Monday, June 3, 2013

Home Sweet Home

My final blog entry: the return home. What a wonderful trip it has been. While struggling through the last bit of my jet-lag I have reflected on my time in Copenhagen. As can be seen from the blog, the four of us have learned so much about Denmark and how different it is from the United States. On the last day of the trip we were asked, "Could you live here?" In all honesty, of course I think I could live in Denmark, especially since I would get such great benefits as a college student (and making money for going to school seems better than the massive amount of student debt I'll be in once I graduate). Unfortunately, I wouldn't get those benefits since I would be an immigrant. Of course the taxes would be a little difficult to get used to, but since there are so many benefits from the State the tax rate doesn't seem as bad.

Since our experience was learning all about how the Danish people are considered the happiest on Earth it would make sense that we discussed this before we left for the States. Obviously the Danes have their own problems, no country can help flourishing in all aspects, but I am not convinced that the people of Copenhagen are happier than we are in the U.S. From the beginning of the course we all took in the spring, growth was a word used to describe flourishing. Even though there are multiple governmental programs that help out the people, none of them seem to promote growth, but rather just to help people reach one certain state and stay there. Growth and achievements are not recognized for the fact that everyone needs to be equal. Equality is a great thing, but while being in Copenhagen I have noticed that equality can hinder growth for people are also suppressed by laws in order to make everyone "equal." But also what of the immigrants? This is now becoming a large problem for Denmark. The Danes stress equality, yet there are many laws that hinder immigrants becoming equal with the Danes.

So maybe the low expectations, sense of trust, and programs offered have labeled Denmark as the happiest country on Earth, but are they really that happy? While I have seen examples where the answer to the question is yes, there are also places where I can see that the Danes may be the happiest on Earth but it is still not happy enough. Should the Danish people be striving for more happiness, or is their contentedness enough? I do not have the answers for all of my questions, but isn't that philosophy? By studying a topic more in depth don't we end up with more questions that we started with? We might have thought we understood happiness and the happiness within Denmark, but from traveling to Copenhagen it seems as though we are far from fully understanding, but at least we have enough understanding to discuss it within our studies.

Overall, this was an amazing trip and I hope future students are able to follow in our footsteps, to try and understand a concept that has turned out to be harder to define than most would think: happiness.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Final Thoughts on the Danish Experience

After finally settling in back at St. Lawrence for summer research in economics, I've had time to reflect on my experience in Copenhagen in relation to human flourishing. Overall, the trip abroad challenged my previous intellectual dispositions and really showed me how people live in a culture with a different mindset and attitude toward everything they do.

One of my main interests in this trip was what the ramifications of the Danish welfare state and health care system on human flourishing there. A cursory analysis at the system shows that there are clear benefits to such a system - one's health care is largely paid for, there are no hanging burdens of debt after a college education, and the expenses for child care are heavily subsidized. However, the economist in me also emphasizes that while these are seen benefits, there are unseen costs to these state activities. As the economist Milton Friedman famously said, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The 25% Value Added Tax, 40%-50% income tax, and 180% tax on motor vehicles are just some of the examples of how the Danish government funds the welfare state.

The interesting difference between the United States and Denmark is not as much the welfare policies but more how people react to it. People living in Denmark are generally fine with paying higher taxes in exchange for state services in a way that people in the US are generally avoidant of. We therefore run into an interesting problem of correlation and causation - are the welfare policies of Denmark creating a sense of community that makes them okay with the taxes, or does the homogenous nature of the small European country explain why they are more tolerant of state interference? The answer is probably a bit of both. Either way, my general conclusion after experiencing the country first-hand is that the happiness exuded in Denmark is more a cause of the welfare policies than an effect of them.

The flourishing we saw in Denmark was a more stoic form of happiness that we generally don't think of when we think of the American 'pursuit of happiness'. Instead of attempting to find joy in material success or achievement, Danes find happiness in family, as represented in their period of hygge, or coziness. We saw this very well when the city closed down around us by 4:00pm, when everyone goes to their homes to spend time with family. As a result of this way of looking at happiness, Danes aren't as upset when things don't go their way, and can bounce back much easier than the American conception of happiness would afford us. Personally, this type of happiness really resonated with me and is something I'd like to strive for as a move forward in my life. To be fair, there can be drawbacks to this way of looking at happiness - it can be stifling and possibly unfulfilling to never have high expectations and experience the high highs and low lows brought about by them. If anything, the trip told me that trade-offs abound in different visions of happiness, and it takes a plurality of views to have a robust idea of what happiness actually entails.

I Can See My House From Here!

