David Tow 2015-16: Finland is the World

Like all the other Fulbright Distinguished Teachers and most of the scholars, students, and professionals who found their way to Finland from the United States, I was drawn by reports of PISA dominance, of innovative and liberating educational philosophy, of sound core practices.

However, I’m always very wary when reformers discuss the wholesale implementation of educational models. Education is the product of society, ideology, and context. Merely copying Finnish schools in, for example, my suburban Northern California district wouldn’t work.

So I came to Finland to research Finnish civic and national identity and its intersection with education. I’ve always been interested in Finland. Educational success aside, Finland is a young country – celebrating its centennial next year – but a people with a long history, a heritage of survival, perseverance, and, of course, sisu. But Finland is headed for a shift: the population, its politics, and the economy is poised to change. But a change into what?

Throughout my time at a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher in Finland, I’ve been meeting with teacher education professors, researchers, teachers across all grade levels, and mostly students, asking them, essentially, what does it mean to be Finnish? Throughout these conversations, I’m exploring how young people see their country and what they think the future holds for Finland. I am also exploring the impacts of divisive politics and growing diversity on the traditional need for consensus.

I have explored the four cardinal directions of Finland. I have visited dramatic arts and vocal schools in Tampere and driven through shrinking downtowns in Karelia. In Turku, I saw the impact of its old capital days on today’s residence and spoke with Swedish-speaking Finns in Helsinki. I interviewed young men during their first weeks in the army and elders who remember being relocated from across what is now the Russian border. I spoke with Sámi students in Inari and recent immigrants from across the globe. I gathered hours of interviews and read broadly and deeply on Finnish history, conceptions of individual and collective identity, and civic duty.

I have learned that Finland is not one thing. Much like the United States, it is composed of multiplicities, of fragments of culture and practice and religion and tradition bound together. Part of the binding has to do with language, a shared signifier of Finnishness, but it’s not all. Finland is also united by adversity; the historical tradition of colonialism here makes Finland itself kind of an act of geopolitical defiance.

With students, I looked forward as well. We discussed what tomorrow’s Finland will look like. By and large, students think the future lies in further reengagement and dedication to the Eurozone, in more international connections and treaties, and, most importantly, in more diversity. Across the country, students saw the immigrants as a boon, a benefit, a blessing, and the future of the country. Granted, my sample size was small and my demographics somewhat narrow, but the refrain I heard across Finland was striking.

I return to California from Finland ready to engage my own students in candid conversations about what it means to be an American. Because America is changing too – notions of civic identity and participation and allegiance run throughout daily discourse. By using my Fulbright research in Finland as a mirror, I hope to enable my diverse class of American teenagers to reflect critically on who and what they are, and what they want to be.

David Tow, U.S. Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching 2015-16, University of Helsinki