Article 5: The importance of study circles and of public financing.

The importance of study circles

Every year the Swedish Government supports ”folkbildning” (民众共修) with more than 30 亿 in Chinese yuan. It seems that the political parties and leaders in Sweden believe that ”folkbildning” plays an important role in society.

In 1996, P. Hartman, a Swedish researcher, gave a picture of a study circle which was organised by a local folklore society in a rural community. One evening he met the study circle in the local library:  
In the circle this evening there are 8 participants, the leader included. They have all lived in Bjorkvik for a long time and range from middle-aged to old. The members have been the same in the last few years. There is an open and informal structure where participants own initiatives and propositions play an important role. They have been writing a diary since 1988 and this time they start by reading aloud the text from the previous meeting. We understand that they have focused on the diary in recent years. One of the female participants starts by showing a new newspaper article about a project for the unemployed. This project is related to a railway line that was built to transport timber from Björkvik to the coast at the beginning of this century. The aim was to save timber from the attacks of larvae. Today, there is only part of the old railway embankment left. In the informal conversation, which was typical of the way the circle operated, they discussed the possibility of using the remaining part of the embankment for tourists. A sketch for a trail for bikes starting or ending in Björkvik was made as a way of leading the flow of tourists to Björkvik.
Another spontaneous input was a finding from one of the participants’s farm. It was a page from the local telephone directory from the 1930s. A number of images from the interwar period were presented. One of the participants said that he had a directory from the time of the last war at home. He promised to fetch it in the break since he had to drive his son from his sport activities. Eventually the circle returned to the theme of the local dairies. With the help of dictionaries from the library they found out about the origin of the concept dairy and its way into the Swedish language. There was a break for coffee brought by the participants. Finally, the local play about the interrogations by the church in the old days was discussed. This play was going to be a part of the arrangements this summer on the annual ”returners’ day”, when old inhabitants meet in their old community. The participants’ knowledge of each other was a prominent part of the work in the circle. This means that participants were aware of each other’s special interests and special knowledge. Questions were often answered by the ”specialist” simply by virtue of the fact that the others turned towards him or her. The leader of the circle kept a low profile and did not speak a lot. The informal traits of work in the circle were obvious. At 9.30 it is time to break up.” (1)
This is only one example of a study circle meeting; there are uncountable other examples. This is a more traditional study circle, which continue as long as the participants are interested and where one in the group is the leader.

The state support
Every year the Swedish Government supports ”folkbildning” (民众共修) with more than 3 000 million (30 亿) Swedish Crowns (roughly the same in Chinese Yuan). Approximately half of that sum goes to 150 folk high schools and half to ten study associations which have local departments all over the country (folk high schools mainly arrange full time courses, while study associations arrange study circles and various cultural activities).
The basic conditions for the state support are declared in the Decree on Government Subsidies to Folkbildning, where it is stated that the aim of the governmental subsidy is:
1. to support activities that contribute to strengthening and developing democracy,
2. to contribute ta making it possible for people to influence their life situation and create participative involvement in societal development,
3. to contribute to levelling educational gaps and raising the level of education and cultural avareness in society, and
4. to contribute to broadening the interest for and increase the participation in cultural life.
In the Decree on Government Subsidies to Folkbildning, the government also emphasize some other areas of importance: the equal value of all people and equality between the sexes, the challenges of a multicultural society, the demografic challenge, life-long learning, access and opportunities for the disabled, public health, sustainable development and global justice… (2)
The ”folkbildning” is also expected to be important for all those non-Governmental organizations (NGOs) that ”own” most folk high schools and study associations. And, of course, folk high courses and study circles seems to be important for the individual participants.

The importance for society
Among the different motives for the governmental subsidies, the belief that study circles and other forms of folkbildning contribute to the democratic development of society continues to be the most fundamental reason for the grants from the government. Therefore ”folkbildning” shall make ”it possible for people to influence their life situation and create participative involvement in societal development”. That is an overall goal, regardless of what subjects people study etc.
With all their local offices, the ten study associations also constitute an infrastructure of ”folkbildning”, which is a resource when there are special needs of studying campaigns. For instance, 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.  
During the months before the referendum the study associations arranged 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…
Another potential but not official motive for the governmental subsidies to ”folkbildning” is the challenges of such controversial issues as global warming. In order to act against devastating global warming, governments all over the world need to take drastic decisions to for example shut down old-fashioned coal power stations. Such decisions are difficult to make unless you have well-informed and well-educated citizens who understand the necessity of such actions.
Likewise, local departments of study associations are often invited by local communities to play an active role in creating meaningful activities for young people, establish meeting places for people with different national and ethnic background, preserving and developing cultural traditions, etc.