     On our last day in Copenhagen we were set free to pursue our own flourishing about the city, though only after meeting in our classroom one last time to discuss the sum of our experiences and what we have learned in our time here. To start, we made a list of some of the keys to the Danish model of flourishing that we have seen or been taught about. They were:

- homogeneity   - low expectations   - equality          - contentment
- security           - humility                - trust                - family (nuclear & national)
- socialization   - moderation            - togetherness   - sustainability

There is some overlap among ideas here, but these twelve terms do well outlining our (all too brief!) experiences of life in Denmark, and why it might so consistently be ranked among the happiest countries.
     When asked what we learned about Danish flourishing that we will carry back to the United States with us, one thing we discussed, which I believe highlights an important difference between Denmark and the U.S., was the Danish emphasis on family, or the idea of "hygge" that we have discussed in some of our posts here. Of course "family values" are still very much a part of our national and political discourse in the United States, but in Denmark they have a considerably different meaning. Particularly because the Danish population is so homogenous, it is easy to perceive the entire nation as a kind of family - or tribe, as the idea was explained to us in our welcome to DIS and in our lecture about the welfare state - with similar, rather than competing interests and an overarching idea that everyone has a responsibility to look out for everyone else.
     Where we tend to tack political significance onto the idea of family values, that's not really an issue in Denmark because everyone's values are pretty much aligned. While the size and diversity of the United States population might make this sort national cohesion seem unlikely, even among our own families and friends we saw room to improve the way we spend time together by simply being more conscientious, by valuing what we have.
       Our group agreed that, strict immigration regulations aside, we certainly felt we could be happy living in Denmark, but not in any way that was unattainable to us in the United States. Recognizing that we are all tremendously privileged to have been able to experience this past week and a half, and that in America that sort of capability is indicative of the individual success freedom our country posits as "flourishing," at an individual level there was nothing especially alien about the Danish people or culture. Certainly some things they accept as normal would seem "outlandish" in the United States (the freedom they afford their children, for example), but the personal outlook at the core of the Danish way of life (the philosophy!) seems, to me, utterly agreeable; indeed, any of the values listed above would surely be recognized as "good" in the U.S. as well.
     Following our discussion we went out into the city to try and do everything we hadn't been able to. We managed to accomplish a fair amount, including a climb up the spiral stairs outside the spire of the Church of Our Savior, which presented a beautiful panorama of the city and far beyond, and lunch at a hot dog stand which, apparently, are very popular in Copenhagen. Even though Garrett and I accidentally ended up with odd sausage burgers topped with cabbage and mayonnaise instead of hot dogs, our philosophical growth from here allowed us to appreciate their unique deliciousness all the same... Sort of.
     In a more applicable example of applied philosophy, we split up after lunch so that we would each have time to see and do what we wanted, accepting even our small group's diverse interests. I visited the beautiful (and free!) botanical garden, one of the many green spaces set amidst the cement and cobblestones of the city, and then took a brief visit to the National Museum (also free!) before we all met up with Dr. McCarthy and her family for our last dinner in Denmark.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Danish Children in the Classroom: "Little Adults" with Big Potential

Lunchtime!  This girl prepares to set her place at the table. 
Rock and Roll... A wide selection of musical instruments free for children to use

Arts and Crafts... Children gather around their pædagog in one of the "creative" rooms

