Article 2: One hundred years of study circles – how Sweden became a ”study circle democracy”.

One hundred years of study circles  

The former Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme, called Sweden ”a study circle democracy”. ”It is through study circles that generations of Swedes have learned how to practise critical analysis in order to come to rational decisions (…). Proposals for changes in society have often originated from study circles.”

The Swedish modern study circle was officially born in 1902 when Oscar Olsson reported and wrote about the first study circle and developed its ideas and theory. Oscar Olsson became known as ”the father of the study circle”. He was also called ”Olsson with the beard”, particularly in the parliament, to distinguish him from other members of the parliament with the same surname (Olsson is quite a common surname in Sweden). Oscar Olsson was not only an educator, but also a member of the social democratic party, a total abstainer of alcohol, a writer etc.  
Oscar Olsson had both a practical, theoretical and philosophical approach to education within the same tradition as Tao Xingzhi or Yan Yangchu. Like Tao Xingzhi or Yan Yangchu, he 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 organising studies: ”The purpose of the study circles is in general not the accumulation of factual knowledge but the spirit and the atmosphere that lead to continuous searching and questioning.”
He emphasised four areas for the study circle:
1. It has to be so cheap that no one need to refrain from studying because of economic reasons.
2. It has to be so simple in method that everyone can join, regardless of earlier schooling.
3. The participants shall meet as equals and have equal possibilities to express themselves and to have a say about the planning of the studies.  
4. The book and the library shall have a central role in the study circle.
Oscar Olsson also emphasised the joy of learning. He wrote that the only solid reason for spending time and energy on studies and education is that we ”…during the brain work get a strong impression that knowledge is pleasure”.

The study circle is part of what in Sweden is called folkbildning, which is non-formal adult education. Government-supported folkbildning is offered by folk high schools and study associations. While folk high schools mainly arrange full time courses, study associations arrange lectures, various cultural activities and – most important – study circles. While the first folk high school in Sweden was established 1868, the first modern study circle was reported 1902.
The idea of folkbildning started to develop during the 19th century. One of the pioneers was Anton Nystrom who around 1880 wanted to realize the dream of a harmonious society. During that period of radical political movements, he believed in ”…putting books in the hands of the workers instead of weapons”.
You can say that folkbildning is a collective process for people to get what in Sweden is called bildning, which can be translated into ”enlightenment”. That is to be factually well-informed, to have respect for alternative opinions, and to be guided by rational thought. The concept of ”bildning” consist 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.

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 meant also 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.
Oscar Olsson regarded the popular movements as a natural area for study circles, ”…if you want to accomplish anything with folkbildning you have to go to places where people are, where people meet according to their interests and in groups they feel allied to”.
The first popular and non-governmental organisation that understood the importance of study circles for the members were the temperance societies, which aim was to propagate for a society without liquor. Alcoholism was a huge problem at that time, especially within the working class. Any ambition to improve living conditions for the workers and their families would never succeed unless people became more sober. The first official study circle, which was Oscar Olsson’s first study circle, was organized within a local temperance society.
The workers’ unions and the new political parties to the left – the social democrats and the communists – were also among the first organisations to arrange study circles. Other organisations which early started to organize study circles were Christian congregations. For them it was important that each member could study and understand the Bible without being dependant of priests and other experts.
The study circle also became important for farmer organisations, especially among young people in the countryside. One of the ambitions was to level out some of the differences between countryside life and city life, so that more young people would like to stay in the countryside instead of moving to the growing cities.

Cheap and efficient
The study circle became a cheap and efficient method. People formed study circles together with fellow workers, with other members in their organisation or with neighbours. They chosed what to study, what books to read and a study leader among the group members. They met in the evening, after work, probably in the home of one of the group members or in some kind of assembly hall. The participants analysed and discussed the books they read in order to understand them and to learn from them.
Those who generally became study circle leaders were highly respected people. They were for obvious reasons not always highly educated, but they were respected for their general knowledge and their ability to stimulate and arouse enthusiasm among others. Some of the study circle had schoolteachers who volunteered as leaders, but most of the leaders were ordinary people.
In many ways, those low cost study circles, with amateur leaders, were more efficient for learning than high cost school education with professional teachers – mainly because the participants together were responsible for the outcome of the studies. The right for the participants to influence the studies was combined with every participant´s responsibility for the final result.