The importance for organizations
Most folk high schools and study associations in Sweden are owned by or affiliated with non-Governmental and non-profit organizations. During the last hundred years or so, such organizations have played an essential role in the development of the Swedish society.
Study associations are not companies or public institutions but associations, which means that they are affiliated with their so called member organizations. Nine out of the ten study associations have each a number of non-Governmental organizations as member organizations (the exception is the Folk University, which is owned by the main Swedish universities).
For example, the largest study association is the Workers’ Educational Association, established in 1912. It has sixty member organizations and has cooperation agreements with almost as many other organizations. Among the largest member organizations are the Swedish Social Democratic Party, the Consumer Cooperative Association and the workers unions. Other member organizations are the Swedish Association of Hard of Hearing People, the Assyrian Federation in Sweden and the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society (which was established 1883 and is the oldest still existing peace organization in the world).
Another study association is the Study Promotion Association, which originally was founded 1918 and  at that time was a youth organization of farmers. Today this study association has nineteen member organizations. Two of them are the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and the Swedish Hunters’ Association.  
A new study association, the Ibn Rushd, was founded in 2008. It has nine member organizations, all of them Muslim organizations (the association is named after a great scientist and philosopher, Ibn Rushd, who was born in 1126 in Cordoba, Spain).
All these non-Governmental organizations have several reasons for being engaged in ”folkbildning”. It can for example be to provide service for their members, to make the own organizations stronger or to make the internal work within the organizations more efficient and democratic.
Each organization need to give some service to their individual members, othervise they risk loosing members and becoming smaller and smaller. For example, in Sweden there are organizations for dog owners. For those dog owners, more than 300 000 members, the Study Promotion Association offer a large number of study circles about various ways of training dogs, keep them healthy etc.
Many study circles aim at making the organization stronger. For example, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation tries to spread knowledge, to map environmental threats, to create solutions, and to influence politicians and public authorities – at local, national and international levels. In order to be respected and successful the society needs well-educated members.
Another reason for non-Governmental organizations to engage in ”folkbildning” is to become more efficient in their internal work. Non-Governmental organizations in Sweden often have large numbers of individual members. For example, The Swedish outdoor association has about 100 000 members. All non-Governmental organizations are constructed in a democratic way, where each individual member can be active and have an influence on the organization, its policy etc. They can for example take part in the election of board members. In order to guarantee each member’s rights there are certain rules to follow and the study associations accordingly offer study circles about how to carry through board meetings in a correct way etc.

The importance for individuals
Study circles constitute a possibility for anyone to engage in studies according to their own choice and interest – and regardless of background. They can do it for a moderate fee or sometimes for no fee at all. Most people join schools and universities aiming at a degree or for a better job. However, the reason for joining a study circle is mainly personal or intrinsic interest, curiosity and the need to be able to understand what is happening in the world. Sometimes a study circle becomes the beginning of more purposeful and demanding studies.
For example, people might join study circles in Chinese because they are curious about the spoken language and the characters. Occasionally, some of the study circle participants find the Chinese language so interesting and challenging that they register for a full time course at a folk high school or at a university.
There are also other motives for joining study circles, such as the hope of getting new friends, maybe a life-long partner. If you happen to meet him or her in a study circle, then you know that you at least have one interest in common…
In 1996, a number of study circle participants were interviewed about how they understood the meaning of participating in study circles (3). What they expressed was:
1. To develop an interest: The reason for choosing to join a study circle is in most cases a genuine interest – genuine, not strategic, in relation to a system.  
2. To learn: Many participants want to be able to understand what is happening in the world, while others want to develop their hobbies.
3. For fellowship: This social function is very important and is mentioned by all the participants.
4. To develop as a person: Some participants boost their self-esteem in the study circles. This is also a sign of the experience of support, rather than suppression or competition.  
5. The value of the study circle as a democratic forum: Some participants stress the opportunity to learn to express one’s opinions and to take part in a debate.  
6. The form of study: Some participants underline the importance of the freedom to choose and the lack of examinations.
Whatever the more direct reasons for participating in study circles, there are also some extra experiences to gain. Sometimes those experiences turn out to become the most important results of the studies:
• Firstly, the experience of meeting people that you otherwise probably would never meet. That could be people with other social background, people born in other countries, people with much higher – or much lower – income, etc. Social status tends to become unimportant in study circles…
• Secondly, the experience of studying in a small democratic forum where the participants are equal and are expected to share the responsibility for the outcome of their studies. When asked, some participants emphasize the opportunity to learn to express their opinions and to take part in debates.  
• Thirdly, the experience of developing as a person. Many participants gain higher self-esteem by joining study circles. You could say that they obtain more ”bildning” (修养).