Three young girls stand outside the Huset by themselves

Although we have primarily focused on foreign aspects of Danish culture throughout our trip thus far, one fact of life here in Copenhagen is laughably familiar to us North Country folks: completely unpredictable weather.  Waking up to a chilly and grey Scandinavian “summer” this morning, I reluctantly put on long pants, long sleeves, a sweater, and raincoat.  It wasn’t long, however, before I was stuffing my layers back into my purse, and wishing I’d brought along sunglasses. 
Perhaps it could be attributed to ancient Viking ancestry, but Danes are a hardy, resilient bunch.  It might be lovely outside one minute, or a cold, downpour the next; snowing in the winter, or sunny in the spring; but no matter the elements in Copenhagen, there is a woman in heels somewhere, peddling her bicycle with a child in tow.  This kind of strength and positivity—the ability to resolve, overcome, or even repurpose challenges while maintaining a unique closeness with nature—is instilled in Danes from birth, then nurtured and maintained as the government demands, for the rest of one’s life. 
Today in class we discussed state-sponsored childcare institutions as well as the public school system in Denmark.  Maja Sbahi Biehl, the Program Director of Child Diversity and Development at DIS, explained to us how childcare and education programs reinforce the ideals I mentioned earlier, in social, creative, egalitarian environments.  Daycare for children ages 1-5, public (or, in some cases, private) schooling for 6-17 year olds, and finally, after-school clubs, mark mandatory transitional stages for Danish youths.  Different programs vary in length, but Maja gave an estimated “eight or nine o’clock a.m. to one or two o’clock p.m.” timeframe, for us to get the sense of a typical day for a child.   
To an American, it may seem a strange concept (at least, it did to me) that by default, from year one, a baby is essentially raised in an institution by caregivers, rather than at home with his/her parents.  This way of life is overwhelmingly accepted and glorified by Danes, though, as the best way to raise a happy and healthy family.  In fact, new, non-Danish migrants are greeted with so much skepticism regarding child-rearing, that foreigners are legally required to adhere to Danish standards of “the family unit,” regardless of their traditional notions.  For instance, homes must be of a certain square-footage relative to nuclear family size, to prevent extended relatives from moving in (as is customary in Muslim families, among other immigrant groups).  This presents one oppressive downside of Danish culture.
 In many ways, Denmark really is—if not the “best”—a wonderful place to raise children.  Early childhood caregivers are given four years of high-quality education (the same as any Danish schoolteacher) to ensure from the very beginning that babies are cared for properly.  Toddlers are treated as “young adults,” to emphasize equality, and every child is trusted to be responsible for his/her own actions.  Discipline is minimal in the pre-school and elementary/high school education systems, so that children are taught to solve conflicts amongst themselves.  Teachers intervene only when necessary (sometimes at the cost of bullying or disruptive behavior in the classroom), to instill life lessons in students through experience.   Maja told us that fighting is even taught in one Danish kindergarten, to address conflict and problem-solving tactics!  
The learning environment is very free, self-regulated, and creative, with a strong focus on outdoor activity.  For example, children as young as 3-years-old go on four-day-long group camping excursions to the woods with teachers (no parental contact allowed).  Again, this reiterates concepts of emancipation, independence, and sociability even at an early age. 
We visited the “Free-time Club” youth house, or “Huset,” this afternoon to witness this approach to child development firsthand.  We were greeted in the main office by Henriech, a “pædagog:” one who plays a very different role from a didactical school teacher (or “lærer”), for he or she is trained in psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. (and potentially leadership, creativity, carpentry, and other skills) to specifically “enforce socialization.”  Although it is true that teachers do not much interfere with their students, this is not to say that any child’s behavior or relationships with others goes overlooked; pædagogs oversee and connect with children on a personal level.  They are trusted role models, sources of guidance, and in many cases, friend figures.
I can only most equivocate the Huset to a Boys and Girls Club in America—a cheerful, very active after-school environment for ages 10 to 17.  We were all extremely impressed with the quality and variety maintained by this Huset, and of course, with the amount of freedom allotted to youths.  Each room in the house was designated to a particular field of interest: from crafts, to leather-working, to computers, to “live action role play,” music, sports, video games, and dance, only to name a few.  There was seemingly unsupervised access to side-yard play areas, and even a full kitchen (cooking up a very aromatic “something” close to lunchtime…) for the kids to use themselves.  Henriech told us that older children at the Huset were permitted to choose the menu for an afternoon, shop for ingredients, and cook and distribute meals to the rest of the group (on breakable, ceramic plates, with glass cups, for a change).
Given all of this freedom and few limitations, we were all shocked by the overall civility of these 10 to 17-year-olds.  The house was calmer than most organized after-school programs I’ve been to.  Art projects that lined the walls were painted on actual canvases, indicating a level of competence and respect for materials.  The music room contained all rock-band essentials—instruments, equipment, and a recording studio—for kids Henriech described as “the real deal.”
The formation and evolution —“dannelseof one’s true, personal identity is recognized as a life-long process in Denmark, so the government provides (and mandates) programs to care for, educate, and empower citizens at every stage of life.  While there are certain drawbacks to these regulations, we found Danish children to be very well socially adjusted at the Huset.  That being said, initiatives to lengthen and intensify academic days in the Nordic school system are threatening to change the current Danish education philosophy. United States inspired standardized tests have already been administered to 15-year-old Danish students (who actually scored very low in comparison to the rest of the world).  Now in a time of major social reform, Denmark is faced with new standards regarding education: should students “shoot for the stars” and race to the top?  Or be content to flourish socially, and develop “life skills?”   
Our tenth and final day in Copenhagen creeps closer to the present, after which I will soon be thrown into an American childhood program myself—summer camp.  As the art teacher at a day camp in my hometown, I look forward to bringing parts of the Danish pedagogical approach to my work.  Summertime should be a time for kids to breathe, be creative, run around, and get grass stains; it is the vacation of all vacations, from a rigorous and competitive academic year.  Yes, Danish children are perceived as “Little adults,” but kids will still be kidsLet us all consider our own freedom as grown-ups, too, to be collaborative, adventurous, and explorative these next eight weeks. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Who's Your Daddy?

