Friday, June 29, 2012

Denmark and Gerlev Idrætshøjskole

Now that I have been in Denmark for more than three months I think that it’s about time that I start sharing  some of my experiences here and explain more about the amazing place that has become a home away from home.

One of my articles from last summer (here) gives some background on Gerlev Idrætshøjskole, and the Danish folk high school system, but now that I’ve been here for a few months instead of a few weeks I think an updated and elaborated article is appropriate.

To start with, “here” is Gerlev Idrætshøjskole, which is located 5km outside of Slagelse, a small town (although by Danish standards it's a "city") located about an hour from Copenhagen.

Gerlev Idrætshøjskole from above.  Photo courtesy of the lovely ladies at the Gerlev front office.

I first visited Gerlev last June as part of my Watson around-the-world trip to witness the parkour classes that Streetmovement has been running here since 2006 and to train on the structure that had been built in 2008, and is considered to be one of, if not the first "parkour park".  The two and a half weeks that I stayed here were a small taste of student life  at Gerlev and left me both inspired and curious to learn more from this model.  After making the decision to continue my parkour-related travels this year, I accepted the invitation Streetmovement guys and the headmaster, Finn, to enroll as a student in the spring semester.

Before I go more into depth about my personal experiences at the school, a bit of background on the concept of the “højskole” (often translated into English as the“folk high school”).  The højskole tradition exists in many of the Scandinavian countries although the ones in Denmark and Norway seems to have developed a unique model.  Denmark, a country with a population of 5.5 million people, has over 75 højskoles spread across the nation, and according to official statistics (that I got from staff on campus) there were 8,405 students that attended a højskole in the 2010-2011 school year.  While this number is smaller than it was 15 years ago, it has been steadily increasing over the past 5 years, especially as these institutions begin to take students from farther abroad than the typical Euro-zone exchanges (I supposed I’m a good example of this).  Højskole students range in age from 18 to their late 20's and are usually in the midst of deciding what they want to do next in life, whether this is to start further studies, seek employment, or travel for a period of time as many Danish youth seem want to do.  Each højskole typically has a specific area of focus, usually in the arts, music, writing, or sports, and the goal of the "højskole experience" is centered around the personal development and exploration of student's potential than the pursuit of a degree or factual knowledge.  While the lack of a degree may seem strange at first, it allows the style of education and instruction at the schools to be much less “structured” and exploratory, which creates a very unique atmosphere.

"Hygge time", a concept that seems to be very important in Scandanavian countries, but even more so in the højskole setting.  Photo courtesy of Lotte Møller.

During my stay here I’ve learned that the idea of “gap years” to prepare young people with the social skills necessary to become constructive members of society upon adulthood is not limited to students that have finished their high school education.  Denmark also has a large number of efterskoles, which are similar to højskoles but oriented toward younger students that are still finishing their high school education.  I had the opportunity to visit one of these efterskoles recently and it seemed to be very similar to the højskole model except with more structure and academic emphasis (they need to continue their education afterwards) and a lot more angsty teenagers.  While the idea of two years of “self exploration” may seem a bit extravagant to people outside of Denmark, when I think back to my first year of university I know that a number of my peers could have benefited from year or two to figure things out before entering the American college system (which is a much more expensive place to “figure things out”).

While not necessarily representative of the typical American college experience, "Animal House" highlights some of the ways that many American students get sidetracked "exploring" and "figuring things out" the first years away from home.

Founded in 1938, Gerlev Idrætshøjskole is one of the oldest in the country, yet it is considered to be one of the more progressive and pioneering schools in a system that is steeped in tradition, especially when it comes to sports.  Most sports højskoles offer traditional team sports such as football (real football, not the American kind), handball, and basketball in addition to outdoor activities and some type of dance.  Gerlev offers some of these activities, but stands out as the only højskole that offers parkour, and one of the few that offers the variety of dance styles that Gerlev does.  While offering parkour is impressive, the fact that parkour and streetdance were added to replace the traditional “danish gymnastics” course says a lot about the way that the school thinks (as far as I can understand "danish gymnastics" is essentially artistic gymnastics made for performance, and it is a HUGE institution in Denmark- DGI, the Danish Gymnastics National Organzation- has nearly 1.1 million members around the country).  Below is an example of danish gymnastics (the hip modern version) from the National Danish Performance Team followed by a video of the Gerlev Performance Team's 2012 show:

My personal motivation for coming to Gerlev was a combination of a desire to keep traveling and training, the realization that I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try this, a desire to spend more time with the Streetmovement organization to see how they teach and train- all mixed in with a large amount of curiosity about how this place functions, how it fits into the Danish culture and society, and what unexpected knowledge I could learn while here.