Norway’s quiet revolution

Linking human rights and education in a revised Constitution has huge implications for those training teachers, says Audrey Osler

July 17, 2014

Children’s parades, marching bands, seemingly limitless ice cream: who could object to such a display of non-militaristic nationalism as Norway celebrates its 200th constitutional anniversary?

The festivities are particularly noteworthy this year for another reason: Norway has revised its Constitution. Yet it’s not just the language of the Constitution that’s been updated. Buried in the document is a new clause addressing education, which may have considerable significance for those working in higher education, particularly those engaged in teachers’ professional education.

A festival takes place across Norway on Constitution Day every 17 May. The Norwegians, proud of their democracy, are assured that their Constitution is an exemplary model. As someone researching citizenship and human rights education, and fascinated by how schools around the globe promote national identity, I was up early one morning to travel to Eidsvoll, the birthplace of the Norwegian Constitution, for the jubilee celebrations.

At 6.30am on Constitution Day, with few people yet about, I was nearly mown down en route by a van of russ: high school students dressed in red overalls, accelerating around corners, horns blaring, in brightly painted hired vehicles. (Curiously, the russ rite of passage takes place in the days before school-leaving exams.) Smaller russ, pre-school graduates dressed in pink join in, shouting “Hip, hip, hurrah!” and waving the national flag.

At Eidsvoll, we viewed the original Constitution and were invited to compose our own personal constitutions. In the late afternoon, adults paraded in the “traditional” bunad – costumes inspired by 19th-century national Romanticism but introduced in the early 20th century. But this year, Norway isn’t simply looking backward: the Constitution has been revised and its language updated. A nation that emphasises the ideal of equality has acknowledged the power of language. People are entitled to read official documents, receive official replies and read the Constitution in accessible language.

The Constitution now proclaims that “education shall promote respect for democracy, the rule of law and human rights”. Constitutions rarely make an explicit link between education, democracy and human rights; Norway’s is also significant in that all laws and rulings – including practices in higher education – must comply with it. In selecting applicants for teacher training, grading papers and awarding qualified-teacher status, teacher trainers will need to confront this constitutional clause about the purpose of education. It will be impossible to claim that anything goes, in the name of tolerance. Undemocratic perspectives in education (such as racist, sexist or other practices that operate contrary to human rights standards) will no longer simply be morally intolerable but will also be unconstitutional. Those engaged in the education of future teachers will need legal guidance; and teachers in training will need to develop an understanding of human rights in legal terms but also as a principle for learning to live together.

Constitutional standards are not an inoculation against extremism, but they offer safeguards. At Eidsvoll we saw youngsters enacting the roles of early 19th-century revolutionaries. Maybe in the 2014 constitutional amendments another, quiet, human rights revolution has occurred.

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