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Taking part in the Democracy Project’s visit to the Nordic countries, students had the opportunity to discuss education’s role in sustaining democracy with two high school teachers in Copenhagen, Denmark. Through this discussion, students and teachers reflected on the vast contrast between the American and Danish educational systems which highlighted Denmark’s democratic government and its role in sustaining democracy by providing students with academic autonomy and financial support.
Often, students in the United States feel under-prepared for selecting a specific career path due to a lack of experience and exposure to their personal interests in high school. From age 5 through 18, many students in the United State’s public education system study mathematics, English language arts, history, science, and social studies, with the opportunity in some high schools to study government, economics, language, and the arts. Individual student interest is often overlooked by the goal of the United States government to create “well-rounded” citizens. While introducing students to many different topics throughout their entire grade school experience, few students have the opportunity to discover career paths that are aligned with their personal interests and skills. The subject of student’s autonomy in their education is an entirely different story in Denmark. From kindergarten (age 6) through grade 9 (age 16), students in Denmark follow the national requirements for basic primary education. During these years, students attend primary school, known as Folkeskole, where they study subjects including humanities (history and social studies), practical creative subjects (P.E., music, visual arts, design, home economics, and food science), science (mathematics, natural sciences, geography, biology, physics, and chemistry), and several compulsory topics such as sexual health, road safety, and vocational market orientation.
After grade 9, students in Denmark are given the opportunity to take their educational journey into their own hands by choosing a secondary school path that best suits their personal interests, needs, skills, and abilities. Grade 10, known as Efterskole, is optional and can be used to help students decide between secondary school options which can be broken down into two main groups: academic and vocational schools. Over the course of one year, students have time to test and decide which option best suits their career goals. Along the academic pathway, students attend a continuation of school known as gymnasium. In these secondary schools, students can hone their interests in subjects such as mathematics, science, and language to prepare them for university. Within the gymnasium, there are four specific educational programs (HF, STX, HHX, and HTX) that further specify a student’s intellectual track. In brief, HF focuses on natural and social sciences, STX is a broader program that covers a larger variety of topics, HHX focuses on business and economics, and HTX focuses on exact sciences. Along the other path, students can also choose to attend vocational schools, similar to trade schools in the United States. This option is popular among practically oriented students who are interested in obtaining skills in metalworking, mechanics, electrical engineering, and business.
“As all social services such as health care and education in Denmark are paid through taxes, this allows education to be free of cost for every student.”
Furthering students’ ability to become productive and educated members of society, attending primary school, secondary school, universities, and vocational schools in Denmark is tuition free. As all social services such as health care and education in Denmark are paid through taxes, this allows education to be free of cost for every student. In stark contrast, the average cost of tuition alone for attending a four-year, public university in the United States is $9,377 per year for in-state students and $27,091 per year for out-of-state students. These costs do not include housing, meal plans, books and supplies, transportation, or extra fees. In addition, it is common for older adults in Denmark to take up free career-enhancing university courses or hobby-focused classes such as culinary or creative arts.
During the discussion, students from SOU posed important questions regarding the funding of schools in Denmark while citing their knowledge of school funding in the United States. In the states, grade schools are funded largely by property taxes, meaning that the wealth of the community determines the wealth of the school. Schools located in wealthy neighborhoods receive more funding to allocate toward resources like school supplies, advanced technology, study preparatory materials, and extracurricular classes. On the contrary, schools located in poorer neighborhoods receive less funding which prevents them from supporting students’ learning and mental health needs. Students from lesser-funded schools are more likely to fail exams and drop out of school due to increased stress, a lack of support, and few opportunities to explore their personal interests and skills. This sad reality in the United States was a shock to the teachers in Denmark.
As students questioned what is done differently in Denmark for underfunded and under-supported schools, the teachers replied simply that the government gives these schools a greater amount of resources and funding, of course. Because the Danish government funds schools directly, and all Danish tax-paying adults contribute to the pot equally, all schools are funded fairly and with one goal- to support each and every student so that they may succeed and continue on a career path that both gratifies themselves and supports the continuation of Denmark’s prosperity.
“Denmark is an excellent example of how education sustains democracy, and there is much that the United States can glean from these insights.”
A large takeaway from this insightful and eye-opening discussion was this: Lifelong learning is deeply encouraged by the democratic governance of Denmark because not only does it allow citizens to find satisfaction and build the population’s trust in the government, but it also creates a more educated populous in which more people are likely to participate in the upholding of democracy. Denmark is an excellent example of how education sustains democracy, and there is much that the United States can glean from these insights.
Chen, G. “An Overview of the Funding of Public Schools,” Public School Review June 22, 2022. https://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/an-overview-of-the-funding-of-public-schools
“A Guide to International Schools and the Education System in Denmark,” InterNations February 10, 2023. https://www.internations.org/denmark-expats/guide/education
Hanson, M. “Average Cost of College and Tuition,” Education Data Initiative June 25, 2023. https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-college
Ministry of Children and Education. Subjects & curriculum April 19, 2023. https://eng.uvm.dk/primary-and-lower-secondary-education/the-folkeskole/subjects-and-curriculum
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark. Lifelong education (n.d.). https://denmark.dk/society-and-business/lifelong-education
Story by Tayah Sager Incoming Senior, Elementary Education Major, Honors College at Southern Oregon University