The Importance of Study Circles
Study circles became increasingly popular and 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.
In northern Sweden for example, an organisation of young farmers was founded in 1918 in order to use the study circle method to promote modern cultivation techniques among its members and to enrich the cultural life in countryside. One of the leaders of that organisation wrote in 1924: ”…the study circle is an unprecedented and powerful method for deepening our work and strengthening our resources”. That small movement later developed into one of the biggest study associations in Sweden  of today.
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…” In the year 1961, an American researcher compared the educational level among members of parliament in Sweden and members of congress in the United States. He found that two thirds (66 per cent) of the Swedish members of parliament had only primary school as their formal education. Above that level they had individual studies or study circles as a basis for their political work. Only six per cent had any law degree. In the United States, about half of the members of the congress had law degrees.
There are several historical examples of study circles with young participants, in the age of 18-25, who learned how to run a municipality or local district by actually acting as a local authority in study circles. Some of those ”local authorities” discussed and took ”decisions” in a very progressive manner – such manner that you could find in real local authorities only several decades later.
However, not all were happy with the idea that people could study whatever they wanted. Some of the priests in the established and quite conservative national Christian church worried that the study circles could threaten their unofficial monopoly of deciding how people should think and what they should believe in.

State Support for Study Circle Libraries
The book played from the very first beginning a central role in the study circle. For a lot of study circles, especially in the countryside, it was not possible to get experts in different subjects as study circle leaders. The solution for the study circles was instead to use books written by those experts and together to analyse them, to discuss them and to find out what could be learnt from them and how to implement that new knowledge – at work, in the community development and for their own personal interest. With good books, the study circles became independent of professional teachers.
However, it had to be ”good” books about philosophy, science and so on and not pedagogically designed and doctored schoolbooks. Oscar Olsson also emphasized the importance of reading novels and other fiction. Reading novels was not only a way to relax from everyday life – it was a way to understand everyday life. Philosophers, artists and writers could explain the complexity of existence because they themselves had lived through it. During the first half of the last century, it was very common with study circles reading and discussing novels.
The library was also of  fundamental importance, as a resource for all study circles but also as centre where study circles could meet. With the library, it was possible to study without costs and if the study circle had to buy books, they could be circulated among the members.
In 1912, the government decided to support the study circles, by helping financing the books used. The state support functioned in the following way:
1. The government supported study circles that belonged to a national organisation.
2. When a study circle started they could apply to their head organisation for money to buy books for the participants (the government paid half the cost).
3. When the study circle finished they returned the books to the local branch of the organisation and there they were stored in a study circle library. When another study circle wanted to study the same topic, they could borrow the books from that library. Other people in the village or town could also borrow books from those libraries.
In that way, those local study circle libraries became larger for every year and for every study circle that deposited their books there. It was a low cost state support which became very important not only for the study circles but also for the development of local libraries and for the general community learning.
Those study circle libraries became more and more common during the first part of the 20th century. In many places around the country the study circle libraries were for a long period the only libraries that were easily accessible for ordinary citizens. In 1930 there were 3464 study circle libraries all over the country, with more than a million books. In 1939 there were a total of 5514 study circle libraries. After that year the number started to decrease as the study circle libraries became parts of the public municipality libraries that were established all over the country.
Therefore, in case you happen to visit a modern public library in Sweden, most probably it started many years ago as a study circle library.

