Cooperative Extension Service and his ten years of applied research on community organization. He published his research findings in 1921 in a book entitled, The Community. In the early and mid-twenties when his ideas about adult education formed, he participated in two major applied social science research projects dealing with individual and group behavior.

Lindeman saw adult education as more than institutional programs to enhance the freedom of individual learners. He was interested in the dynamics of social (folk) movements with an educational base. In Denmark (and also in the other Scandinavian countries, in the English workers' education movement, and in the folk school movement in Germany after the War), he found a living example of the power of such folk movements supported by an educational base. When Lindeman formulated his ideas about adult education, as I have noted elsewhere (Stubblefield, 1988), he derived generalized criteria for defining adult education from the Danes and Germans. For him, adult education was "individual growth through learning in social medium for social end" (p. 146). This restrictive definition, in effect, excluded the most common forms of adult education in the United States.

Lindeman's most mature statement about adult education, The Meaning of Adult Education, appeared in 1926. It represented a synthesis of progressive education, applied social science, and principles of the kind of adult education that supported social (folk) movements. The adult education theory that emerged addressed the new America whose most characteristic features were urbanization, industrialization, and specialization.

Others also found the DFHS example combined well with progressive educational theory and established institutions based on this view. One was Royce Pitkin, founder of Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont, and the other was Myles Horton, founder of Highlander Folk School, Monteagle, Tennessee. Pitkin, a native of Vermont, worked on his master's and doctorate in education at Columbia University in the mid-twenties and early thirties (Benson & Adams, 1987). There he learned of the DFHS through the work of Edgar W. Knight, professor of education at the University of North Carolina, whose study of Danish culture in 1925-1926 had resulted in a book, Among the Danes, which included an account of the effectiveness of the DFHS. Pitkin became interested in adapting the folk school idea to residential adult education and in relating educational institutions to the community. Particularly influential in developing Pitkin's educational philosophy were progressive educators: John Dewey, William Kilpatrick, Harold Ruggs, and Boyd Bode.

Pitkin was able to implement his dream of a progressive school when he founded Goddard College in 1938. At Goddard he immediately began ongoing residential adult education programs. In January, 1939, the first academic year for the college, four schools for adults were held; later the program expanded. Goddard College continues today as an innovative undergraduate college, with nontraditional graduate programs and adult residential programs.

In the Highlander Folk School--now the Highlander Research and Education Center--both the form and idea were fused through the crucible of Myles Horton's vision and experience. The Highlander Folk School is an American original (Glen, 1988). Horton, born in Savannah, Tennessee, entered Cumberland University at Lebanon, Tennessee, in 1924. During his college days he encountered segregation and worker powerlessness, two structural aspects of American society that Highlander would address. His most decisive experience occurred in the summer of 1927 when he led a Vacation Bible School for the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. at Ozone, Tennessee. To his surprise, he found that the adults whom he invited to attend evening sessions had insight into their situation when given the opportunity for discussion, and they could find answers on their own. This experience at Ozone became the nucleus of the idea of Highlander (Bledsoe, 1969).

In the fall of 1929 Horton enrolled in Union Theological Seminary in New York to continue his search for an "education" appropriate for the mountains. At Union he formed a lifelong friendship with Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian and critic of capitalism. Horton visited settlement houses, Brookwood Labor College, and utopian experiments. All the time he read books on how to build a social order.

While in New York, Horton also came across Hart's Light From the North and Lindeman's The Meaning of Adult Education. Adams (1975), in his account of Highlander, written in collaboration with Horton, claims that Lindeman and Hart were "perhaps most directly influential on Horton's Ozone Project" (p. 14), for in Hart and Lindeman, Horton found Americans who made a case for adult education as an agent of social change.

