“Roving” reflections on learning
What one Fulbright scholar learned from Norway
The Norwegian American
In June 2016, I returned to Oslo from the coastal town of Florø. I had visited Flora vidaregåande skule (high school), the last of my visits to Norwegian high schools throughout Norway as a Fulbright Roving Scholar, offering workshops to students and teachers on topics in American history and culture. The program, as has been noted in this paper before (“A Roving American Scholar in Norway,” Sept. 7, 2018: www.norwegianamerican.com/heritage/a-roving-american-scholar-in-norway), is unique among the myriad Fulbright opportunities worldwide. Roving Scholars get a remarkable nationwide look into the Norwegian education system, from large urban schools to coastal village schools to schools in the high Arctic. As our own school year begins, I’d like to share a bit of what I learned during my year as a “Rover.”
My visit to Flora was special, because it marked the 19th of 19 counties (plus Svalbard) I had visited that year. My travels were far and, well, narrow—it’s Norway, after all! In total, I visited 61 schools and three prisons. Over 135 days of teaching, I gave 315 presentations to 8,582 students and 598 teachers. I spent 50 days above the Arctic Circle, reached a northernmost point of 78° latitude, and landed at 11 Arctic airports. I took 32 flights, three boat trips, and two overnight trains in the course of my official travels. I feel fortunate to have experienced so much of the furet, værbitt—the furrowed, weather-bitten—land (though I’m not proud of my carbon footprint!)
One of the reasons I applied for a roving scholarship was to try to see firsthand how a nation I already loved went about shaping its commitment to social welfare and national community. I learned that those commitments depend on putting Norwegians to work. Norway’s celebration of labor is quite evident in its schools. Students who choose to attend Norwegian high school select one of two directions: studiespesialisering (study specialization) or yrkesfag (vocational discipline) programs. Studiespesialisering is the “academic” line of study, preparing students for post-secondary education. Students who choose yrkesfag select a line of vocational training, such as technical and industrial production, restaurant and food service, or music, dance, and drama, among others.
Norwegian education, to my mind, is more immediately practical: the available yrkesfag lines are suited to the Norwegian labor market, as it changes over the years. I see the Norwegian model as more efficient than the American one. There’s less emphasis on individual desires and more on the usefulness of an education to the whole society. Students who graduate Norwegian high school are, in theory, employable and useful, both filling society’s roles and contributing back (in taxes) to the economic livelihood of the nation. In the United States, conventional wisdom says “become what you want to be!” which carries inherent risk of losing some labor value and creating citizens who don’t have a sense of responsibility to the system baked into their ethos. Indeed, many individual passions (like my own!) contribute relatively little, in pure economic terms, to the general welfare.
Still, while I love Norwegian education for what it is, I’m not an apologist for it, either. I’m not sure whether one system is better than the other; they’re different systems adjusted to the sociocultural values out of which they emerged and which they are designed to perpetuate. And for my part, I love the somewhat inefficient value at the heart of American education: find your thing and feed it, regardless of its “usefulness.”
Still, there are further benefits to Norway’s deep ethic of pragmatism. For example, I visited three prisons as a Rover (inmates in Norway retain their right to education), and in a conversation with one teacher in a prison in Hordaland, I learned that the system is predicated on the notion that the economic contributions a single rehabilitated prisoner will make once out of prison are greater than the cost of a prison teacher’s salary. So, at the heart of Norway’s famously humane prison system lies a very practical motivation.
I also saw the marriage of utility and humanity in students I met. One day in Nordland, a group of yrkesfag students stayed to chat after my workshop. One of them was going to be a plumber. He asked me, “Do you know what the best job in the world is?” I said, “A teacher, of course!” He said, “Nope, it’s a plumber!” A plumber is a teacher, too, he reminded me, when they have an apprentice. “And think about it,” he insisted, “See those pipes under water across the strait there?” Yes, I could. “Those are for tidal power generators. And you know what they need to maintain all those pipes? Plumbers.” Here was a young person in a practical education system who had a genuine passion for the work he pursued and its usefulness to future society. While I don’t think that’s the norm in Norway, it’s that genus of thought that builds many of Norway’s systems.
So, as we wade into this school year, it’s important to dwell on what we think the value of education is in our society. The Norwegian system isn’t perfect; teachers and students struggle with many of the same problems found in schools worldwide. But I admire what I perceived as a desire in the system to marry the love of one’s work to a sense of duty to each other’s welfare.
See also “The American dream of Norway – Part 5: Andy Meyer”: www.norwegianamerican.com/heritage/dream-05-meyer.
Visit Andy Meyer’s website at www.andyjmeyer.com.
To learn more about the Fulbright Roving Scholar program, visit fulbright.no/grants/grants-to-norway/us-scholars/roving-scholars.
This article originally appeared in the September 6, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.