The Secret

The Nordic countries must have done something right in the industrial age. Even in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland have stable economies, high levels of trust, social calm, and functioning welfare states. Iceland is recovering in a remarkably different way than, say, Portugal and Spain.

Looking at history, it becomes clear that the Nordic countries were transformed from within due to the visionary ideas of a handful of people in the 1840s. These ideas went viral among Danish and Norwegian youth in the 1860s, in the 1870s a Pan-Nordic debate about sex before marriage spiced up the public sphere and shook collective norms, and in the 1880s, a handful of Swedish 20-somethings had a socialist vision to lift their country - if not the world - out of poverty and injustice. But, interestingly enough, even though most of them were atheist, some of them spending time in jail for denouncing God, they had a very strong focus on inner or personal development. And, by the way, their intellectual powerhouse, a student of astronomy, later became (simultaneously) the prime and foreign minister of Sweden and received a Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to establishing The League of Nations.

The inner development vision shared by these Nordic people 120-170 years ago comes surprisingly close to the personal or ego-development that developmental psychology describes today. What they were talking about was not just educating the population to become skilled workers in the new, industrialized economy, but that each individual should evolve as a person, emotionally, spiritually, morally, and intellectually, and that there needed to be communities and institutions for this.

Did the Nordic countries develop developmental psychology 100 years before the rest of the world?

Definitely not. They got it from Switzerland and Germany, from thinkers such as Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Kant, Herder, Schiller, Goethe, and Hegel, but under another name: Bildung. And they combined it with input from England.

The Opera House in Oslo

So, what DID the Nordics do?

Many explanations have been suggested for the current success of the Nordic countries and we are going to add another one, namely a unique blend of German idealism, British pragmatism, Nordic cultural heritage, and modern science.

As industrialization and societal changes caught on, Nordic visionaries merged idealism and pragmatism with heritage and the latest scientific knowledge, inspired the peasants, the workers and the teachers and laid the foundation for changing our societies and political systems. Not through revolutions, but through “popular enlightenment” and the secret ingredient: Bildung, a peculiar blend of individual freedom and personal development, which we shall explore and explain throughout our book and this website.

The story about the modern Nordics is the story about how some small, very religious, dirt-poor, and, in reality, totalitarian countries developed into affluent democracies with huge freedoms and stable economies. We did it through education, culture, conversation, and personal psychological development, and we did it because some young people had dreams and hopes of a better future for the entire society. It is the story about intellectuals, pastors, pedagogues, peasants, and workers who changed the way we think, and about people from all layers of society who volunteered and took upon themselves responsibility for self and others.

Our purpose with this project, The Nordic Secret, is not to promote the Nordic countries nor to indulge ourselves in our countries' successes, but to explore, share and promote the secret ingredient while using the Nordics as a case study.

About Bildung

Bildung is German and does not have a word in English. In Danish and Norwegian it is dannelse and in Swedish it is bildning. The German and Swedish words are very similar and both refer to shaping the individual in an image, a “Bild”. Originally, this may have meant in the image of God. The Danish and Norwegian word refer to the shaping, “danne”, which means shaping the personality.

Thinkers such as Kant, Schiller, Humboldt, and Hegel were among the first to explore Bildung, and the struggle to define what it is has been going on since. Thus, the definition has changed over time and even today, nobody can agree on what bildung is exactly. Based on the German and Nordic thinkers of the 1800s as well as the current Bildung debates in German speaking countries and the Nordics, we define it like this:

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.

Allgemeinbildung / General Bildung is a broad and inter-connected, meaning-providing knowledge base that functions as a skeleton for acquisition of new knowledge and which allows us to:

  • navigate new information in such a manner that we can distinguish facts from fiction
  • experience the world in ever richer ways and
  • eventually, contribute to the creation of new art, culture and knowledge ourselves.

Our Allgemeinbildung can expand constantly.

In the Nordics, for generations, Bildung has been an essential part of most people’s path through life. It was a central part of the mission statement in our public schools, and in all strata of society, taking six months to a year off in youth in order to self-cultivate has been not just popular but almost expected if the economic conditions allowed. If mom and dad could afford it, or if one could find a job for six months in order to pay for it, it would be considered almost weird, if one did not somehow spend time cultivating oneself during the late teens. Either by travelling, the “Bildungsreise,” by going to a folk-high-school or some other self-cultivating study activity or by volunteering with a charity. In English, this is referred to as a sabbatical, but in the Nordics we deliberately put the word Bildung in front of it. 