Study Associations  
Several national organisations began to arrange study circles for their members in the beginning of the 20th century. In response to the government support, special study associations were founded, and the first one was ”Workers’ Educational Association” (ABF) in 1912. The foundation for ABF was equality, solidarity and democracy. The aim was to promote general knowledge and cultural exaltation for the working class. In the 1930s, the leaders started to talk about ”cultural democracy”, which became one of the main tasks for ABF. ”Cultural democracy” was equal rights for everyone to enjoy culture of all kinds. It was also equal rights to be part of the creation of cultural values.
There were also other early study associations – for farmers, for members in various Christian churches and of course for the temperance movements. Later other study associations were established, for example, one owned by the Swedish universities which stated in 1933. Also today new study associations are born, for example a Muslim study association in 2008, while some of the old ones have disappeared.
Until the Second World War most people who worked within the study associations were volunteers without salaries or only with a small payment. Later on, they became formally employed with salaries etc. Most of them were study organizers who helped the local study circles to get started, to get good books, to get an educated teacher when that was regarded as important etc.  
Those study organizers could have quite large areas to cover, especially in the countryside. Sweden was and is a sparsely populated country. In the beginning, many of them used bikes and motorbikes to go to different villages and farms; in the fifties and sixties, they got cars.
The study associations also became more organized, which gave more stability to the work and made it possible to expand the activities. However, with bigger and more complex organizations the costs for administration became higher and higher.

The Second World War
Sweden did not take part in the Second Word War, but a large part of the male population was serving in the army during those years. Because of the economic strains during the war, the state cut down the support to study circles. On the other hand, the government supported study circles among the soldiers who spent several years along the Swedish borders.
However, the war had another fundamental influence on the Swedish conception of folkbildning and study circles. The reason was the rise of fascist regimes in above all Germany and Italy – those regimes that started the war – and the support those regimes got from their own populations.  
How to prevent that such things in the future could happen also in Sweden? How to protect the Swedish people from being deceived by fascist and totalitarian ideologies? Folkbildning became the answer. The study circle became the tool for promoting enlightenment and resistance against political and religious fanatical ideas. With its culture of dialogue, the study circle was looked upon as an effective protection.
After the war the government, lead by the social democratic party, decided to invest much more money in support of study circles and they created a new model for state support. From 1947 every study circle, that fulfilled the basic conditions, got a direct financial grant from the state.
Did it work? Well, no one can of course tell what could have happened if there had been no study circles in Sweden… Anyhow, the increased support from the government to the study circles resulted in a strong expansion and in more study associations as more organisations became interested in arranging study circles for their members with the help of state subsidies.  
However, when it became possible to arrange study circles in a much larger scale, the old non-governmental organizations also became bigger and started to act more like institutions and less like popular movements. They could for example afford to produce pedagogically designed and doctored textbooks, provided with study instructions, for their members. That was not what Oscar Olsson had had in mind…  

Developing democracy
Ideally, the study circle is a simple and powerful process for democratic discussions and for developing  the participants’ needs and interests. It is small-group democracy in action. The process – democratic discussions among equals – is as important as the content. The study circle also provides means for citizens to work together, collectively, to develop concrete action ideas to address community issues.
The belief that study circles and other forms of folkbildning contribute to the democratic development of society continues to be a fundamental reason for the grants from the government. In a 1998 proposition from the government to the Swedish parliament it was written, among other things:
The role of folkbildning today is also a matter of defending, vitalizing, and developing democracy. The instability of democracy is obvious, when seen in an international perspective. There is the risk of weak popular support and alienation between the elected and the electors; there is a feeling of impotence in the face of social development that we don't seem able to influence. Through our membership in the EU, the Swedish decision-making process has extended beyond the national boarders. A series of new rights and obligations has also taken effect for the individual. This situation demands new knowledge.
The survival and vitality of democracy must build on a culture of democracy with dialogue, discussions, and participation as important elements. It must also comprise knowledge about values, conditions, and institutions necessary to democracy.
Giving folkbildning the opportunity to grow is – in its essence – just this: strengthening democratic culture, and filling gaps of knowledge and information in society. Folkbildning has a key role in this process. It can help create meeting-places for change and bridge the gaps between groups of people and between humans and technology.

