The solid Lutheran Church towered above the town plaza in central Helsinki, Finland. Flanking the church on one side was an academic institution and on the other side political offices, while the marketplace stretched out before the church to the sea. But the imposing position of the church high on the hill meant that it was not just a place of worship but also a wielder of foundational values holding together this sparsely populated, democratic nation. These values were a reflection of their long history of harsh weather that made cooperation and hard work a necessity for survival. The three main values organically emerging from the church were honesty, hard work, and equality. All three were vital values in the past as well as today.
I recently returned from a lecture engagement of the Baltic Sea region. I briefly visited Helsinki, Finland, and was captivated by this progressive Nordic country. Our well-educated tour guide repeatedly and unconsciously espoused Finnish egalitarian values. “Let’s get off the bus together or let’s walk together to the church.” He sounded more like a kindergarten teacher than an adult tour guide, but I am imagining that these are deep values that everyone unconsciously incorporates into their speech and way of life.
These values have served Finland well even in a globalized economy that does not necessarily reward values of trust, humility, and eschews self-aggrandizement. Whether they are able to continue with their vast social safety net work in a globalized world is yet to be seen, but it would be difficult to change centuries of entrenched social conventions in favor of those embraced by a global marketplace. In fact, the Finns seem to be shaping the global marketplace to match their values rather than letting the competitive, cut-throat global marketplace dictate their terms of engagement.
In a country with few natural resources to bring in much needed hard currency, Finland relies on its human capital. It therefore heavily invests in the education of every precious citizen, since they are the ones who must provide not only for themselves but for everyone else in Finland. Therefore, education is free from preschool to the university. However, not everyone can attend the university if grades and test scores are not at acceptable levels.
Finland’s much admired educational system ranks number one in the world. Education draws heavily on the three values mentioned above. In fact, equality and cooperation is the cornerstone of their educational system. This is reflected in the cute little preschool students who trot along roped together in their frequent outings into the world. They don’t start school until the age of seven and even then the emphasis is on getting along rather than mastering technical subjects. Homework is almost nonexistent with the reason that it is more important to develop social skills than routine busy work. The Finnish educational system promotes problem-solving skills and they excel, according to various educational assessments, in this valuable skill.
Although Finland has attracted praise from educators around the world, it would be difficult to implement their system of education in a world of inequality, fierce competition, and an emphasis on getting by rather than hard work. There system is based on trust, a commodity hard to come by in areas of the world other than the Nordic countries.
According to our tour guide, Finland has opened its doors to “manageable” immigration. They are welcoming a more diverse population for several reasons: one is an aging population that is also common in the United States as well as western Europe and Japan. Our guide thought that Finland was a heaven for many of the new immigrants, although there may be some drawbacks to his rosy scenario. It may be difficult for immigrants to adjust to this egalitarian society in which they do not feel as invested in the egalitarian national project as native Finnish people. The guide even indicated that it has been difficult for many of the newcomers to be fully integrated into Finnish society.
I also wonder if the millennial generation in Finland will continue to follow the values of the older generation. Membership in the Lutheran Church, formally 80% of the population has dropped among the younger generation. Without the constant hard-work, equality, and honesty reminders from the weekly Lutheran church services, the pull of a globalized society espousing the opposite values might prove to be more alluring to the younger generation.
I found that as Americans there is much we can learn from the Finns. Despite harsh winters and gloomy skies, the number of bike paths throughout the city is among the highest in the world. Their recycling ethic is enviable and public transportation is used frequently. The crime rate is very low and the citizens trust each other and the government. Well-manicured landscapes are integrated into the city and nature is woven into their daily lives. The Finns are proud of their culture and nation, and patriotism is not an ugly word. The United States is flailing about trying to find a unifying narrative to knit together a fractured nation. Although it would be a stretch to think that the United States, such a diverse country, could become a “new Finland,” there is still a great deal to learn from this forested wonderland.