Later in life, we expose ourselves to new people with different backgrounds regularly, not just in our professional lives, but through volunteer work, political activity, associations, evening classes etc. Here, we have to create results together, even when we harbor great differences of values, points of view and economic and social circumstances. Disagreements may be strong at such meetings and gatherings, and yet people develop compromises and have dinner together afterwards or go out for a beer.

This is not unique to the Nordics, of course, people of other Western nations also interact with new knowledge, culture, art etc., volunteer as board members or scout leaders and enjoy life-long learning (and we would love to hear about it, so please share if you have knowledge in this field!).

But starting the folk-high-school movement some 170 years ago in Denmark, the Nordics have made “popular enlightenment”, liberal education, life-long learning, civilized disagreement, and Bildung a part of the very fabric of our societies.

To the best of our knowledge, nobody has suggested Bildung as an explanation for the Nordic countries’ success before. It makes good sense, though, that a society can accomplish much if a critical number of adults, be they unemployed, blue-collar workers, self-employed, academics, or top executives:

  • meet as equals in their spare time,
  • are exposed to new knowledge, culture, art, and challenges throughout life,
  • learn and evolve throughout life,
  • self-govern under great personal freedom, combined with a high social awareness and sense of responsibility, and
  • work towards compromises of great legitimacy.

It becomes a self-organizing and self-governing society at a very high level of complexity. From this point of view, Bildung creates robust societies.

Unfortunately, Bildung does not have a very high standing among many people these days, and very often it is just understood as "old bourgeois norms." But Bildung is so much more. First of all, it is a process that never ends and which keeps us curious and open to change. As for the volunteering, the question “What’s in it for me?” challenges many of the communities and acitivies that used to provide Bildung. These two current maladies may have dire consequences as new technologies and globalization are challenging many of the non-self-organizing structures of society that guarantee our individual freedoms and human rights. In fact, we think that Bildung is very much needed in the 21st century, perhaps more than ever.

Introducing developmental psychology

Introducing Robert Kegan, professor at Harvard University

In order to give Bildung some of its cool back, we are going to let developmental psychology and neuroscience cast new light on it.

Bildung is about increasing existential depth and about finding meaning and purpose at still higher levels of complexity throughout life. It is about evolving into a rounded personality with the enculturation appropriate for one’s age and in the given culture. What we find fun and important at age 50 is very different from what fills our minds at age five. This is a healthy development, and we are going to make the case that what the 19th century German idealists described as Bildung is to a great extent, what we today find described in developmental psychology as personal development.

The most important difference that we see up front between the two, Bildung and developmental psychology, is that Bildung is always somewhat culture specific and involves the appropriation of Allgemeinbildung, plus it has its roots in philosophy and pedagogy / teaching, whereas developmental psychology is content neutral and is a tool for analyzing cognitive complexity and psychological development irrespective of enculturation.

When talking about developmental psychology, throughout this book we will mainly refer to the work of Robert Kegan, professor of developmental psychology at Harvard University. His model of psychological development talks of orders of consciousness or orders of cognitive complexity.

We have decided to call them layers of human potential, since we see them as potentials that anybody can develop at different ages, and since we see them as layers developing on top of one another or around one another. With each new layer we grow, become more rounded, and develop a more complex inner world.

We shall explore Kegan’s model in more detail in the chapter about developmental psychology, but these are the layers we will be talking about:

  • The first layer covers early childhood from 2 to 6 years of age, when we realize that other people are separate from ourselves and our body becomes an object under our own control.
  • The second layer, roughly age 6 to teens, is when we realize that these other people have agendas that are different from ours. We also learn to perceive our emotions as objects, and if we cannot control the emotions themselves, we should at least be able to control our reactions to them and our behavior.
  • The third layer is the teenage years and beyond, where we can reason abstractly and be aware of shared feelings and agreements. It is also the age where ideals and expectations can take primacy over individual interests, and we can see our own point of view as an object. As teenagers, we internalize the norms of society and thus gradually acquire the freedom of not having to hear our parents repeat them to us all the time. We become self-governing.
  • At the fourth layer, we are capable of viewing the norms of society as objects among other objects, and of setting ourselves emotionally or intellectually outside society’s general perspectives and taking a personal stand. We become, in the words of developmental psychology, self-authoring.

