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Culture : Denmark's Schools for Life : * There are no exams, grades or degrees. But there is a proud tradition, dating to the 19th Century.


HILLEROED, Denmark — The young woman spoke into the candlelight illuminating a small kitchen that served more as a meeting place than an eating place for the 10 students who shared it.

"We do a lot of talking here over tea or wine," explained Sofia Fjendbo, 21. "I'd say the most important lessons I've learned at this school have come here, usually between 10 (p.m.) and 4 in the morning."

While occasional late-night discussions about the deeper meanings of life are part of virtually everyone's college experience, for people like Fjendbo such intense encounters are central to the learning experience.

For she is one of nearly 60,000 students who this year will pass through a Danish folk high school--a highly unusual kind of "school for life" founded more than a century ago. Originally meant to instill traditional Danish values in the country's rural population, the institution has taken on new meaning in a modern, urban Denmark on the edge of the 21st Century.

"It's a school for life, and life is more than your job," said Danish Minister of Culture Grethe Rostboell in an interview.

Now widely viewed more as a supplement to basic education than a substitute for it, Denmark's folk high schools give no exams, provide no grades and issue no certificates of excellence.

Instead, through a varied curriculum that runs from Danish literature to American film, and from classical music or religious studies to physical education, the schools attempt to broaden their students' horizons and help them better understand themselves as individuals and their role in society.

While curricula differ widely among the country's 100 such schools, all require that students "live in."

"In the United States, education is always linked with credits and grades," noted Rostboell. "In Denmark, we think it's also important to be a better human being. If you know who you are, you are better able to resolve your own problems."

Added Ebbe Lundgaard, Secretary General of the Assn. of Danish Folk High Schools: "Our students are a special type, who take the time to ask themselves what they want from life. For them, the crucial question isn't what you can do, but who you are."

A typical student, he said, will have completed the equivalent of an American high school education. Many already have a college degree. (About 137,000 Danes study in some form of college or university.)

While the core of the folk high school student population is between 18 and 22 years old, many are in their 30s and, occasionally, even older.

The majority attend for anywhere from four to eight months, although so-called "short courses" of one to two weeks on specific subjects have become increasingly popular in recent years among adults and even entire families.

"In a way, you can look at it as a kind of sabbatical," noted Rostboell.

Because student costs are heavily subsidized by Denmark's renowned welfare state, the folk high schools also perform an important "mixing" function, throwing together mainly young people from varied social and geographical backgrounds.

Folk high school administrators wince when pressed to quantify the value of the school experience, claiming such measurement is impossible. However, Lundgaard claimed that folk high school students who go on to a mainstream university invariably perform better and complete their studies faster than other students.

The experience is also valued by potential Danish employers. "You put it on an application and it counts," noted American anthropologist Steven M. Borish, whose recent book "The Land of the Living" constitutes the definitive English-language study of the system.

Employers in the basic social services, such as law enforcement, teaching and health care tend to seek out applicants with folk high school experience. "To work in these areas, it's almost a prerequisite to have been to a folk high school," said Lundgaard.

The brainchild of N. F. S. Grundtvig, a 19th-Century Lutheran theologian, poet and educator, folk high schools were shaped to provide something beyond the stiff, formal higher-education curricula offered Denmark's elite urban few at the time.

Impressed by the informal dialogue he found during a year at Britain's Cambridge University, Grundtvig established the first folk high school in 1844 in rural southern Jutland to provide farmers the chance to study Danish culture, religion, basic science and such fundamentals as hygiene and simple health care.

Anne Jensen, the chief economist at the Unidanmark Bank in Copenhagen recalled how her farming grandparents talked of their folk high school experience. "The women learned about science, the value of vitamins and the importance of keeping emotionally strong," she said.

In traditions that still exist today, classes stressed lectures, dialogue and discussion over the written word, all in an egalitarian atmosphere in which students and teachers were quickly on a first-name basis, ate together and frequently shared the routine tasks of cooking and cleaning.

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