I’ve now been in Denmark for a month. This morning I taught my first class. I’ve read two short, insightful books about Denmark: one written by a colleague David Nye (the prolific cultural historian of technology and author, most recently, of America’s Assembly Line), Introducing Denmark and the Danes; the other, the hilarious Xenophobe’s Guide to the Danes. I attended an orientation put on by the wonderful people at the Danish-American Fulbright Commission, which included a 90-minute lecture by Carsten Pape on Danish history dating back to the nation’s 10th-century Christianization. I now feel somewhat qualified to say a few things about this country that I’m growing to love. The following are five Danish things that stand out to me:
1) Patriotism. The Danes seem to genuinely love their country. They fly their flag everywhere, on every occasion. Danish patriotism seems different than American patriotism, which is often insecure, aggressive, and even jingoistic. The Danes are proud of the equal society they have fashioned, but they don’t need validation that their country is better than others. Some Danes have strong anti-immigrant sentiments, which are surely somewhat related to cultural nationalism (although more plausibly related to the threat that immigration represents to their generous welfare system). But even with this qualification, Danish patriotism seems like a fairly healthy sort.
2) Solidarity. The Danish welfare system is world famous for creating one of the two or three most equal societies in the world. The students I am teaching will never pay a dime in tuition. As long as they gain acceptance into the schools and programs they wish to attend, not only will tuition be covered, they’ll be paid a stipend to cover most of their living expenses. The Danish healthcare system is excellent. During our first week in the country, both of our boys picked up a nasty stomach virus. Our trip to our newly assigned doctor was a utopian experience compared to what most people endure in the U.S. We called the office at 10:30 a.m. and the boys were in front of the doctor in less than an hour, no paperwork, no co-pay, and no questions about our for-profit insurance company. Of course, such a system does not come cheap. The highly progressive Danish tax rate, which is in and of itself used as an equalizer, averages out to 50%. In the US, where many consider tax a form of theft, such a rate is unthinkable. But it works in Denmark because Danes have an ethic of social solidarity, what some might consider a form of conformity, which is ingrained from an early age. Only half in jest they refer to a fictional code called “Jante’s Laws” or “Janteloven,” written up by Aksel Sandemose as a satirical critique of stifling Danish conformity, as representative of this ethos. The ten commandments of Jante:
- You must not believe that you are anybody.
- You must not believe that you are as important as us.
- You must not believe you are cleverer than us.
- You must not deceive yourself that you are better than us.
- You must not believe that you know more than us.
- You must not believe that you are more than us.
- You must not think that you are good at anything.
- You must not laugh at us.
- You must not think that anyone cares about you.
- You must not believe that you can teach us anything.
Although Jante’s Laws have broken down somewhat—the neoliberal ethos of rugged individualism is a siren song the world over—they still seem in effect to me. On campus, in Janteloven style, students call their professors by their first names lest the professor get a notion he or she is important. It’s different, and I like it.
3) Education. The Danish system of higher education is subtly different from its American counterpart. National regulations, not professors, dictate how students will be assessed at each level of their education. For example, in the U.S. History Survey that I’m teaching, it’s mandated that students will be graded entirely on an end-of-term written exam that an external censor and I will grade by committee. This means that I cannot require students to participate or even attend. Unlike the courses I offer at Illinois State University, where I grade for participation, and where I periodically assess student progress with essays that they write throughout the course of the semester, I can’t expect anything from my Danish students until they take their final exam. I’m curious what this will mean for attendance. It gives me incentive to make the course lively.
4) Interest in the United States. Most of the people I’m around are extremely interested in and knowledgeable about the United States. Of course, I’m teaching at a Center for American Studies, so there’s some self-selection involved. Even so, I’m told that Danes are more interested in American politics than their own, since American politics seem to them so much more entertaining. My colleagues in American Studies are routinely interviewed about U.S. politics and history on Danish radio and television. And all Danes watch American television, with HBO shows like True Blood being particularly popular.
Even though Danes think about American politics scornfully (“In a 2004 poll, Danes overwhelmingly preferred John Kerry, Ralph Nader came in second, and George Bush received less than 5%”), David Nye writes: “Danes have taken an increasing interest in American popular culture, which seems to them an exotic mix of personal freedom, informality, creativity, extreme wealth and poverty, glittering skylines, crime, oppression, African-American struggle, circus-like elections, rock and roll, religious fanaticism, the Wild West, and rags-to-riches success.”
Xenophobe’s Guide to the Danes puts it like this: “The rugged individualism of American society is at odds with the importance which Danes attach to social cohesion. Americans are seen as an essential ally and the scientific research they generate is admired, but if a situation is approaching unacceptable levels, for example, Danish children are being fed too much fast food, a Danish academic of some description will appear on the news proclaiming that Denmark is hurtling towards an ‘americkansk tilstand’ (an American state of affairs).”
5) Beer. I love beer. I came to the right place. Beer is everywhere in Denmark. They drink it on the streets, in the parks, on campus. This is as it should be. Maybe I’ll return home having learned to “drink like a Dane.”