His quest carried him in the fall of 1930 to the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Sociology for studies with Robert Parks and other researchers on the urban community and to several visits with Jane Addams and Alice Hamilton at Hull House. While he was in Chicago, in the spring of 1931, Horton first heard about the Danish folk schools from Aage Moller, a Danish-born Lutheran minister. It was Moller who suggested the folk school as a model for Horton Enok Mortensen, pastor of an all Danish congregation in Chicago. Attracted to this idea, Horton began immediately a study of Danish culture, language, and the folk schools. Among the books was Campbell's The Southern Highlander and His Homeland (1921). He thought Campbell too romantic about mountain life and people, but he took seriously Campbell's views of the folk schools.

Horton's interest led him in September, 1931, to Denmark to see the folk schools for himself and to assess how they had achieved the results attributed to them. By then he had stopped searching for a model school, dissuaded in part by the failures of Danish-Americans to transplant the folk school in America (Horton, 1983). By Christmas night, 1931, Horton had resolved the issue, and he wrote down his thoughts. Everything could not be worked out in advance, but he would open a school and let the institutional form develop as the mountain people and factory workers evolved an educational program. In May, 1932, he returned to the United States to raise monies for his school and to seek a location. At the Blue Ridge Assembly in North Carolina, Horton met Don West who would become a co-founder of Highlander. West's background was similar to Horton's. He entered Vanderbilt University in 1928 and became interested in the folk school through Alva W. Taylor and Joseph K. Hart. He then spent a year in Denmark, returning to Vanderbilt to complete his degree in 1931. For his thesis he conducted a sociological study of rural Knott County, Kentucky, and he concluded that the Danish style education system was the solution to their social and economic problems.

Horton and West discussed their ideas for several days and decided to be co-directors of a new school. Horton had the money, and West had the location, the farm of Lillian Johnson at Monteagle, Tennessee. The Highlander Folk School opened in the fall of 1932. West left the next year, and it was Horton who shaped and guided this fledgling venture in adult education.

In some respects the early development of Highlander resembled the Campbell folk school. Horton and other staff provided educational and recreational programs for the community, initiated a residential school, and organized cooperatives. But there was a difference. Highlander supported the emerging southern labor movement, and Horton shaped Highlander's education program to support his social philosophy of economic democracy (Horton, 1938).

Horton believed that political and economic power had to be challenged to release the common people from domination. That belief was certainly not unique in the Depression years or in other periods of American history. But there was a difference in Horton's approach: the people with the problems would have to work out their own solutions, not the experts who had unsuccessfully attempted to solve the problems of the Southern Highlands. Instead of giving solutions, Highlander helped common people acquire an educational base to gain control of their own lives. In the evolution of the Highlander idea, Horton called his year's experience in Denmark "an organic part of Highlander" (Horton, 1978, p. 74), particularly the spirit and radical ideas of the folk school, but he did not repeat the mistake of others by replicating its structure or method.




What impact, then, did the Grundtvigian educational philosophy as institutionalized in the DFHS have upon American adult education from 1910 through the 1930s? Many Americans were attracted to the folk school as an educational form, but their efforts to transplant the folk school to America failed. The schools lacked financial support, and young adults had other educational alternatives. Perhaps more important, an American cultural basis could not be found. Grundtvigian ideas and the folk school found most receptivity among those committed to the progressive educational tradition, the American philosophy most compatible with Grundtvigian educational philosophy.




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Shapiro, H. D. (1978). Appalachia on our mind: The southern mountains and mountaineers in the American consciousness, 1870-1920. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

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Stubblefield, H. W. (1988). Towards a history of adult education in America. London: Croom Helm.


Takemoto, P. A. (1987). The Clearing: The growth and survival of an American adult education institution in the Danish folk school tradition (Doctoral dissertation, Northern Illinois University). Dissertation Abstracts International 48/07, 1626A. (University Microfilms No. DEV87­21814)


Takemoto, P. A. (1988). The Clearing: A Danish folk school for the new world. Proceedings of the SCUTREA/ AERC/CASAE Transatlantic Dialogue (pp. 422-425). Leeds, England: University of Leeds.


Whisnant, D. E. (1983). All that is native & fine: The politics of culture in an American region. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.




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