"Gender Roles in Scandinavia" was the lecture for today, given by Helle Rytkønen, a very interesting woman who was born in Denmark and lived in the U.S. for 19 years before returning back to Copenhagen. To prepare for the lecture we had to read the following article, "Nordic Men on Parental Leave: Can the Welfare State Change Gender Relations" by: Johanna Lammi-Taskula that talked about parental leave and the involvement of fathers in child rearing once the kid is born. This article pointed out that while the rate of fathers taking parental leave is increasing, it is still not as high as it could be and that there are questions to consider when dealing with parental leave. Helle brought the ideas of this articles into discussion with her own discussion of gender roles within Denmark and how the way Denmark wants its citizens to be intrude on others' flourishing.

Helle asked two questions in relation with the article in which we debated. The first was "Are equal people happy or happier?" and the second questions was, "Does the politicizing of fatherhood change gender relations?" As to the answer to the first question that can be pretty debatable, but within Denmark, a country that prides themselves on equality, that equality can be a cause for unhappiness. The country might look happier if they are overall seen as all equal, but by trying to pursue equality some people's happiness is taking away. Moms who want to stay at home with their kids may not find equity within the system to be flourishing since they are forced to share an equal amount of time with their kids with the father. While this can be seen as an issue there is no doubt that the politicizing of fatherhood being a good thing. Getting fathers involved in the kids' lives is just as important as the mother being involved, as has been shown in psychology, but has it lead to a change in gender relations? While you will find more fathers on the streets of Copenhagen pushing strollers it has been seen that gender roles haven't necessarily changed. When fathers take care of their kids they are more likely to go on "adventures" and go exploring while the mother is more likely to stay in the home with the kid, and therefore is still seen as the one who does the chores around the house.

So you want to spend time with your kids? That's great! But you're in trouble if you want to do it too much. Society in Denmark has dictated through the culture norms that a mother will be looked on as a bad mother if she doesn't take care of her kid on leave, but then once the kid hits their first birthday the mother will also be looked down upon if she doesn't give the child to daycare. While the opportunities for stay home with the kids on paternal leave make people happy, the government has a lot of restrictions that make it difficult to fully appreciate the generosity of the parental leave system. In terms of immigrants, legislation has made it very difficult for them to lead their lives how they want to. While the immigrant population makes up only about 3-4% of Denmark's overall population, they are at the forefront of political discussions for they are seen as bad parents. The way in which they raise their children is all wrong and they are forced to follow the way the government tells them to raise their kids. The government is trying to break the bonds within immigrant families in order to bring in Denmark traditions to "help" them. Does this seem right? It seems harsh to force people to do things a certain way, but when it comes down to it they can always leave right? The problems with immigrants also bring up different issues in Denmark. There are strict laws around marriage that deal with not being able to bring one's spouse into Denmark to live if they are from another country (unless they are from Japan, New Zealand, Australia, or the U.S. since these are the ones Denmark is in a friendship agreement with). In the end, does all of this legislation Denmark imposes upon is citizens live up to their ideals of equality? Even if the legislation made everything equal, does true equality make people happier? Or flourish more?

Sorry for no pictures, there were no walking tours today, but that doesn't make what we did today any less fascinating. Revel in the wonderful thoughts presented in this post instead of getting lost in pretty pictures. I'm sure the pictures we will put up in our next posts will make up for the lack of pictures today.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Danish Health Care and the Philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard

Today was a packed day, focusing primarily on the Danish health care system and the life and philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard.

In the morning, we discussed the objectives and efficacy of the Danish health care system. Contrary to the 'negative' approach to health care that many in the United States espouse, the Danish health law prescribes a positive perspective of health: we must both alleviate sickness and pain while also actively promoting a state of physical, mental, and emotional well-being. There are several objectives following from this, including easy and equal access of health services, treatment of high quality, free choice, and easy access of information for patients.

Unlike some characterizations of Nordic health care models, Denmark's health care system is a decentralized model with the state delegating block grants and activity-based funding to regional and municipal authorities. This allows for those on the local level to delegate funding to those areas that they feel needs the most attention, which is appropriate given their knowledge of local affairs. There is also a separation of purchaser (the state who purchases health services) and provider (the health professionals and hospitals who actually provide health care) in order to create an 'internal market' and contract bidding. The idea here is that this will lead to more efficient and effective health outcomes and allocation of health services, while also keeping the goals of equality and universality in mind.

