Article 11: Some glimpses of the Swedish study circle tradition

Some glimpses…  

In 1973 I made a visit to Iceland, the island in northern Atlantic Ocean. There I wrote a picture postcard to a new friend in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. It was a simple postcard with only a few sentences – but it was in Chinese.

The new friend who got my postcard was my teacher in a study circle about Chinese language. A few months before my visit to Iceland I had joined that study circle, together with seven or eight other participants and the study circle leader, my teacher in Chinese.  
One of the reasons why we started that study circle 1973 was that we all hoped to join the first group travel, open for anyone, to the Peoples Republic of China the following summer. Before that summer, only special groups had been able to visit China, such as leading members of the Swedish Communist Party. This time, 1973, anyone could apply to join the group and more than 600 did apply. However, only 60 were allowed to go.
The participants in our study circle were from different age and background. For example, one of us was the son of a Christian missionary who had stayed several years in China in the first half of the twentieth century. Another member in the group was a meteorologist from the very north of Sweden whom has been one of my best friends since then. The oldest member was a former sea captain, 74 years old but very young at heart.
Our teacher, whom also became my friend, was a young student at Stockholm University. He studied Chinese for Göran Malmqvist (马悦然), professor in Sinology, who in the forties had been the student of Bernhard Karlgren (高本漢), who is more well-known in China than in Sweden. Now this former student and study circle leader is a professor at Stockholm University and head of the Confucian Institute in Sweden.
We had a lot of fun in our study circle. We met once a week, in the evening. We often went to a coffee place after our lessons and then the 74 years old former sea captain liked to tell stories about his travels all around the world. We also learned some Chinese – at least enough to write simple postcards.
A few of us also formed another study circle of our own, together with the study circle leader and some of his friends. We studied social changes in modern China. One of the books we read was Revolution in a Chinese Village – Ten Mile Inn, by Isabel and David Crook (1959).

The study circle – an introduction
By joining our study circle in Chinese in 1973 we came to belong to a Swedish tradition that officially started 1902, when Oscar Olsson reported and wrote about the first study circle and started to develop its ideas and theory. Oscar Olsson became known as ”the father of the Swedish study circle”.
Oscar Olsson had both a practical, theoretical and philosophical approach to education within the same tradition as Tao Xingzhi or Yan Yangchu. Like them, Oscar Olsson was influenced by John Dewey. His ideal was that everyone should be able to educate himself – together with friends, colleges, neighbours etc. Together they should share not only what they read in books, but also their own various knowledge, experiences and ideas. The participants in study circles should chose their own literature, prepare themselves and actively communicate with other participants during the meetings. The study circle was also a forum for democracy, where the participants were responsible for both the content and the methods.
For Oscar Olsson the study circle was more than just another way of organizing studies: ”The purpose of study circles is in general not the accumulation of factual knowledge but the spirit and the atmosphere that lead to continuous searching and questioning.”
During the 20th century study circles became increasingly popular in Sweden. For many people the study circle became an important part of their daily life. It was common that the same group of people continued to study in study circles for many years, after each term or year deciding together what they wanted to study next. Often groups formed two parallel study circles, for example one for studying agriculture or some other subject related to their profession and another for studying literature or some similar subject that met their more intellectual or artistic needs.
Many study circles were directly focused on community development. Before 1950 there were more than 2.500 municipalities and local districts in Sweden and all together tens of thousands of people were engaged as elected representatives in those local authorities. Many of those representatives had a background of long formal education, some with academic degrees, but most were workers and farmers with only six or seven years of schooling. Many of them got their main theoretical and practical education about society, economy, administration, how to participate in a local government and so on from study circles.
Many study circle participants became members of parliament, leaders of trade unions and labour organisations or political parties. If you ask them how their political career began, they might answer: ”Well, it started with a study circle…”

Rooted in Non-Governmental Organisations
The study circle tradition developed from the popular movements and organisations that were founded in Sweden at the end of 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century. They were the workers’ unions, political organisations, temperance societies, farmers´ movements and other organisations.
Sweden was a poor nation at that time, with most of the population living in the countryside. The average level of school education was low, especially among workers and farmers. Their organisations realised that in order to promote the interest of their members they had to make it possible for them to study and raise their general knowledge. It was important for the individuals in order to become strong citizens. In addition, it was important for the organisations to have educated members; the more educated members the stronger organisations.
That was also the period when the foundation for Swedish political democracy was laid, when political rights for all citizens became more secure and when the right to vote gradually was widened. More political rights for everybody also meant more political responsibilities – and that increased the need for better and deeper education and understanding of the society. Moreover, in order to express and develop their political ideas people needed to cooperate in their own organisations. Non-governmental organisations and folkbildning became two sides of the same struggle for a better society.