”Bildning” (修养) and intuition
”Bildning” is an old concept. For example, Kong zi (Confucius) must have been one of the oldest known advocates of ”bildning”. In Europe about two hundred years ago, during the Age of Enlightenment, the idea of ”bildning” was discussed among several scholars and philosophers. For example, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) wrote:
Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] "Have courage to use your own understanding!" – that is the motto of enlightenment.”… (4)
One aspect of ”bildning” is that it differs from simple factual knowledge and that it can’t easily be measured. Ellen Key (1849–1926), a Swedish author and educationalist, worked as a teacher and lecturer within the working-class movement. She defined ”bildning” as that which remains when you have forgotten what you learned. That sounds almost as Daoism.
A modern Swedish historian of ideas, Sven-Eric Liedman, has given a simple but clear kind of definition, saying that ”bildning” is the process whereby the knowledge give consistency to a life.
A maybe more demanding definition of ”bildning” has been formulated by the Swedish philosopher, Ragnar Ohlsson:
Bildning” is the shaping of yourself into a social human being. ”Bildning” lead to a kind of general life preparedness. You are ”bildad” if you have a wider perspective on your life, if you can see it in a wider context than the narrow everyday life, if you can see the relations between yourself and the rest of the world, the biosphere, other human beings – now living, dead since long time and future generations. But ”bildning” is not only intellectual skills and understandings; ability to take action and ethical qualities are essential elements in that shaping of your personality ”bildning” is supposed to provide. (5)
Within the tradition of ”folkbildning”, people understand ”bildning” as a process of deeper education or enlightenment or cultivating or shaping that you take part in, together with other people. It is a process where you gradually develop as a human being. The basic idea is that everyone has the potential to become ”bildad” or wise – rather similar to Confucian ideas.
”Bildning” is also factual knowledge, let us not forget that. You can hardly have a deep understanding of nature and culture without solid knowledge. Therefore, you need to feed your intuition, which is what Ellen Key referred to (and what I understand also the Daoists). Intuition is often called tacit or silent knowledge and is a kind of fusion of feeling and unconscious memory and thinking.  
Our brains are fantastic organs with capabilities we have only begun to fully understand. However, our brains also have some limitations. We cannot consciously process more than a limited number of facts at a given moment. In order to grasp a complex situation we depend on our stock of unconscious knowledge. The brain uses that resource to create unconscious understanding – intuition.  
For the intuition to function well, we need to feed our brains with knowledge about our world and ourselves. The better quality of that knowledge, the better quality of our intuition and the better judgements we would have.
Well, few study circle participants – if any – would quote Kant, Liedman or Ohlsson if asked why they decided to start studying. On the other hand, the influence of a studying process works only partially at a conscious level.

Liberal education
”Folkbildning” is also very much in the spirit of what at universities is called ”liberal education”. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (aacu) defines liberal education as:
”…a philosophy of education that empowers individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills, and a strong sense of value, ethics, and civic engagement. Characterized by challenging encounters with important issues, and more a way of studying than a specific course or field of study…” (…)
By its nature, liberal education is global and pluralistic. It embraces the diversity of ideas and experiences that characterize the social, natural, and intellectual world. To acknowledge such diversity in all its forms is both an intellectual commitment and a social responsibility, for nothing less will equip us to understand our world and to pursue fruitful lives.” (6)
Maybe the most important in liberal education is deep understandings in history and discussions about fundamental and decisive questions in society, contemporary and enduring:
Study in the arts and sciences should provide students with opportunities to explore the enduring issues, questions, and problems they confront as human beings – questions of meaning, purpose, and moral integrity. These studies should also teach students to look beyond themselves, by considering their obligations to others, and to look beyond the classroom, by applying their analytical skills and learning to significant issues and problems in the world around them.” (7)
When they are at their best, universities provide liberal education. When study circles are at their best, they function in the spirit of such universities.

