History of Folk Schools

The folk school story has its roots in 19th century Denmark with Nikolai Frederik Severin (NFS) Grundtvig whose vision for education is credited with supporting Denmark’s successful transition to democracy. Grundtvig was a philosopher, poet, theologian, educator, historian, composer of hymns, translator, and social critic. Education, however, was one of his primary concerns.

Grundtvig did not actually found any schools; his philosophy was put into practice by Christen Kold and was based on a deep faith in the intrinsic abilities of all individuals and a belief that education should be available to everyone. “Schools for Life” as Grundtvig called them were to assist people in understanding their own identity and to strengthen and empower communities.

He believed that:

  • Education should embrace heart, mind, and body.
  • The main purpose of education was not to teach factual knowledge, but “life’s awakening”.

In the United States, folk schools have taken a variety of forms. In the early 1900s, the Danish folk school model was attractive to political progressives in the U.S. who wanted to bring together economic, political, and educational experiences. Poconos People’s College near Henryville, Pennsylvania and Waddington People’s College in Wheeling, West Virginia developed out of this interest (Smith, 1996). Perhaps the best known is Highlander Folk School near New Market, Tennessee, renamed in recent years, Highlander Education and Research Center. It was founded by Myles Horton and Donald West in 1932. Horton had invested considerable study and time exploring educational philosophies and approaches for use in empowering the mountain people of Appalachia.

Education should embrace

heart, mind and body.

– Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig

Another of the early folk schools in the United States was the John C. Campbell Folk School founded in 1925 in Brasstown, North Carolina; it is the largest folk school in the U.S. today.

It states its mission as: “The Folk School seeks to bring people to two kinds of development: inner growth as creative, thoughtful individuals, and social development as tolerant, caring members of a community.”

Individual expression and social interaction are developed and supported through classes in music, crafts, nature studies, gardening, cooking, dance, and other expressions of culture. This school carries on the Grundtvig educational philosophy through: learning that connects heart, hands, and mind; learning that is inspiring for both students and teachers; valuing of the oral tradition; and seeing education as a lifelong endeavor.

The United States is experiencing a resurgence of folk schools. In the last five years, a large number of new folk schools have been founded. In this context, folk education offers the possibility of revisioning local life, culture, and social ecology. Folk schools connect and build a myriad of community resources, and they capitalize on networking and collaboration at its finest.