The Individual and the Collective Good

This week I had the good fortune to begin in earnest my project here in Finland. I had a productive chat with Merja Juntunen, a researcher at the University of Jyväskylä, about how to structure the internet “platform” for my teacher-collaboration website on globalization-related issues.

Friday, my fellow Fulbrightrers and I met at length with Satu Syyrakki, the guidance counselor and international program head at Schildtin lukio, a top-notch upper secondary school here, and discussed everything from how learning differences are treated in Finnish schools to the government camps for migrants outside of the city.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAjyväskylän normaalikoulu, the teacher-training school

On Thursday I also “got into a classroom,” as it’s put. Marjo Sassali is a dynamic young social studies teacher at the Jyväskylän normaalikoulu, the teacher-training high school run by the university. I sat in on her Human Rights course, an elective for students who would be called 8th and 9th graders in the US (if I have it right).

The class meets for three hours once a week. On this day, visitors were speaking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including a woman who has worked as an observer for a group linked to the World Council of Churches. After the speakers finished, the students searched for news articles online and evaluated their stances and biases on the conflict. The kids didn’t get far before class ended, but posted their links and reflections at a cool website called

Sitting in the back of the room with Meghan Hanson-Peters (who is researching collaborative learning styles), I began to think about the reasons why such courses are so important to me. In part, I feel the purpose is psychological, especially if the course focuses on possible solutions to seemingly intractable problems, whether the question of the two-state solution or of how to best combat climate change. If students see that some adults are working on solutions and making some progress, then encountering difficult issues might not lead to cynicism.

But is the purpose of Marjo’s course, or any course, primarily the experience of any individual student, sitting in a chair, whether listening intently or furtively glancing at an iPhone? Isn’t it more democratic if high school students have a great deal of power to set their own course of study? And if this means they give over their four years to crafting a resumé for the eyes of college admissions officers, isn’t that their business?

On some level, though, schools are places where societies imagine and shape their futures. Finland’s schools will in no minor way determine Finland’s future. This theme was close to the surface when we Fulbrighters met with Ari Pokka, the principal of Schildtin lukio, who wove a description of his school into a half-hour long story of the history of education in Finland.

In Finland, like in many countries I suppose, the establishment of public education was linked to the development of a national identity and a nationalist political movement. Jyväskylä was among the first places were Finnish-language education took place and the now world-famous school system seems a central piece of the national identity.

The robust vocational education system here also seems pointed at the general welfare of the nation. Finland needs skilled plumbers, electricians, heating and cooling specialists so it is in the national interest to train them well. So they are trained extensively, like teachers, prepared to be competent professionals.

I can say, however, that I never saw my own education this way. It was part of a personal journey, a private search for meaning and success. Popular progressive thinkers on education in the US, like William Deresiewicz, don’t seem to doubt for a moment that the highest goal of the educational system is the personal fulfillment of a given student. Maybe this is best.

But what if curriculum were designed for the public outcome of the process rather than the individual success or satisfaction of each participant. Would the process look different? K-12 education could be pointed at the needs and the problems of a given society. We need hairdressers as well as climate scientists.

In a way, I am simply talking about “21st-century skills”: schools should be equipping students with the skills and knowledge they need to both keep things running and make things better. So then my next questions is, how would thinking about education being a collective undertaking alter how I teach day-to-day?

And, if it were shaped around creating a just, prosperous, and equitable society in a globalized world, what subjects would students study?

According to a 2014 study at Georgetown University, here are the top seven most popular majors in the US: 1) Business Management and Administration; 2) General Business; 3) Accounting; 4) Nursing; 5) Psychology; 6) Communications and Mass Media; 7) Marketing and marketing research.

This list looks like the result of a people who care more about individual earning power than social progress. Applauding this fact, the GU study, entitled, “What’s it Worth?: The Economic Value of College Majors,” notes that, “Counseling Psychology majors make median earnings of $29,000 per year, compared to $120,000 for Petroleum Engineering majors.”

If my goal were to create an educational system that was designed to promote the general welfare, what would it look like? I think I would identify skills and attributes that are essential to the health of society. This makes me think of something I read in the Finland’s “National Core Curriculum for Upper Secondary Students, 2003” (the emphases are mine):

The basic values of upper secondary school instruction are built on Finnish cultural history, which is part of Nordic and European cultural heritage. At upper secondary school, students should learn how to treasure, assess and renew their cultural heritage. Students will be educated in tolerance and international co-operation.

Upper secondary school instruction is based on respect for life and human rights. The educational ideal of the upper secondary school comprises the pursuit of truth, humaneness and justice. General upper secondary education must promote open democracy, equality and well-being. Students are seen to be the constructors of their own learning, competence and views of the world. Instruction must take into account the fact that human beings observe and analyse reality using all their senses.

So, the individual or the general? This is a new question for me–hence the verbosity and just plain length of this post.


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2 thoughts on “The Individual and the Collective Good

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  1. Clearly I missed my opportunity to be a petroleum engineer. seriously though I have long felt that one of our societal downfalls is the relative nobility embedded in intellectual vs. practical professions. The idea that you are defined by what you do… and with that comes an attachment to a social class… are you finding that to be a ‘thing’ in the same way in Finland? Are the plumbers and physicians actually on level ground as citizens, professionals, etc.?


    1. Thanks for the comment and the great question! I just wrote and accidentally deleted a long response! So I’ll be brief!

      I don’t know if plumbers are held in as high esteem as physicians. I don’t think so. But there is a general flattening of class difference here. The few stand-alone houses in my town are fairly small, though the wealthier folks also have “summer houses” on lakes, often in the north. Most people live in apartment buildings between about three- and five-stories tall.

      Near my place is a well-regarded “college prep” high school, a lukio. It shares its campus with a vocational school, which trains people for all sorts of professions. Both are needed, so, as far as I can tell, both are considered of merit.
      I have told been several times that Finland is a small country between big counties that used to control it (Sweden and Russia). It is also not in NATO. It is between NATO and Russia. The same during the Cold War. So Finland has to take care of itself. With 5 million people, one education professor told me, nobody can be “wasted.” The nation needs everyone’s skills. Every student deserves a good education that prepares them to take their place in society. If they are qualified for higher education, the state pays for it because, they seem to recognize, the state will benefit from that education. That same professor–who runs a group that shares Finnish education ideas and strategies with clients in China, Abu-Dhabi, etc., to me that in his experience, China can send 100,000 people to a college and “weed out” 90%, leaving “the best.” Finland cannot afford to waste people, he told me. Is it a social democracy in reality, not just in theory.

      So I will see about hairdressers, plumbers, and cops. I am very curious. I am still very new here!


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