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Aiming to Create Good Citizens: The Debates of the Finnish Parliament Concerning Citizenship Education in Our Schools, 1917 to 1924

Arola, Pauli

Following the independence of Finland in 1917, citizenship education, which had caused concern during the beginning of the 20th century under the era of russification and parliament reform, came to a turning point. In 1921, Finland passed an act regarding compulsory attendance at schools (laki oppivelvollisuudesta), and in 1923 enacted more legislation concerning the basis of the elementary school system (kansakoulutoimen järjestysmuodon perusteet), which regulated the width of basic education in general. This research focuses on the Finnish parliamentary discussions regarding citizenship education. My aim is to study the ways in which citizenship education at Finnish schools became an issue for Finnish Parliament, particularly the aims of the citizenship education as they were expressed in that discussion. I will also investigate exactly how this discussion might be explained in the light of the basic intentions of the politicians, their power status and the political publicity involved. The source material for this work involves documents from the Finnish Parliament, material gathered from party and private archives, journals and newspapers. My method of study is primarily genetic.


According to the results of this study, a relative consensus existed between the political parties concerning the actual necessity of citizenship education. In fact, compulsory attendance at schools was going to be implemented in the near future. That is why citizenship education did not become an important issue under the sessions of the Finnish Parliament in 1917: it was overshadowed by more important themes. Due to its self-evidence, citizenship education became a weapon in party struggles, and was used as a rationale for conflicting aspirations. Following the Finnish Civil War, education in citizenship was seen as a tool that could be used to avoid the chaos which took place in the Finnish society during the years 1917-1918. Although this interpretation was a purposive one, it reveals the confidence of the Parliament in the efficiency of the overall project of enlightenment. This project carried on into the citizenship education that took place during the beginning of the1920s.


Citizen education then came under the focus of the parliamentary discussions during the times in which central political problems such as the constitution and sharecropper questions were solved. Such questions had formerly established barriers against discussions about citizenship education, but in the beginning of 1920s there was place for cultural questions. This basis was built in the parliamentary elections of 1919. In these parliamentary discussions, the leaders of the National Progressive Party (Kansallinen edistyspuolue), Mikael Soininen and Oskari Mantere, began to collaborate with central figures in the Social Democrat Party (Suomen sosialidemokraattinen puolue), such as Julius Ailio. This collaboration was also supported by Santeri Alkio from the Agrarian Party (Maalaisliitto). With the act on compulsory attendance at schools, both the political centre and the left wanted to strengthen the democracy, halt the growth of the political right and avoid the possibility of a coup that might come from the right. At the same time, this new law helped the Social democrats to resist the political threat coming from the extreme left. Spending money on compulsory attendance at schools was presented as being more profitable than spending money on the army, although there were no exact figures available on the generic costs of school reform. The connection to the crisis of 1917-1918 lost some of its significance at the parliamentary discussions, and emphasis was placed on two key objectives: the building of a cultural state, and preparation for success in international competition.


This situation changed under the influence of the election results of 1922. The National Coalition Party (Kansallinen kokoomuspuolue) and the Agrarian Party gained significant strength in these elections, and this ruined the former co-operation between the political centre and the left. The solution of the sharecropper question caused a change in landownership, and produced many new farmers. This led to a competition for the support of the new landowners. To the disappointment of the Social Democrats, the National Coalition Party and the Agrarian Party began to support each other and defend the needs of the countryside.


When the act of compulsory attendance at schools was passed in the Parliament, religious education also became an issue. The Social Democrats and the Finnish Socialist Workers' Party (Suomen sosialistinen työväenpuolue), which upheld the abolishment of religion as a school subject, presented a threat to the political right. When the act concerning the basis of the elementary school system entered the legislation process in 1922-1923, the teaching of religion and ethics was a pivotal question of disagreement. Other school subjects, in fact, were not discussed at all. The pastors among the National Coalition Party Members of the Parliament created the impression that a larger movement was afoot, which was striving to save the country from the disaster into which the political left was leading it. The National Coalition Party attempted with these actions to create a front against the Social Democratic Party and the Finnish Socialist Workers' Party.


The struggle for political power and competition between these powerful political groups was the main motivator for the debates of the Finnish Parliament. The content of the overall discussion was dependent on the political power of the speaker, the political publicity that could be gained, the evaluation made regarding the changing situations, as well as tactical goals. In the discussion concerning citizenship education, school subjects never became objects for political passions. The only exceptions were religion and ethics. While the struggle for political power continued in the Parliament, the content of citizenship education was renewed in the committee preparing the rural elementary school curriculum under the supervision of Mikael Soininen, Chief of the National Board of Education. This provided instructions for the practical school work that was then carried out in 1925.

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