Danish University Experience: Equality and Self-Motivation

Posted: February 4, 2011 in Categorized

So spring semester classes began this week and in the introductory part of one of my classes, the professor told the class, particularly the international students, “You don’t have to come to class every day. In Denmark, classes aren’t mandatory.  We believe learning is about discussion, exchange, and independence.”   Now, I have definitely heard this said before by students, but not so much by the professors.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that on the first day class seems to be packed but then as the semester progresses, mostly 50% of the students tend to show up for class.  But this isn’t because Danish students aren’t motivated.  It just means that embedded into the Danish education system and undoubtedly affected by the Jantelov (which I will blog about soon), is this concept of equality.  Some sociologist and anthropologists have written about the Scandinavian cultural principle of “sameness” which corresponds to a flat hierarchy in many Scandinavian societies, particularly the Danish society.  The whole principle of the welfare state was to include the marginalized people in society and equalize opportunity for all people (regardless of social class).  Thus, taxation was implemented with a collective mentality in mind that everyone pays into the system (40-60% in taxes) and is supposed to get similar or the same benefits out of the system.

The flat hierarchy even extends into the classroom in which one should not address their professor by their title, as I have become accustomed to in the states.  This is even the case at the primary and secondary level of education!  But in higher education settings (Bachelors/undergraduate and on up), professors are only viewed as a secondary resource or another opinion on the subject being taught in class.  So students have the choice to attend classes, if they feel they will benefit from a particular lecture.

Looking back at my undergraduate classes, I can’t remember many professors saying I could call them by their first name or that class wasn’t mandatory.  But then again, I was often taught that it is disrespectful to call an adult by their first name. But respect in that regard seems to have been transposed through the Danish cultural interpretation of egalitarianism, where everyone is equal or at least supposed to be treated as an equal.  You respect the professor as one that is knowledgeable within their field but based on Danish principles, you still in some way perceive of the professor as your equal.  You have something to contribute to the lecture and discussion just as the professor has something to contribute as a lecturer and researcher in their field.  So within the classes, learning is really about discussion, exchange and independence.

So I think to study in Denmark, it requires a high degree of self-motivation.  There usually aren’t assignments or even tests or mid-terms throughout the semester as one might expect, coming from an American tradition.  Usually, you either have an oral exam or a research paper at the end of the course that determines your grade.  Overall, I will definitely attend all my classes, because as much as I like to read about public health, I love discussions and hearing different views on the topic.


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