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Harald Thuen and Nina Volckmar

Comprehensive schooling has been a cornerstone in the development of the Norwegian welfare state since World War II. Over the years it has been extended, initially from 7 to 9 years and later to 10-year compulsory schooling, since the late 1990s including virtually all Norwegian children between the ages of 6 and 16. In education policy, the interests of the community versus the individual have played a key role, reflected in a line of conflict between the political left and right. During the first three to four decades after the war, through the Labor Party, the left wing was in power and developed education policy according to a social-democratic model. The ideal of equality and community in schools had precedence. The vision was to create a school for all that had a socially and culturally unifying effect on the nation and its people. Social background, gender, and geographical location should no longer create barriers between pupils. Ideally, school was to be understood as a “miniature democracy,” where pupils would be trained in solidarity and cooperation. Compulsory schooling was thus regarded as an instrument for social integration and for evening out social inequalities. But one challenge remained: How could a common school for all best take care of the individual needs of each pupil? The principle of individualized teaching within the framework of a common school was incorporated in the education policy of social democracy and was subjected to experimentation and research from an early stage. But with the political shift to the right toward the 2000s, a sharper polarization can be observed between the interests of the community versus the interests of the individual. The political right profiles education policy in opposition to the left-wing emphasis on the social purpose of the school system. In the early 21st century, the interests of knowledge, the classroom as a learning arena, and the performance of each pupil take precedence. Based on the model of New Public Management, a new organizational culture is taking shape in the school system. Where the political left formed its policy from the perspective of “equality” during the first postwar decades, the right is now forming it from the perspective of “freedom.” And this is taking place without significant opposition from the left. The terms “equality” and “equity” provide the framework for the analysis of the changing polarity between collective and individual considerations and between pupils’ freedom and social solidarity in postwar education.


Public schools are intricately connected to the stability and vitality of our democracy in the United States. The important relationship between public schooling and democracy began as a foundational idea in our fledgling republic, and it grew slowly over the course of our country’s history. Along the way, the relationship has been tested and challenged, encountering significant problems and limitations over time, including some that continue today. Despite these struggles and the many ways in which we’ve failed to fully fulfill the relationship, it has become a key one for maintaining the strength of our society and our political system. Unlike a monarchy and other forms of government, it is difficult to maintain a democracy. Democracies take work; they rely upon the ongoing effort of elected officials and citizens, because they cannot run themselves or rely on just one person to lead. While democracy may be a highly desirable political system, its benefits are not always self-evident to children, and the pursuant skills and work it requires do not come naturally to most people. This is the rather precarious position of democracy; in order to maintain it, we have to educate children about its benefits and rationale while also equipping them with the skills and dispositions they need in order to for them to perpetuate it well. This is why we must link education and democracy. Democracy requires informed and active voters who seek information to make wise decisions on behalf of themselves and the common good. Such voters must understand their own rights and freedoms, as well as those of others, as they deliberate together to reach mutually agreeable policies and practices. They must be equipped to engage in free and critical inquiry about the world and the problems surrounding them. And, they need the imagination and creativity to construct, revise, add to, and share the story of democracy with others, including the next generation. The relationship between public schooling and democracy is best understood and fulfilled when it is not just a unidirectional one, where public schools support democracy, but rather when it moves in both directions, with the formal and cultural elements of democracy shaping the governance, content, and practices of schools. In this way, democracy is not just the end of public schooling, but also the means by which we achieve it.