Modern study circles
Since many years, the study circle is a well established tradition in Sweden. Maybe the most important reason for the popularity of study circles in Sweden is the economic support from the state and from most local communities. The support started already 1912, when the government decided to help financing books used in study circles. Later, after the Second World War, the state support became much more substantial – and the study circle became even more popular.
Nowadays, each year almost a million people take part in study circles – of a total population of 9 million. There are altogether ten different study associations with the responsiblity to arrange study circles, lectures and various culture activities all over the country.
Most of the study associations are owned by groups of Non-Governmental organisations. For example, the biggest is owned by the Social Democratic Party, the Swedish Cooperative Union, several trade unions and many other organisations within the working-class movement. One of the smallest study associations is owned by muslim organisations.

The ten study associations is one part of what in Sweden is called folkbildning, which is non-formal adult education. The other part consists of 150 folk high schools, which I will deal with in my third article.
You can say that folkbildning is a collective process for people to get what in Sweden is called bildning (修养). That is to be factually well informed, to have respect for alternative opinions, and to be guided by rational thought. The concept of bildning consists of a broad general knowledge, but also of other qualities as is necessary for being a responsible member of a society. That includes above all an ability to see yourself in a wider context than the narrow everyday life: globally, historically, ecologically… It includes an ability to have a sound judgement. And – not the least – it includes a moral aspect, a willingness to act in accordance with your ethical values and intellectual understandings, a consistent behaviour.
Folkbildning had from the beginning a dual purpose. It became a tool for developing the society and to make it more equal. The other purpose was to make it possible for the individual participant to fulfil his or her own dreams, ambitions, interests etc. In the beginning, the first aim dominated the thinking; nowadays the second aim has become more important for most of the participants in study circles.

Futurological studies
The study circle 1973, about Chines, was not my first one. That was instead a study circle 1968 about futurological studies, a new concept in Sweden at that time. It started with an open meeting in Stockholm city 1968, on the initiative of a group of students at Stockholm University. They spread leaflets around the city, inviting people to come to a meeting and learn more. I was curious and went there, together with maybe a hundred other people. There were a lot of discussions and when we separated around midnight we had decided to continue our discussions in small groups, study circles, focusing on various sub topics.  
About ten different study circles started that evening. We registered our study circles at one of the study associations. Then we got some money, enough to buy the books we needed.
In my study circle we studied communication and media. One of the books we read was ”Media” by Marchall MacLuhan (1911-80), a Canadian scholar and a communication theorist. He became known for the expressions ”the medium is the message” and ”the global village”. You could even say that he predicted the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented.  
Each time we focused on a theme we choosed last time we met. Between our meetings we read chapters in our books. We also looked for related articles in science journals. We discussed what implications new technology might have in the future. However, I do not remember any prediction that became true. For example, two of the members in the group worked for the Swedish company Ericson and they did not predict the development of the mobile phone.
The other ”futurological” study circles focused on environmental problems, international politics, schools and education, the future of universities etc. A couple of times all study circles met for common discussions, like the first meeting.

Child and adolescence psychology
In the beginning of the seventies, I worked for the union of teachers in primary schools. I felt a need to learn a little more about child and adolescence psychology and registered for such a study circle. When I arrived for the first meeting I found that we were forty participants, 39 women and me. All of us worked in daycare centers, preschools or in primary schools, except me.
Well, we were quite many so we formed two study circles. Then I had the pleasure to meet 20 women every week (19 participants and the study circle leader).  
Many years later, I was the leader of a similar study circle with parents in my daughters school class. We met once a week in the school, most of the times only we parents and a few times also with the home-room teacher. We read articles in newspapers and journals and some short books. All the time we related what we read to what happened in our school.
One book we read was written by a teacher and had the title ”To take up a definite position and become real”. The message was, that parents need to take firm and consistent positions in ethical issues in order to serve as models to their children. For example, you will not become true and genuine for your child if you complain over people who are lying and cheating while you yourself are corrupt and a tax evader.

Blind people studying the world
In the beginning of the seventies I was a member of a so-called Amnesty group, which was helping political prisoners in various countries around the world. For several years we supported a political prisoner in Rhodesia (nowadays Zimbabwe) and we formed our own study circle about African History.
In the seventies I was the leader of a series of study circles about the world for blind people. That was a group of people, old and young, who were interested to learn more about our world. We chose a new area for every term. We started with Africa, continued next term with Latin America and then with India and finally with China. The participants ”read” the books by listening to tapes, recorded by the organization for blind people (the government paid for the costs).
Before each new term, and before each new part of the world, I made a simple map on a large thin board, where various kinds of structured cloth and other materials glued to the board, showed borders, mountains, lakes, rivers, bigger cities etc. Plastic labels in the Braille alphabet gave the names of countries, places etc. At every meeting we were sitting around a large table where we had the board-map so that every participant could follow my explanations with their fingers. Each time we read and discused a certain theme: nature and geography, history, economy, political issues etc.

