The inclusive society and its elites

Editorial by Henrik Stenius

Does the new information technology create a more inclusive or a more exclusive society? This important question was raised in a discussion at the Finnish Institute in June involving the Finnish Parliamentary Committee for the Future and members of the Administrative Council of the Finnish Broadcasting Company (see article elsewhere).

Of course, more inclusiveness and more exclusiveness are both possible options. But there is no going back which means that the only way to prevent widening disparities in levels of education in society is to make information technology accessible to as many as possible, through schools, public libraries and a pricing policy which enables everyone to afford it.

The value of the Finnish tradition of profound faith in education for all is undeniable. After all, the creation of the Finnish nation did involve a mixing of cultural and economic elements which could not, at a later stage in this century, be defended by cultural and economic means alone. Against this background, one can more easily understand why education, including higher education, is highly esteemed by all sections of society. Youngsters with a working-class background are not branded as traitors if they opt to go into higher education.

In England, the cause of education for all became important in a different way. It developed relatively late, only after the formation of an autonomous labour movement and working class. The middle classes saw education as a means to instil discipline into the lower classes. In an earlier period, political thinkers like Thomas Paine, who had a great impact on the forming of the British concept of citizenship, did not connect the concept with ideas of education. Debate focused instead on freedom of speech, belief, thought, and so on. How different this is to attitudes in the Nordic countries (even today)!

For all eminent theoreticians in the Nordic countries during the formative period of national political culture, such as N.F.S. Grundtvig in Denmark or Johan Vilhelm Snellman and Santeri Alkio in Finland, the idea of education was fundamental to their vision of a good patriot and a more democratically empowered citizen. It was more or less a variation of the Ancient Greek idea of paideia, which defines life as the maturing of individuals as human beings.

The degree of inclusion or exclusiveness in the field of education can be judged by the existence of educationally deprived sub-cultures or "knowledge ghettos" in society. But, of course, you can also look upon the problem from the opposite side and ask to what extent you can find elites living their own hermetic lives. The Fennomanians were Finns, not just Friends of the Finnish People (Fennophiles). They did not regard themselves, like the Narodniks in Russia, as a group of intellectuals apart from the people, as intellectuals who just fell in love with the people (that is what the word narodnik means).

There are, so far as I know, no comparative studies about how elites define their relationship to the rest of the population. I think that Finland totally lacks those kinds of arrogant artists who, in a more or less cynical frame of mind, resign themselves to the fact that ordinary men and women will never be acquainted with their works.

Finland may have schools which cream off the best pupils, but it also has ordinary comprehensives and upper secondary schools some of which have specialised classes for subjects such as music or sport. These schools have been successful, and their pupils are doing well, performing clearly above average. These schools may also explain the success of young Finnish musicians. What is important, though, is that such schools do not serve narrow vocational or career aims and do not foster a mentality of superiority. The pupils remain ordinary children with ordinary feelings of belonging.

Despite these observations, there is no reason to believe that everything in the Finnish educational tradition has been a blessing for Finns. There are more encyclopaedias in Finnish homes than in those of other nations. The sad part of this particular story is that it seems to fit a cultural pattern based on authoritarian epistemology: there is just one positive, coded Truth, and consequently one true solution to every problem in society. What is supposedly needed in this context is knowledge, not social and political skills. Finland is certainly a 'knowledge society', which has had an impact on our concept of tolerance: in Finland, as in other Nordic countries, tolerance has less to do with acceptance of differences; it is more closely related to patience - the laborious task of drawing stubborn fools into the sphere of enlightenment. Young Finns will probably put an end to this four-century-old story. On the other hand, one could also mention other, more modern one-dimensional forms of culture and education.

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