In terms of happiness, we were surprised to find out that the research shows Danes are just as likely as Americans to be depressed. This was surprising as we have heard many times that Denmark is one of the happiness nations in the world. What may explain this apparent discrepancy may be the fact that the Danes who are not depressed tend to be happier than the average American. Regardless, this discovery  reminded us that human flourishing is a difficult goal to accomplish regardless of the society - it requires work and due diligence in order to obtain and maintain.

The afternoon brought us an enlightening journey to the life and work of Søren Kierkegaard. Born in the early 19th century, Kierkegaard is considered to be the first Existentialist philosopher. His main task is Socratic - he aims to tear down our preconceived notions and assumptions and realize how ignorant we really are. While it is very difficult to nail down a summary of his extensive work (he published 40 books and 40 articles in one decade), his focus was on how the individual lives and acts in a world plagued by despair and discord between the finite aspects of the body (our mortality and physical limitations) and the infinite aspects of the mind (our imagination and capacity for conscious thought). Ultimately, Kierkegaard suggests for us to appreciate our lives and turn inward in order to fulfill ourselves as individuals.

We finished the afternoon by visiting his gravesite, which was a powerful experience. He is buried with his father and other siblings in the Assistens Cemetery in Nørrebro, Copenhagen. In the same cemetery lies his former fiancé Regine Olsen, whom he broke off an engagement with in order to pursue his lifelong calling of philosophy.  

The Gravesite of Søren Kierkegaard
We also visited various places affiliated with Kierkegaard, including the church his funeral was held, the place he wrote his most famous works, and the church of his baptism. He lived in the inner city for most of his life, and at the end of his life he ended up heavily criticizing the very church he gave sermons in years before. His emphasis on the individual having a relationship with God and Christ was at odds with the Church of Denmark, which for Kierkegaard symbolized corruption and human failure. Ironically, he ended up having his funeral at this same church.
Plaque dedicated to Kierkegaard's Former Place of Residence

Our discussion of both the Danish health care system and the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard presented to us a possible tension between the collective aspirations of the Danish people as contrasted with Kierkegaard's focus on the individual. Perhaps we can solve this dilemma by looking at Danish culture: Danes may have found the balance between finding an individualism that is sympathetic to notions of collective welfare. Rather than being in opposition to one another, connecting with our true selves requires us to take care of our fellow human beings.

The Group at the Grave of Søren Kierkegaard

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Human Scale in Danish Modern Architecture

Today we visited the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, and during this excursion we were able to experience first-hand how Danes incorporate a human scale to their buildings and artwork. When we first arrived in the museum, we immediately noticed this important aspect of the culture:

A lobby in Louisiana Museum of Modern Art 
The low-hanging ceilings provide the perfect scope for our natural viewpoint. We also see that there is plenty of window space for natural lighting, another aspect of the room that facilitates human livability and scale.  Another interesting characteristic of the room is the many plants growing around the framework of the building. Our philosophy of happiness course focused on how architecture 'speaks' to us about certain visions of happiness, and the emphasis on plant-life and the natural world tells us that people can't possibly flourish without a recognition of our fundamental connection with the nature. We see this again in the side view of the Louisiana Museum:
Side View, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
The overgrown plants on the side of the Louisiana Museum façade reinforces the importance and ultimately the power of nature in our lives. Within the halls of the museum lies some very valuable artwork made by human beings, but we maintain a humble attitude about our accomplishments; nature is ready to overcome them at a moments notice.
Back View of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
We continue to see the theme of human scale in the back of the building. The white portion of the museum was the original structure, and the brown portion was a later addition. The later addition blends into the surrounding landscape, which cements in our minds the importance of both humility (the natural world is overpowering here) and a focus on the individual. Inside the museum, one room stood out in particular in representing these themes:
Exhibit in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

We see an elegant simplicity in the room, with its bare walls and brick floor. We see a lone figure peering out into the outside world, filled with trees and a pond. This figure calls for us to follow its lead and take notice of the natural environment. There is a single portrait on the wall to the left of the figure, which may be interpreted as showing the interplay between the natural and the man-made. The colors of both the portrait and the outside are similar, and as such we can find a little bit of both in each. The exhibit is not presenting a hard dichotomy between nature and manmade, but instead invites us to explore how each interact with one another and to find exactly where the edges bleed over.
Overall, our trip of the museum was enlightening and spoke further on the specific vision of happiness Danish architecture and design speaks to us. For the Danes, the ideas of human scale and dynamic interplay between nature and humanity cannot be separated from the lives they live within these spaces.