The Nordic Secret: Why personal development may be the key to social democracy


They're not perfect, by any means. But the Nordic societies (Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland) score very highly on indicators of prosperity, fairness and wellbeing. What's the deep reason for this? 

A new book by the Swedish philanthropist Tomas Björkman and the Danish philosopher/comic Lene Andersen, titled The Nordic Secret (book and website) tells a story of how a late 19th century mass commitment to personal, even spiritual development, laid the seeds for these countries' progressive nature. 

In the blog below, Jonathan Rowson (co-founder with Björkman of the Perspectiva think-tank) explains further:

As the authors put it on their website: “The story of the modern Nordics is the story of how some small, very religious, dirt-poor, and, in reality, totalitarian countries developed into affluent democracies with huge freedoms and stable economies.”

What happened?

It is a story with a range of European and American influences but at its heart is a form of education — Bildung — that proactively developed everybody’s potential, and changed their fate. Partly inspired by their book, I wrote about Bildung towards the end of part five of the new edition of Spiritualise (p102). I believe it is an old idea whose time has come:

“Bildung is not parochial in nature, but as Pankaj Mishra highlights in The Age of Anger, it did grow out of the Germanic emphasis on Kultur as a reaction to some of the alienating aspects of cosmopolitanism. The cultivation of one’s soul was therefore often grounded in national and local traditions:

Against individual fragmentation and self-maiming, the Romantic ideal of Bildung reaffirmed the value of wholeness, with oneself, others and nature. It was aimed to make the individual feel at home again in this world, instead of seeing it as opposed to himself.

Bildung is therefore neither individualist or collectivist, nor is it either populist or elitist in spirit. To some extent it answers David Goodhart’s recent post-liberal arguments for a commitment to particular people and particular places — ‘somewhere’. But the idea of 'somewhere' can be both grounded and expansive. Moreover, the combination of personal autonomy, social solidarity and enriched perspective makes Bildung an appropriate response to spiritual pluralism. 

Bildung does not oblige you to believe or practice in any particular way, but it has religious roots. It explicitly seeks to connect our inner and outer worlds and yet allows scope for everyone to find their own way. The aim is to foster a culture where the inclination to grow spiritually is cultivated and supported, but only minimally directed.

Bildung creates the credible hope that arises from trying to align your actions with your world as you would like it to be, while simultaneously expanding and refining your view of yourself by adapting to the world as it is.

Bildung... is about how our view of the world and our place in it unfurls. We come to know who we are and what we most value by trying to bring about the world we want to live in.”

On their book’s website, the authors describe Bildung as follows:

Bildung is the way that the individual matures and takes upon him- or herself ever bigger personal responsibility towards family, friends, fellow citizens, society, humanity, our globe, and the global heritage of our species, while enjoying ever bigger personal, moral and existential freedoms.

'It is the enculturation and life-long learning that forces us to grow and change, it is existential and emotional depth, it is life-long interaction and struggles with new knowledge, culture, art, science, new perspectives, new people, and new truths, and it is being an active citizen in adulthood. Bildung is a constant process that never ends.”

This approach was made concrete in the system of secular retreats that were established through the late 19th till mid 20th century - "folk schools" that were as much about personal reflection and development, as they were formal training and skills.

You might notice the picture of Rosa Parks in the graphic at the top, whose refusal to move from her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama triggered the civil rights movement in the US.  The connection with Bildung is that she attended Highlander Folk School, whose founder Myles Horton had visited Denmark's folk schools, and determined to start them in the US. Rosa Parks attended Highlander Folk School. And as cited by this black history page:

Highlander was one of the few places in the South where integrated meetings could take place, and served as a site of leadership training for southern civil rights activists. Rosa Parks attended a 1955 workshop at Highlander four months before refusing to give up her bus seat, an act which ignited the Montgomery bus boycott

Lead by Septima Clark, Esau Jenkins and Bernice Robinson, Highlander developed a citizenship program in the mid-1950s that taught African Americans their rights as citizens while promoting basic literacy skills. Reflecting on his experiences with the Citizenship Schools and the emergence of new leaders from “noncharismatic people” who attended the training, Horton concluded that “educational work during social movement periods provides the best opportunity for multiplying democratic leadership”.

The Nordic Secret has had many resonances...