Bee-keeping study circle
I have also led a couple of study circles about the high mountains in northern Sweden. Every summer there are people going there for hiking a week or more, carrying tents, sleeping bags, food etc. You can prepare yourself in study circles, to learn about animal and plant life, about orientation, about what to do – and not to do – in order to survive, what equipment to bring etc.  
One of the most exciting study circles I joined as a participant was one about bee-keeping. That was a completely new world for me and during that period I could go on talking about the fascinating lives of bees for ever with my friends – if they let me… Later I bought a couple of colonies of bees and from each of those I got between 50 and 80 kilo of honey every summer.

Nuclear power?
In 1980 there was a national referendum in Sweden when the citizens in a special election voted for or against nuclear power. The reason for that referendum was the accident in the American nuclear power station Three Mile Island in 1979 and that the three political parties in the Swedish government at that time disagreed about the future for the Swedish nuclear power stations. We had several nuclear power stations in Sweden and the question was if we should continue to build even more or…?
During the months before the referendum there were a lot of study circles about nuclear power technology, about its advantages and disadvantages, about the risks of storing and protecting dangerous radioactive waste for tens of thousands of years, etc…  
Of course, I also joined such a study circle. At that time I lived in a smaller city in the south of Sweden and we used to meet once every week at the home of the study circle leader, sitting around his large kitchen table.
Some years later, when I worked for a study association in Stockholm, I was the leader of another study circle about nuclear power. We were a group of colleagues, working together, and we used to meet during lunchtime, discussing for 45 minutes before a quick meal for 15 minutes. One fo the issues we studied was what could happen if there was any serious accident. We made up a scenario of a hypothetical serious accident near the third biggest city in Sweden, where the whole area – about a million people – had to be abandoned for several years.
Some months later, in 1986, there was the nuclear meltdown in the Sovjet nuclear power plant in Tjernobyl.

Hebrew with Suggestopedia
I have studied other foreign languages than Chinese in study circles. Once I started to study Russian, but for some reason, I stopped after a while. That is why I only learned the first half of the Cyrillic alphabet…
About ten years later, in the eighties, I joined a study circle in Hebrew, the language spoken in Israel. I was curious about the language but also about the method that was used by the study circle leader, an Israeli woman. That method is called Suggestopedia and was developed by a Bulgarian psychotherapist, Georgi Lozanov. The intended purpose of Suggestopedia is to enhance learning by lowering the affective filter of learners, by using relaxation and classical music.
We talked a lot during our meetings and read texts in a special rhythm with baroque music as background. One of the meetings we brought food to eat, as a dinner. However, we were not allowed to eat or drink anything unless we asked someone of us to hand us the dish or the drink – in Hebrew. If we could not ask correctly we had to stay hungry.
It was an interesting group of about eight participants. One of them wanted to be able to talk  a little Hebrew when visiting his relatives in Israel. A middle aged woman wanted to prepare herself because she intended to run in a Marathon in Jerusalem later that year. Another woman, around twenty years old, had just met a young man from Israel… (the most common reason at that time for participating in study circles to learn foreign language was love).

Convicts studying literature
My latest experience as study circle leader was a couple of years ago. I was asked if I would like to be the leader of a study circle in literature for convicts in a state prison, north of Stockholm. Well, it was difficult to resist the temptation to have a try.
I had two study circles. The participants had volunteered to join, they could choose between working or studying. Most of them declared from the very beginning that they had never read any book. That was a challenge…  
Because of their inexperience with literature, we decided to read a number of various short stories and excerpts from novels. In that way they would hopefully find some books they would like to read privately. We tried parts of modern novels, of Icelandic old sagas from the Viking age, some Swedish classical books, some poetry and I think also a short story by a Chinese writer. And of course, we also read parts of a criminal story or two.
Before each meeting I copied a few texts we could read and talk about and some for the participants to read before next meeting. I also managed to get most of them to borrow a book of their own choice in the prison library. One of them even picked Odysseus, the classical Greek epic.
Anyhow, we had a good time and I learned a lot about life behind bars. Every time I arrived it was a security procedure when entering the prison and also when leaving. Once on my way back home from the study circle I happened to meet a friend I had not seen for a while. When he asked how life was with me, I answered that I just had been let out from prison. He looked very strange at me…

And the travel to China…?
I have been leader for several other study circles about China, India and Cuba (at that time I had made a study visit to India and been working a summer in Cuba – but not yet visited China). I have also taken part in several other study circles as participant, for example in Samba (the Brazilian dance). The last one was last year when we studied political philosophy. We had a lot of interesting discussions, for example about ethical issues in the modern world, related to texts by Ronald Dworkin, Peter Singer, Jeremy Bentham, Michael Faucault, Robert Nozick and others. We discussed issues like rights and freedom, equality and democracy, the state and violence etc.
Well, what happened with the study circle in Chinese 1973, the one I mentioned in the beginning? I did not belong to the lucky ones, who managed to visit China, by travelling with the Siberian railroad. However, the 74 years old former sea captain was lucky. He came to China, even tried a little of his small amount of Chinese. I remember a photo of him sitting together with another 74 year old man, a Chinese peasant, on the square at Tian An Men in Beijing.

© Tore Persson