The deep ties between Protestant Christianity and education explains the near-religious status of education in Nordic countries. Pictured key figures of the reformation Luther and Calvin, on a church pulpit in Mikolow, Poland. / Photo: Petrus Silesius

Is education the “religion” of our secular society?

Essay. Education has taken on ‘religious’ features in the secular Nordic societies, argues Professor Geir Skeie. The reasons to this lie in the region's protestant tradition. 


Being a commuter between two Nordic countries, I have had the interesting experience of following the political agenda and parts of public debate in both Norway and Sweden over several years.

What is similar in the two countries, is the general competition between political parties in being the most active and positive one when it comes to education. Almost irrespective of the political issue, education is mentioned as part of the solution.

This is even more the case when it comes to the really complex and difficult questions and dilemmas related to the future of society. This makes one think: How did education become this important? Are the expectations of what education can do now reaching transcendental dimensions? And if so, what happens to the immanent and material everyday life in educational institutions in times when education policy takes on almost soteriological or utopian functions?

I will argue that education has taken on several ‘religious’ features in the secular Nordic societies and I will try to substantiate this by looking back to the last centuries of educational history.

My suggestion is that one decisive factor contributing to strong belief in the capacity of education is the long Nordic protestant tradition of Lutheran catechesis. Originally, this church practice was situated in a socio-political context marked by an absolutist kingdom. Here, the state apparatus was ensuring that the population was entirely and only Lutheran, but this was not enough. In addition, there was a vision that this confessional status should not merely be lip-service, but even a conviction. The road to conviction was knowledge and the vehicle was education.

The content of this knowledge was the catechism, legitimated through Luther himself. He had written the catechism as a simple overview of the contents of faith for the people. Gradually it became a basic (‘holy’) text in itself. This was illustrated by the developing educational system from the early parts of the 18th century, which gradually complemented the catechism with numerous ‘explanations’. One famous in Denmark-Norway, was the one made by Erik Pontoppidan, a great educational reformer and strategic thinker. The launching of interpretations gradually became a field of controversy in the early modernity, since they marked different interpretations of the interpretations of the faith.

So, while the Bible was in principle the basic (religious and societal) text, the catechism gradually moved into a similar position, and the catechism was from the very start part of an educational project. With the position of the catechism being so strong, partly due to its socio-political status, even the interpretation of the catechism became an issue of debate.

When reform of religious education came in the late 19th century, it was bible-stories that were launched as the liberal alternative to the catechism. Throughout this history, education and religion was most intimately intertwined both on the level of educational policy, -content and -philosophy.

A similar intertwining was evident on the institutional level. The first school systems in Nordic countries were church schools, confirmation was the final exam and this even marked the entry into adult life and a societal position with rights and duties of a citizen. The local priest was headmaster, sometimes teacher and in all his capacities a civil servant. Among his duties as the king’s servant, was to monitor the life and behaviour of the parish members, even to register the level of education and other human capacities of each household.

So, religion, state control, church and education was all integrated in one single totalitarian system. Still, it must be underlined that apart from primary (catechism-) education, all forms of further and higher education was a privilege of the elite of society. It was often private and confined to the city-school systems.

Even if the primary and secondary school system gradually developed out of this initial anchoring in the state church and became a secular and modern institution, I believe that the long-term effects of the old church-school system cannot be underestimated.

The strong secularisation of Nordic countries, most of all Sweden, did in my opinion not necessarily empty the educational system of its quasi-religious character. Rather, it can be claimed that the secularisation overshadows the hidden ‘sanctification’ of education. Or, to put it differently, the secularisation meant that education as a societal system of socialisation and qualification became rationalised. From being a tool for authoritarian power and control, it became a tool for emancipation and democracy, the salvific forces of democracy.

An early institutional exemplary of this was the folk-high school movement in the Nordic countries, going back to N. F. S. Grundtvig in Denmark. The Labour movement also embraced the emancipatory potential of education. A central aim of social-democratic parties was to secure access to all levels of education for all parts of the population. When revolution was abandoned as solution to oppression, education took its place as the vehicle of social mobility.

In addition to the expansion of compulsory education, the labour movement and other social movements developed different forms of adult education, later more and more integrated to the public system or private additions. Today, education is available to the entire population everywhere anytime with the help of modern technologies.

To conclude, education is all over the place, used as a tool for qualification of the workforce, for social and societal development, and offered for the individual as an instrument to achieve the good life. Education is presented as almost almighty since it seems to be the ultimate answer.

The question is, however, if we have invested a little too much expectations in this institution of modernity? The big difference from the earlier days of the catechetical school system is that then the king and the church together knew the ultimate truth about a good life. Today the political leaders do not know any ultimate truth and the visions of a good life are diverse. Education is thereby changed from being an instrument into becoming an answer in itself.

By acquiring the skills and multiple competencies valued by OECD and other policy actors, we are supposed to become active and creative citizens. The aims and aspirations we have for life and society as human beings and citizens, are however not part of this equation since they are diverse. The question is whether education policy has taken in the full consequences of this diversity, observed by teachers on a daily basis?

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