Continuous development
During more than a hundred years of existence, the study circle has changed quite a lot, even though the basic ideas of Oscar Olsson are still valid. One obvious reason is the much higher level of general education in modern Sweden compared to the situation a hundred years ago when Oscar Olsson hade his first study circle.
The distribution of subjects has changed over time. An example of that is the development of language study circles, where you can distinguish at least three main periods:
1. Before the Second World War, during the ’20s and ’30s, there were quite a lot of study circles about the Swedish language. The participants were people with only primary school who wanted to become more skilled both in reading and writing. They needed reading skills to be able to enjoy books and to learn more. Moreover, they needed writing skills to be able to exert their civil rights.
2. During the ’60s and ’70s people became increasingly interested in the world outside Sweden, there were much more international news in media and people started to travel abroad. Many people wanted to learn English and to a great extent they did that in study circles, especially adults with only primary school background.
3. The demand for study circles in English decreased during the ’80s and ’90s – mainly because the younger population learned good English in school and most elder people already had learned enough English in study circles. Instead, more people became interested in other languages due to broader contacts with people all over the world. Nowadays you can for example choose between several study circles in Chinese every year in the bigger cities.
There are also other changes. During the last decades the average study circle has become shorter in time – this process reflecting the stress of modern city life. More and more people study music and other subjects of art – thus reflecting the influence of media and entertainment in modern society. There are also today more different kinds of subjects – reflecting the diversity of modern society and peoples´ personal interests.
During the last decade, since the beginning of the ’90s, there has been a decrease in public subsidies to liberal adult education with about 20 percent. This has not resulted in fewer study circles, but in a reduction of the number of local branches and employees within the study associations. It has also resulted in an increase of the fees participants have to pay for many of the study circles.

Challenges for the future?
During 2004, a number of official reports was published by a special governmental evaluation committee about folkbildning and about the study circle. The committee reported among other things,
• that the study circle plays an important role in the development of modern society,
• that the study associations are essential for the local cultural life,
• that it is important for the society to have independent study associations also in the future,
• that it is necessary for the government to support the study associations without giving them any detailed regulations,
• that it is of great value for the whole society that the study associations are rooted in non-governmental organisations, and
• that the liberal adult education in general complies with the purpose of and the conditions for the government subsidies.

However, the committee had also had some critical remarks, which are challenges that have to be dealt with. For example:
• The subsidies from the government, and from the municipalities, have gradually decreased since the beginning of the ’90s. At the same time, there has been an increase of the number of study circles and other activities. This situation has among other things led to an increase of the fees many participants have to pay for joining study circles.
• The decrease in public subsidies has also forced the study associations to close a number of local offices in smaller towns. More people than ten years ago therefore have to travel a longer distance to the nearest office of a study association.
• The study associations have not managed to contribute to any greater extent to the integration of new immigrants in Sweden. They have managed to recruit some of them but too many have no experience or knowledge of the study circle. Most of the new immigrants have also no contact with those organisations that are the owners of study associations.
• In many study circles, there is a disparity between what is proclaimed as a democratic aim and how the teaching is actually carried out.
You could also add that the study associations today have become more like ”institutions” compared to the situation a couple of decades ago. In addition, while ”institutional” organisations may show a higher degree of stability, in the same time they become less flexible and dynamic.
Maybe the greatest challenge for the study associations is – in a situation where the public subsidies might continue to decrease – to focus on the most urgent issues and the groups in most need and make the study circles once again so cheap ”that no one need to refrain from studying because of economic reasons”, as was the vision of Oscar Olsson?

A beautiful dream…
The study circle has played a significant role in the development of Sweden from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the most developed and advanced in the world. It is probably also one of the main reasons why Sweden is one of the socially most stable countries and why Sweden is regarded as one of the top nations when it comes to ”quality of life”.
The idea of folkbildning was not invented in Sweden. However, as the French professor Jean-François Battail has emphasized, Sweden and the other Nordic countries in Europe made the crucial step to transform folkbildning ”…from a beautiful dream to an everyday praxis”.
The exceptional with Sweden is not that there is folkbildning; you can find study circles all over the world. However, nowhere else you will find as many study circles as in Sweden (and to some extent also in the other Nordic countries) and nowhere else you will find a governmental support of the size and long duration as in Sweden.

© Tore Persson