U.S. Intellectual History Blog

An American in Denmark: First Impressions

DK flagI’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:

  1. You must not believe that you are anybody.
  2. You must not believe that you are as important as us.
  3. You must not believe you are cleverer than us.
  4. You must not deceive yourself that you are better than us.
  5. You must not believe that you know more than us.
  6. You must not believe that you are more than us.
  7. You must not think that you are good at anything.
  8. You must not laugh at us.
  9. You must not think that anyone cares about you.
  10. 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.”

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I have mixed feelings about the education system as you describe it. Why?

    If the Danish students have adequately learned solid critical thinking and liberal arts skills at the secondary level such that a proper understanding of, and participation in, citizen matters is guaranteed (or at least seen as adequate), then I think the end-of-term-test-as-course-grade is fine. It gives the students plenty of freedom to structure their day as they see fit.

    But if there are any problems–i.e. if the Jante’s Laws/Janteloven are accurate (more than a joke)—then perhaps more participation should be required. Maybe this is just the habit-of-attendance speaking through me, but constant exposure for the lagging half would perhaps cure those Danes skeptical of their own system. In other words, it’s kind of surprising (paradoxical) that a culture that thrives on a positive conformity achieves the same without compulsory attendance in higher education.

    Maybe I don’t understand the percentages of Danish citizens that attend college. If it’s widespread, I think my question stands. You would want to make sure than the laggards receive final training in solid critical thinking (if secondary education didn’t do the job). If it’s a minority consisting of already solid students, then I guess I understand the freedom and lack of required exposure to discussion, meaning critical evaluation, of class topics.

    But hey, if the nation overall exhibits solid critical thinking skills, who am I judge based on my American experience. – TL

  2. I’m always intrigued by what citizens in other nations think of the United States (guess that’s my insecurity showing, heh). In particular, you mentioned that African American struggle is one of the elements of American society Danes know the most about. That really fascinates me. An entire book could be written (if it hasn’t already) about European attitudes towards African Americans in the 20th century.

  3. My colleagues in American Studies are routinely interviewed about U.S. politics and history on Danish radio and television.

    (“In a 2004 poll, Danes overwhelmingly preferred John Kerry, Ralph Nader came in second, and George Bush received less than 5%”),

    These are likely not unrelated phenomena.

    As for “Janteloven,” the two sides of the same coin are egalitarianism and mediocrity. It was originally coined ironically, and not totally approvingly.

    “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.”

    That certainly describes the sensational TV version of America anyway, and that’s not to say we don’t buy into it ourselves. But much of American reality has its own Janteloven, the world of Lake Woebegon [which is not coindentally culturally Scandanavian]. It’s just too boring for TV, is all.

    I follow your adventures with interest, Andrew. Good stuff.

  4. Tim: I’m going to wait until I teach at least an entire semester before I judge. For now I’ll say that it’s a different system of assessment, and I need to adjust to it. But you’re right that these methods contradict Jante’s Laws. From an early age, the Danes want children to learn to get along in the world without too much help from parents and teachers. My five-year old son is attending school here, and he is told to find his own way back from the gym after “sports” class, in order to learn to think for himself. The ethic of solidarity is applied at the society-wide level, and yet Danish adults do not hover over their children. This applies tenfold at the university level. The students are assumed to be adults, and thus are expected to do the work of their own accord, without any teacher supervision. Professors do not hold their students’ hands. For me this raises an interesting question: Perhaps we Americans hover so much more over our young people, as parents and teachers, because we have so much more social insecurity? As insecurity grows, so too does the helicopter parenting phenomenon? (And that’s all the dime-store pop sociology you’re going to get from me today.)

    • I apologize if my questions appear judgmental. I think the big thing is this: whether Denmark’s secondary school system does the job, already, that professors have to do in college—i.e. inculcate a humanistic, liberal education.

      I love the anecdote about making children find their way back. We cultivate individualism at the expense of true independence, it seems. Independence is a higher calling—one that knows its embeddedness in society without becoming a waffly, unreliable ward of the same.

  5. Wonderful conversation here, Andrew and Tim!

    Do you think we teaching in the American system take seriously enough the progression that should occur from 100 to 400 level classes? I always describe my 300 and 400 level classes on the first day as “grown-up” classes, where what we do in class is simply support for the real learning taking place outside of class through intensive reading (about 150 pages per week) and writing (about 50 pages per semester).

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