As we shall see as we explore the German idealists and the Nordic Bildung activists of the 19th century, their concept of Bildung comes extremely close to Kegan’s third and fourth orders of cognitive complexity, the internalized norms and self-authoring. Furthermore, the educational approach growing out of their Bildung idealism works as a tool for the personal transition from layer three to layer four; the painful personal growth from the comfort of doing what everybody expects you to do, to choosing your own path in life. 

However, the human potential does not stop here.

Kegan also writes about a fifth order of cognitive complexity. This fifth layer of psychological development is about seeing oneself and one’s own points of view as part of a bigger picture where our opponents and their points of view are an inherent part of who we are ourselves. We not only get to know ourselves from the interaction, we also grow from it and appreciate it. Kegan calls it self-transcending.

If Bildung in layer four was the big cultural challenge and accomplishment of the 19th and 20th centuries, we suggest that the challenge of the 21st century is Bildung in both layers four and five. Or rather: that throughout life our needs for Bildung change as we face ever more complex challenges, and in a globalized world, self-governing in layer three is not enough and even the self-authoring adult in layer four feels lost. In order to feel comfortably at home in a multicultural global community, one must develop the self-transcending layer five, a feat that very few people do spontaneously and only rarely before the age of 50.

– We know that by using the word self-transcending it may sound religious or like new-age mumbo-jumbo to many, but developmental psychology as well as Bildung is very pragmatic, down to earth and hands on, as we shall see in the following. 

Vertical Bildung and Horizontal Allgemeinbildung

Developmental psychology and enculturation

In our book, The Nordic Secret, we are going to make the case that Bildung, the way that the German Romantics such as Schiller and Goethe talked about it, was the same kind of emotional and existential depth that developmental psychology talks about today.

Allgemeinbildung, on the other hand, is the horizontal acquisition of knowledge, skills and culture, it is the way that we expand our horizon.

Taken together, the vertical Bildung and the horizontal Allgemeinbildung are what allow us to constantly grow and evolve as persons and to encounter an increasingly complex world in meaningful ways.

We are further going to make the case that what made the Nordic societies so successful was the way our schools and society in general demanded that we develop both Bildung and Allgemeinbildung. Beginning in the 1840s, our schools laid the foundation for the kind of personal development that translates into being self-guided citizens with, first of all, the openness of heart and mind to tolerate diversity and disagreement and, second, a moral compass and the strength of character to apply it.

Bildung, Developmental Psychology and the Nordics

Bildung, Allgemeinbildung and development of our human potential in the Nordic countries didn't just happen by coincidence, it never does. Bildung and Allgemeinbildung throughout a population takes institutions, visionary teachers and if not blood, sweat and tears, then at least sweat and a few tears from time to time too.

In The Nordic Secret, we will tell the story of the men and women who shaped the Nordic countries through Bildung, Allgemeinbildung and our Bildung institutions. Interestingly enough, given how Switzerland keeps competing with us for the top positions in international rankings, the story of Nordic Bildung begins with two Swiss thinkers: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.

But Nordic Bildung would not have happened had it not been for the French Revolution, German Romanticism and Idealism and some essential British input too. Our Nordic successes are, in other words, deeply indebted to the rest of Europe and our shared heritage. Plus some input from the US.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi

The Nordic Spring

We will leave you with a Norwegian, a Dane and a Swede who, each in their generation, changed the Nordics through Bildung. Like the core activists of today's Arab Spring, they were only in their late 20s when they started their quest for freedom and human development. It was at a time, when the Danish-Norwegian monarchy was absolute, and Sweden was close to being a theocracy.

One of the young men was put under life-long censorship for verbally attacking a theologian (the censorship was later lifted and he became one of the co-authors of his country's first democratic constitution), one was put in jail for blasphemy (he later became the country's prime-minister and received the Nobel prize for his contribution to starting the League of Nations), and one almost tore Scandinavia apart over the question of women's right to sex before mariage. As we post our Chapter Drafts on the site you can read who did what but until then, feel free to guess who is who: