Ingrid – November 27, 2017

I graduated from Northwestern University eight years ago, with a degree in journalism. Sometimes, my college days seem like a lifetime ago, considering that I’m “all grown up,” working and living in Chicago.

Over Thanksgiving, I went with my roommate Lindsay to see her grandfather (Farfar), who lives at The Danish Home. He enjoyed two Thanksgivings this year—one at The Danish Home and one at his daughter Kristin’s house.

Farfar and I have gotten to be great friends. His wealth of knowledge of things past and current never ceases to amaze me. We talked about lots of things, namely Thanksgivings he spent with his late wife, Sigrid, and their three children.

But one thing he told me really surprised me: Nordic countries are considering mandating adult education. In Denmark, in fact, the metal workers union has included adult education in its employees’ benefits for several years now.

Danish lawmaker Poul Nielsen proposes making adult education mandatory in Nordic countries. (photo: Nordic Labor Journal)

The logic behind this push for mandatory adult education in Scandinavia is that few people can make it through life on only the education they received when they were young. While that school of thought (pardon the unintentional pun) might freak out recent college grads, it actually makes a whole lot of sense to me.

“In order to live with the technical changes that go on and on, human beings have to be better educated,” said Poul Nielsen, the Danish lawmaker who suggested the idea. “Too many never really get a second lift in their capacities.” Once again, leave it to a Dane to be on the cutting edge of progressive thinking.

Apparently, in the U.S., mandatory adult education would be harder to enforce because our labor market is more decentralized and diversified, but a professor at a California university believes that Americans should embrace the idea, too. “Why should arbitrary age cutoffs define learning in our life?,” he asks. Good question.

Farfar also told me that in Denmark, older learners can go to informal “folk high schools” that provide training in subjects like history, science, literature and math—without tests and papers. Now, there’s an idea I could get behind, even at my relatively young age of 29! Who wouldn’t want to continue learning without the constant pressure of exams and writing?

Folk high schools for older learners are common in Denmark.

But some people, Americans especially, question the mandatory nature of Nielsen’s proposal. I asked Farfar how he would feel if he were forced to go to school at his age. He thought long and hard on that one. Finally, he said, “Well, it sure would be nice to be able to learn even more than my newspapers and books teach me. But I don’t think I’d want to be forced—I like my life just as it is, doing as I please, when I please!”

Then Lindsay asked him if he’d be interested in some of the optional education programs for adults and seniors in the Chicago area. That gave him pause. “I think I might,” he said. So, Linz and I pulled out our phones and searched the web. Turns out, my alma mater, Northwestern, has the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, whose members range in age from about 50 to 90. “But I’m 93,” kidded Farfar. There’s also a range of other classes throughout the city, with subjects spanning the alphabet from Art to Technology.

Farfar said he’d think about it. He gave me something to think about, too. I still can’t quite wrap my head around compulsory education past the age of 18, but I respect that the country of my great-great-great-grandmother, a Danish Home founder, values lifelong education enough to consider it. I wonder how she’d have felt about being required to go to school later in life. Something tells me she wouldn’t mind.