November 03, 2004
On daring to be different in Norway

Drammen municipality is proposing an excellent option for teenagers that are ahead of their peers in some subjects at school: dedicated classes taught at a higher level, possibly covering 5-6 years’ worth of curriculum in the course of 3 years.

Yet, in a statement symptomatic of the Norwegian/Scandinavian "Janteloven" attitude, the municipality director of education for Drammen, Kari Høyer, "accepts to call this an elite school class, but with a positive slant" (Dagbladet).

Only in Norway would such a clarification be necessary. Many foreign countries embrace the fact that kids have different abilities in different subjects; some being sports-talents and getting extra attention for that, others being intellectually stronger and getting their thirst for knowledge quenched in special schools or separate classes.

In Norway, being different is bad. Especially being successful is frequently frowned upon. The previously referenced "Jantleloven" says it all:

[Janteloven] derives from the the novel "En flygtning krysser sitt spor" ("A refugee crosses his tracks") by the Norwegian/Danish author Aksel Sandemose. The book takes place in an imaginary Danish small town called Jante, based on Sandemose's hometown Nykøbing Mors. The book is about the ugly sides of Scandinavian smalltown mentality, and the term "Janteloven" meaning "the Jante Law" has come to mean the unspoken rules and jealousy of such communities in general. (Source: soc.culture.nordic FAQ: Janteloven & mirror)
The "laws", as translated by andymatic, are:
  1. You shall not think that you are special.
  2. You shall not think that you are of the same standing as us.
  3. You shall not think that you are smarter than us.
  4. Don’t fancy yourself as being better than us.
  5. You shall not think that you know more than us.
  6. You shall not think that you are more important than us.
  7. You shall not think that you are good at anything.
  8. You shall not laugh at us.
  9. You shall not think that anyone cares about you.
  10. You shall not think that you can teach us anything.
From Janteloven, as well as from a train of thought about continuously supporting the needy of society, has grown a culture in the Norwegian school system where above-average performers are either ignored or left to their own devices.

Distribution of IQ test scores, from low to high, can be represented by the "bell curve" (the "normal distribution", graph here). Most people cluster around the average (IQ 100). Few are either very bright or very dull: About 3% score above IQ 130 (often considered the threshold for "giftedness"), with about the same percentage below IQ 70 (IQ 70-75 often being considered the threshold for mental retardation).

In today's educational system, almost all effort is dispensed in helping the lower half of the curve keep up with the average. The top scorers (although it should be noted high IQ scores are no guarantee of scholastic aptitude, they generally give a good indication) also need attention to become the future researchers, managers and visionaries a small, oil-dependent country like Norway will need in the future! Very intelligent students losing interest in school due to lack of stimulation is exactly what we don't need!

I think Drammen municipality, instead of apologetically announcing their plans, should be proudly and boldly encouraging other municipalities to try approaches to stimulate needy, smart students!

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Thanks for the linkback and insight!

Posted by: Andy on November 3, 2004 06:02 PM

Could it be that egalitarian attitudes in modern Scandinavia are a karmic "punishment" for the historic over-achievements of the Vikings?

We have similar issues in Britain, where rewarding the academically talented is denounced as "elitism". Strangely, it isn't "elitism" to reward a talented footballer!

Posted by: Philip on November 4, 2004 03:19 AM

What an interesting post. In Germany the word and meaning of "elite" was "tabu" since WWII.

During my time in school I noticed the same issues you did. The one time I was really challenged in Math was during the year I spent in the US. The German system is slowly (too slowly) being reformed to help both sides of the curve.

Posted by: Yashima on November 5, 2004 09:47 AM

Yes, it is hard to be an bright kid in Norway today. But do not claim that it is frowned upon being sucessful in general because it is not. We all envy those who have more and do better and we want to get there one day and maybe get even further. It is the exaggeration of the year that the resources in Norwegian schools are spent on bringing the kids who score less than average up to speed, because that is simply not true. Due to poor understanding of what it is that keeps this kids from achieving and actually a lack of necessary funding they are held down too. And the stigma of being a kid with special needs below the average rather than a kid wiht special needs above the average is much higher. There is no evil "jante" law that aims to keep the bright kids from learning more and achieving more, it is simply a lack of will to invest in education in general and in those kids particularly. I was one of the smarter kids at school, I have done fine, but not great, maybe because I have not gotten the proper attention to my special talents. At least that is what I think. So, yes I could have been a greater resource today with proper attention earlier on in the educational system. But, the kids who can't quite get it right, without the help the edeucational system actually is able to provide them today they would have become more of a liability to society than they actually are today. So, I am somehow greatful that at least they have gotten some help. It is mere politics and hopefully one day politics will change and embrace the whole range of kids, the slow, the average and the bright

Posted by: othilie on November 8, 2004 11:56 AM

Such attitudes are typical of Scandinavian collectivism. Many of them could all use a good dose of Ayn Rand--specifically her novels "Anthem" and "Atlas Shrugged".

Posted by: Kurt Weber on July 14, 2005 06:36 AM

Yes, all elitists love Ayn Rand. I've almost found myself turning into a Rand-worshipper as I've gotten older. I can scare myself away from her, though, by reading half a dozen posts in alt.society.libertarian.

The problem is, almost every society has a strong streak of counter-elitism, anti-intellectualism, or whatever you call it. You might be able to make a convincing argument that anti-intellectualism is a symptom of the collectivist nature of a particular society, and if so I'd like to read it; but I don't think that's necessarily so. After all, India and China have very collectivist societies, and yet students from these backgrounds are driven by their families to excel in Western education. Meanwhile, the USA is a very individualistic nation, and yet there always seems to be a strong hatred of intellectuals in the US.

It's strange that cultures reward and honour certain elites (sportsmen, attractive people, rich people) but punish the intellectual elite. Well, maybe it's not - the intellectuals always seem to be the greatest threat to society, don't they? Sportsmen don't generally question taboos, the rich don't generally fight for justice, and the beautiful certainly don't criticize people's assumptions about politics, economics, religion, and the social order!

So maybe people instinctually recognize intellectuals as a dangerous threat to society? Maybe that's why gifted students have to be "kept in the closet"?

Posted by: Borg on October 13, 2005 03:47 AM
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Historiological Notes: Elite Schools (November 3, 2004 06:54 PM)
"Anders Jacobsen has an interesting post the problem of gifted pupils in Norwegian schools: On daring to be different in Norway. I did not know that a school in Drammen was going to start a class for gifted pupils, but"

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