By Basil Fernando

For the purpose of this short essay, I use ‘folk school’ to mean the ideas of the folk school which were developed in Denmark by NFS Grundtvig and the folk school movement. The same methodology was also followed by Myles Horton of the United States. After spending several years in Denmark visiting one folk school after another, he developed the practice of folk school in the United States.

By advocacy I mean the methods used to persuade the population, from the point of view of Civil Society, as well as the State. They were persuaded to adapt those policies and practices which gave serious consideration to the interests and concerns of the people.

The unique features of the folk school are as follows:

1. Although it is called school it is not teaching by someone else to a group of persons to improve their knowledge. Here the school means a group of people. They have common problems or concerns. They get together to discuss among themselves those problems or concerns. It is with the view that certain collective understandings of the nature of the problems as well as the kind of measures that could be taken, to resolve these problems. Therefore, the groups would consist mostly of persons who share awareness of common problems or common concerns. These are an essential part of the folk school method. Therefore, it is not a discussion of people of diverse backgrounds without commonly shared problems.

2. The Basic Method of developing understanding is, by discussion among persons, facing perceived common problems or concerns. The knowledge they are relying on is not for the most part knowledge from the outside. It is knowledge that resides inside themselves, through experiencing a long time problem. The purpose of the discussions is to get greater clarity about those things of which they are already aware. They could embark on courses of action on the basis of their shared articulation of problems.

3. The very purpose of the discussions is not purely a leisure kind of activity. Rather, it seeks to improve one’s knowledge or aesthetic enjoyment. It looks for actions which could help resolve a problem all are facing.

4. Due to the very nature of the work of the folk school, experts play a low key role in these folk school sessions. Going back historically, let us look at the initial stages. Experts came to these folk schools to acquire insights from the people. Insight on problems which the expert had to advise the government on resolving. Instead, they did not come to tell the people what they should do to achieve some changes. This happens in most of the planning stages for development in a folk school. The experts come first of all to get a grounding on the problem and the way the problem is perceived by the people who are affected. This is the main function of the experts. When experts are well-informed about the way people have perceived a problem, they are in a better position to help resolve it. They mount their advice to the Government or agency involved, to resolve the problematic.

5. Meanwhile, experts may contribute to certain technical aspects. These are things of which the average citizen may not be fully aware. Why? It occurs because people at the ground level are faced with a problem and do not have the requisite technical knowledge needed to settle it. In the past, a few such matters included: some language learning, basic mathematics et al. They would help direct the folk school participants to improve their capacity of understanding and their articulation of problems.

6. For the experts to play a useful role, they should understand the overall strategy of the folk school. Their role is not one of dominance in the discourse. They are merely resource persons who are there in some way to help when it is required.

7. If among the experts are included anyone representing Authority, they should come of their own volition. Come with an understanding of the whole process. Come not with the idea of following a top-down approach–telling the people or participants what to do. This last point will be illustrated by a rather amusing incident. Something like this, often takes place, when the experts who don’t have a grounding in actual reality and living experience of a particular context, try to dominate a discussion.

8. In Sri Lanka, some decades ago, the Government wanted to improve the fishing industry. The Government recruited persons who had academic degrees on subjects that might be relevant to the industry. They sent them to foreign countries like Japan where the fishing industry was supposed to be of a highly developed nature. After absorbing all this knowledge, the experts designed a program for the improvement of the fishing industry. However, at this stage there was a suggestion that before the plan was approved there should be some input by the people themselves on the proposals the experts had developed. There were several consultations with veteran fishermen, who had been going to sea for years. In one of these meetings, the experts explained their plan to the fishermen who had gathered. They illustrated their point by asking the fishermen about the way in which they catch their prawns.

9. Having got the details, they asked about the kind of nets used. They asked about the length and width of the nets. What was the speed of the boats used to go to sea? (The fishermen in these areas used to go to work in wooden boats). How much prawn they could catch in a day? The fishermen gave some numbers. 

10. Then the experts asked? Suppose the Government provides you nets ten times bigger than these, boats with ten times more speed than the ones you are using now? Will that not help you to have a ten times bigger catch than what you have now? When the question was posed this way, one of the veteran fishermen bluntly asked the experts ARE YOU ALL MAD? This, of course, irritated the experts somewhat. But, one wise person among them asked why do you ask a question like that? The fisherman answered. Do you know how much rock there is in the area where we catch prawns? You know that if you use any other kind of net they will be torn by the rocks? Furthermore, do you know that you cannot go faster through these rocks in a different boat than the one we use at present? The fisherman was trying to explain the grass-roots reality within which they work. Any improvements had to be worked out within certain unalterable conditions. They know them after centuries of fishing habits that people had acquired. Similar problems, on a much larger scale, came about when collectivization methods were proposed in China. The experts, guided by party perspectives, wanted to raise the amount of grain and other cultivated things. To this end, they made their own plans. Afterwards, they told the villagers from different areas that this was the amount they had to produce within a certain period of time. There was no consultation with the farmers about these proposals. The farmers tried to communicate their concerns. However, as there was no way the experts could take in anything except from the top, they did not listen to the farmers themselves. The ultimate results? A massive scale breakdown within the agricultural field itself. This led to one of the worst starvation occurrences in the world up to this time. It was said to have killed many millions of people. Similar kinds of things happened in Russia, Ukraine and Cambodia and other countries. The driving force for change was not gathered from the understanding of those who were engaged in that activity for centuries. It was on the basis of some persons with university degrees or other abstract knowledge they had acquired elsewhere.

Folk school therefore, is more than a mere dialogue between those who know and those who are presumed not to know about a subject. It is first of all among those who commonly share a problem or very long problems for a very extensive period of time. And they had no time to reflect on these experiences. They did not develop the capacity to articulate their own ideas and opinions about associated problems and ways to solve them. Therefore, in order to overcome this problem, an attempt was made in Denmark and the U.S. Minnesota Institute headed by Myles Horton. It was to provide opportunities for people to gather together longer. Opportunities for them to discuss their own problems as well as strategies which could help to resolve their problems. Among those who came to the Minnesota Institute in the United States, were two well-known persons, both young at the time. They were Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Over a decade earlier, they discussed their problems and some of the strategies which were put into practice later.

Web Link to AHRC book Demoralization and Hope