The role of money
As mentioned, the Swedish Government every year supports the ten study associations with more than 1 500 million (15 亿) Swedish crowns (roughly the same in Chinese yuan). In addition, the local departments of those study associations also get some financial support from local municipalities.
Overall, about one third of the total income for study associations is from state subsidies. A little less than one third are subsidies from municipalities and other subsidies, while almost one third are fees paid by participants in study circles and other activities. Only about ten per cent of the total income is from other income (8).
Obviously, the study associations are heavily dependent on public subsidies. However, they are also  heavily dependent on how the subsidies are distributed.
In the seventies and eighties, the study associations got a fixed state grant for every study circle. The benefit for the study associations with that model was that they got support for each study circle, regardless of how many they arranged. The disadvantage for the Swedish Government and Parliament was that they beforehand never knew how much money they would have to give to the study associations.
Well, the Government and the Parliament wanted to have a stronger control over the budget and in the 1990s they introduced a new model, which is still in use. Every year all study associations get a fixed subsidy from the state. That subsidy is divided among the ten associations according to how many study circles they reported during the previous years. If one study association manages to increase the number of study circles more than the others, then that association will gain a larger share of the subsidy next year – at the expense of the other associations, which consequently will get smaller shares of the total subsidy.
This model has resulted in a situation where the study associations are forced to compete with each other. In order to have a chance to get more subsidies next year they have to arrange more study circles than last year, preferably more than the other associations. Quantity risks becoming more important than quality.  
Quality costs. If one of the study associations want to improve the quality of its study circles, then there probably will not be enough money also to expand and have more study circles than last year. That would probably result in a lower share of the total state subsidy next year.
The distribution of government grants to study associations and folk high schools is today the responsibility of the National Council of Adult Education (2). The council is not a state authority but is run by the study associations and folk high schools themselves. That means that the government set up the basic conditions for the state subsidies, but the study associations and folk high schools together decide how to distribute the money among them.
The council also set up some more detailed guidelines and is responsible for evaluations, for annual reports to the government, some special campaigns etc.
Thus, the study associations cooperate to set up rules for how to distribute the state subsidies etc. Then they compete in order to get as much as possible from those subsidies. Both the state evaluations and the National Council of Adult Education ”…have questioned the focus on quantity (i.e. number of study hours) when distributing subsidies. It has been claimed that the study associations, in their ambition to maximize subsidies to their organizations, have prioritized volume rather than quality when organizing study circles.” (8) However, so far no study association has managed to present any alternative model for distributing the state subsidies. So they continue to compete…
Furthermore, they continue to search for other fundings. Today, many local departments of the study associations are also dependent on various commissions or projects, financed by the state, local communities or other financiers.

The Swedish study circle has existed for more than a hundred years and since 1912 it has been financially supported by the Swedish Government. It seems that the Government and the Parliament will continue to support the study associations. However, there are some challenges that the study associations are facing:
• There is the competition between the study associations and the question about quality and quantity. There is also a potential risk that the study associations become more focused on how to finance the study circles and other activities than on the basic reasons for why the state supports ”folkbildning”.  
• There is a risk that the study associations take the democratic reforms in Sweden for granted and therefore do not emphasize their responsibility for preserving and developing the democratic institutions. Recently, there was a survey that indicated that Swedish youth today might value democratic institutions less than adults. Whatever the significance of that survey, it shows that first of all ordinary schools, but also the ”folkbildning”, cannot afford to take democratic progress for granted.
• Another warning signal is the Gini coefficient, which is a measure of the inequality in a country. Sweden has one of the lowest Gini coefficients in the world, which means that it is more equal than almost all other countries. The Gini coefficient for Sweden is 0,25, while it is 0,41 for United States and 0,42 for China (9). However, the gaps between the richest and the poorest are widening also in Sweden – like all over the world.
• Widening gaps and weakening of democratic ”bildning” are maybe the most serious threats to society of today – and at the same time the most formidable challenge for the ”folkbildning” organizations…

To reflect upon…
To summarize, here are some questions for study centres and study circle leaders to reflect upon:
• What is quality in study circles? How could good quality be sustained and promoted?
• Should governments support study circles and other forms of ”folkbildning”? Why should they or why should they not? Could an extensive study circle system function without public financing?
• If governments should support ”folkbildning”, how should it be organized? Which conditions for study associations are reasonable for the government to dictate – and which are not reasonable?
• How to motivate public subsidies to non-formal studies where you can’t see any immediate results in the form of examinations?
• How could governments deal with global issues, such as climate change, without the understanding and the support from their citizens?
• What role could and should ”folkbildning” have in building a modern society characterized by values of humanity and equality?

1. Hartman, P: Studier i förening – några medlemmars tankar om demokrati och cirkelstudier i folkrörelser (Studies in Union – Some Member’s Thoughts about Democracy and Study-Circles Studies in Popular Movements). Linköping University (1996).  
2. The National Council of Adult Education, retrieved on 2011-06-27, from: 
3. Andersson, Laginder, Larsson and Sundgren: Cirkelsamhället (Study Circle Society) (1996).
4. Immanuel Kant (1784): What is Enlightenment? English translation, retrieved on 2011-06-27, from: (Note: ”Sapere Aude” is Latin).
5. Ragnar Ohlsson: Bildning och humaniora, 1982.
6. ”What is Liberal Education”, retrieved on 2011-06-27, from: 
7. ”College Learning for the New Global Century”, retrieved on 2011-06-27, from: 
8. Larsson & Nordvall: Study Circles in Sweden (2010), retrieved on 2011-06-27, from:
9. UNDP Human Development Report 2009, retrieved on 2011-06-27, from:

© Tore Persson