Article 9: Study Circle Society – a vision for a more sustainable and harmonius society.

Study Circle Society

Could a one hundred year old study form such as the Swedish study circle become the basis for a modern learning society, where knowledge and enlightenment can develop and where fundamental issues in society can be discussed? Could such a study form play a key role in the development towards a deeper kind of democracy and towards a sustainable and harmonious society?

Education is a keyword all over the world. Education is a panacea for all kinds of misfunctionings in society: too slow development, unemployment, etc… But what kind of education do we need and for what purpose?
Our education systems are quite often fairly good in teaching various kinds of basic skills such as reading and writing and ”professional knowledge”, that is useful knowledge aiming at preparing for our professional life. However, how good is our educational systems when it comes to develop a deeper understanding about our world and about ourselves? How well do our educational systems prepare us for dealing with the fundamental problems and challenges in the world today?
We are quite good in explaning the world, but what about understanding it? What about dealing with the huge income gaps in the world, the tremendous health problems in the most poor countries, climate change etc? Managing such problems require also other skills than what traditional ”professional” knowledge can give you, because those problems are only partly technical. They require not only deep knowledge in science and technology but also knowledge about politics, human values, ethics etc…
We have educational systems which are good at bringing into the market what Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing has called ”well-educated barbarians”. That is people who have gone to schools for twenty years or so and who have passed all tests with good or excellent results, but are only interested in their own fields, do not read other books, no nothing about history and have no experience of wrestling with fundamental philosophical problems and ethical dilemmas.
”Well-educated barbarians” – is that what we need today in our world?

Liberal education
What we do need are people with ”bildning” (修养). We need people who not only know how to solve particular problems but also know for example why certain problems and challenges have to get priority. We need people who are factually well-informed, tolerant of alternative opinions and guided by rational thought. We need people who have a broad general knowledge, but also such knowledges that are necessary for being a responsible member of a society. We need people who have the ability to see themselves in a wider context than the narrow everyday life: globally, historically, ecologically… We need people who have an ability to have a sound judgement and ethical values.
We need people with 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.” (1)
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.” (2)
The idea behind Swedish ”folkbildning” (民众共修) is very much in the spirit of ”liberal education”. When they are at their best, universities provide liberal education. And when study circles are at their best they function in the spirit of such universities.

”Bildning” is hopefully an ongoing process – more or less conciously – through all your life, but such a development can hardly take place in solitude. It is to a great extent something that happens in interaction with others. It can happen in any kind of situation, but in Sweden the study circle system provide a lot of such situations where ”bildning” is supposed to take place. The study circle is part of a tradition that we call ”folkbildning”, which can be understood as an organised and intended process of ”bildning” or enlightenment in interaction with other people (3).
The study circles should provide a comprehensive approach, stimulate curiosity, critical thinking and transformative learning – as well as being a part of lifelong learning. The study circle should create conditions necessary for people to freely pursue knowledge and to alter their own lives. New possibilities should open up for the participants, they should become more broad-minded and far-sighted and their ability to put themselves in other person’s situations should improve.
And – not the least – ”bildning” includes a moral aspect, a willingness to act in accordance with your ethical values and intellectual understandings, a consistent behaviour.
In our modern world there are some areas where consistent behaviour is more needed than ever before. For example, it is obviously not enough only to know about and be concerned about global warming – knowledge alone will not make any difference. Only when well-informed and conscious citizens are willing to support their political leaders in taking the necessary steps towards a sustainable developement and are willing to change their own behaviour there will be reason for hope…  

Group intelligence?
What is especially emphasized within the Swedish ”folkbildning” and study circle tradition are some fundamental values and standpoints which not always may be self-evident at universities.
One fundamental value behind the idea of study circles is that every individual has the ability to be wise, that is the ability to use her knowledge and understanding while thinking and acting. Unfortunately, that is not always something that characterizes the school systems, where many of the students instead ”learn” to look upon themselves as more or less stupid. That is a devastating side effect of immature school systems, which create huge problems not only for a lot of citizens but also for the nation. Many adults therefore have to free themselves of such prejudices before they can start learning again; often study circles function well as a correction against such self-images. And often a study circle becomes the first crucial step towards further formal education for people with negative experiences from school.
Another fundamental value is the standpoint that all citizens are free and independent individuals, with the right – and the obligation – to participate in all aspects of a society.  A modern society can hardly become sustainable without citizens who care for the commons. Active participating in developing society is also needed for the citizens to feel part of society and for the society to be able to benefit from its citizens active involvement and their contribution.
What participating people can contribute with is, among other things, ”group intelligence” of many people who independent of each other tries to solve problems, reach wise decisions etc. As James Surowiecki has shown in his bok ”The Wisdom of Crowds”, during certain conditions large groups are smarter than an elite few – no matter how brilliant those few might be (4).

