It’s been one week since I’ve returned from Finland. In that time, I’ve gotten lots of questions about how it was and what I learned and whether or not I miss the country and if its people were nice and if this news article that they read on the country was true or if this little fact and tidbit that they heard was accurate. Mostly, though, I’ve been sitting and thinking and reflecting and doing a little bit of writing.
My students, although they are preoccupied with Advanced Placement exams and college acceptances and financial aid offers and major projects and the summer that is so close you can taste its salty sweetness, are curious. They’ve asked me questions. They’ve asked better questions than nearly anyone else I’ve spoken to. They want to know about race relations, about immigration policy and the impact on society at large. They want to know about Donald Trump. They want to know about relationships with Russia, where the country sees itself, what does the future hold. In part, this is what I was hoping for.
I hope to use my research in Finland on how civic, national, and international identity manifests in this fairly young country and how it is evolving in the 21st-century and in the younger generations in particular as a sort of mirror for the American experience. Although I teach mostly English classes, as well as an environmental leadership course, most of what we really do is civics: I’m keenly interested in exploring what it means to be a member of the community, a society, some network, and balancing those shared identities with what one strongly feels is one’s personal and independent agency.
Finland was supposed to be a mirror. I would hold up these experiences and findings and conversations as a way for my students, both now and next year, to reflect on their own American identity, to truly try and understand what it means to be an American both at home and abroad. More importantly, I wanted them to understand that that their identity is not a narrow automatic category, but it is one that they have a degree of control and authority over. They do, like we all do, get to define themselves to somewhat.
And to some extent it’s working. I’ve had my students do some reflecting in writing on their own national identity, and try and understand America’s current and evolving place in the world. There’s been an interesting dialogue between the students I spoke to in Finland and my American students back in the United States. In many ways, the two countries are similar.
But Finland is not the world. Finland is not a mirror. It’s the product of a very long set of very specific geopolitical and social contexts. No other country has the experience Finland had with Sweden, its role as a colony, as a breadbasket of sorts, and then it’s strangely fraught relationship once Finland gained its independence. I don’t think any American can understand how loan the country was both during its war of independence and, even more, during World War II, when Finland effectively thought off both the Soviets and the Nazis. In fact, I think it’s difficult for Americans to recognize the necessity for nimble navigation between superpowers.
And America, I’ve learned, is almost an equally impossible concept. At 323 million people and 3.8 million square miles, its size and scale are so large as to be nearly meaningless to many of the young Finns I met. And it’s such a complicated place, so fraught with cultural, political, and systemic turmoil that it seems like perpetual and chronic chaos to the consensus-seeking Finn. Coming home, my primary experience of “reverse culture shock” has been recognizing and relearning how incredibly complicated America (and “America” and ‘America’) is.
But it’s not that there are no lessons to be learned. At least in the education system, there are things that can be directly exported and implemented. There is a lot that cannot easily be done. I cannot reform the way schools are funded, nor reduce military spending so that more tax dollars find themselves into the classroom. It’s difficult to reduce the bureaucratic alleyways between my school and the Department of Education that simply just don’t exist the same way in Finland. I cannot make people respect teaching. I cannot make it harder to become a teacher. I can’t change that many Americans view education as a means to an end – to get a job, make money, become – ahem – “successful.”
At its heart, Finnish education looked remarkably to me like sound American educational philosophy, but with a lot of the bureaucracy and hierarchy and politics and administrative interventions and testing and systemic prejudice stripped mostly away. I think there are four focuses that Finnish schools have that American educators would do well to remember.
First, students and teachers are equal. Although of course teachers are awarded respect, they are collaborators in education. Students refer to teachers by first name. I think this creates an atmosphere education is not the result of a teacher’s decree, but by mutual conversation and respect. Students were given the opportunity to have equal ownership over their own learning, and I think they rose to the occasion.
Second, the school belongs to the students. Neither students nor teachers generally stay in one room. Everyone is mobile. When my students come into class, they are, for all intents and purposes, on my turf, in my house. However, if the space belongs to the students, then it is neutral safe territory. Furthermore, school design focused on the students: where could they study, sit, sleep, eat.
Third, classes ran so fast – 5 terms a year – and were so focused, that the emphasis was on specific, narrow skills, on what needed to be learned here and now. No single course had the expansive, year-long scope that I’m back into now. Instead, they were small and direct. And with homework, too, teachers considered whether or not it was absolutely needed. If not, chances are it went by the wayside.
Fourth, I think the famous Finnish lunch has more to do with social cohesion than any other aspect of society – save perhaps their compulsory military service. The students I saw ate together – not near each other or in the same room, but with each other. There’s a resultant sense of community, communalism present in Finnish schools that is not entirely absent in American schools, but just reduced.
I’m a patriot and I love my state and country, perhaps even more so after spending so much time abroad thinking about and explaining and justifying America (and “America” and ‘America’) to others, so maybe I should have known better. My project, while nearing completion, was a fools errand, or at least partially so. Comparison has always involved some sort of privilege and rank, some identification of difference, and that was not my intention at all.
One thing I did find, however, in Finland and the United States, is a curious trend. Civic identities – national allegiances, ethnic identification, creed, preference, and gender, and more – are becoming unfixed, unglued. They are evolving into consistent, democratic, voluntary communities. I have many conversations with my students about what it means to be an American (and “American” and ‘American’). I’m discovering that any definition is already obsolete. Categories are participatory. Participate and you belong. A Finnish boy, from a school in Tampere, told me that being Finnish is feeling so, calling yourself Finnish.
“You are what you say you are,” he said, “and that comes first.”
Wisdom, that is, and useful wisdom at that.