The importance of study circles
Since its beginning a hundred years ago the Swedish study circle has played an important role as a forum for democratic training. During the first decades, roughly until the second world war, the study circle played a particularly important role in the development of the democracy.
At the time of the first reported study circle by Oscar Ohlsson, in 1902, only eight per cent of the Swedish population had the right to vote for representatives in the Parliament. Thanks to the non-violent influence of public opinion, all men over the age of 24 got the right to vote in 1909. Finally, all women also got the right to vote in 1921.
At that time most people in Sweden got a poor formal education, which could have resulted in a very unequal and corrupt society, where only the rich and educated would have had any influence. But quite a lot of people formed study circles, where for example many future political leaders got their basic knowledge and training in building a society for the people.
In those days it was common for many study circle groups to continue study together for several years, each term or year choosing one or two new subjects to study. Often those study circles every year chosed to study both an ordinary school subject, such as Swedish literature, and another subject more directely focusing on local politics, such as economy.
As a result of all these study circles a lot of people with limited formal education got enough knowledge and training not only to understand the complexity of administrating a local government but also to take active part in that administration. And thanks to the meetings and discussions they also became more prepared to concider the needs of all people and not only their own groups.
Later, during the last decades, when formal education has become more well-developed in Sweden, the study circle partly has changed and become more a tool for developing individual interests. But also as such it often plays an important role for democratic training as a side effect to the main purpose of each study circle – which could be anything from learning to play music to getting a basic skill in using a computer.  
However, also today the study circle method is used more directly as a democratic tool, for example to invite members of political parties to discus political issues before their representatives in the parliament take the formal decision.

Study circle society
The Swedish experiences are valuable, but this tool – the study circle – could have been used much more advanced in the political process. Not as a substitute for the decision-making institutions, but as a permanent forum and a kind of consultative resource for governments and parliaments when more basic political issues has to be dealt with. Even when final political decisions go against the personal interest of many people, the process itself, that is the studies and discussions, will leave the study circle participants with a much greater understanding of the complexity behind those decisions that have to be taken.
All parts would benefit from such a system. Ordinary people, those who join study circles, will not only feel as citizens but as important citizens, knowing that they contribute to the development of the nation. Political leaders, on the other hand, will get much more and better input of experiences, opinions and ideas; they do not have to be dependent only on professional advisers who always tend to tell what they believe their employers want to hear.
To make such a system feasible, you above all need a lot of forums where people are used to meet and where they feel confident to talk about whatever is on their minds. Forums such as study circles. The study circle model should be especially suitable also because it emphasize the mutual responsibility for the society more than the individual self-fulfilment.
In that way the study circle could become the basis for a learning society, where knowledge and enlightenment can develop and where fundamental issues in society can be discussed and treated. Such a system could play a key role in the development towards a deeper kind of democracy and towards a sustainable and harmonious society.
Maybe the study circle also might be an important part in a struggle to create harmony not only between different people and groups but also between man and nature?

The Swedish study circle tradition can function as an inspiration for other countries, but it can’t be copied. Study circles in Sweden are Swedish study circles; study circles in for example China have to be Chinese study circles. In the same way, democracy in Sweden is a Swedish democracy; democracy in China has to be a Chinese democracy.
Each nation has for example to consider if the democracy shall be shallow or deep. A shallow democracy – or ”electoral democtacy” – mainly is based upon one institution: open, free, equal, fair and regular elections. Many countries around the world are shallow democracies where various elites are in practice ruling between the elections.
A deep democracy is characterized by institutions which make it possible for ordinary people to have an influence also between elections. Such institutions are for example a free press, independent non-governmental organizations, efficient laws against corruption etc. It could also be what in the US is called ”deliberative polls”, when people gather in neighbourhoods to discuss major issues before political elections (5).
Maybe even Confucius could give some inspiration to modern democracies. For example, the philosopher Xu Fuguan held that a ”democratic political system can be firmly established and fully utilized only when it takes a step forward to accept Confucian thought”. In the ideal Confucian rulership:
”…the ruler and the ruled are in morally reciprocal relation, not in a right-enforcement relation. Morality is the common ground that makes us all human. When everyone is able to exert moral virtue to his or her best ability, people will all encounter each other on the basis of the common ground of being human, without feeling otherness. That is exactly the purpose of politics and the uttermost ideal of politics.” (6)

To reflect upon…
• ”Well-educated barbarians” – is that an adequate notion of modern society? And if so, what does it mean for sociaties of today?
• Is ”consistent behaviour” especially needed today, why and where?
• What do we mean when we write that all people have ”…the right – and the obligation – to participate in all aspects of a society”?
• How could the study circle method be used in political processes?
• What could be the significance of a study circle society for the countryside, for the migrant worlers in the cities etc…?
• What do we mean when we write that the study circle also might be an important part in a struggle to create harmony ”… also between man and nature”?
• What other differences could there be between shallow and deep democracies?

2. ”College Learning for the New Global Century”: 
3. For more information in Chinese about the Swedish study circle model see earlier editions of this journal (6/2010 – 4/2011) and: 
4. James Surowiecki: ”The Wisdom of Crowds – Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few” (Abacus, London 2005); 
5. Deliberative polls: 
6. Xu, Fuguan 1980: Xueshu yu zhengzhi zhijian (between politics and scholarship), Taipei: Student Book Company, in Contemporary Chinese Philosophy, edited by Chung-Ying Cheng and Nicholas Bunnin (2002).

© Tore Persson