Monday, 26 November 2007


“You’re so sadly neglected
And often ignored
A poor second to Belgium
When going abroad.”

What an ingenious summary of the Finnish feeling of national insecurity in Monty Python’s hilarious, although tragicomic, song all those years ago!

Following the devastating school shooting news, there has been quite an uproar among Finns about the Roger Boyes’ article in the Times. The Times website has been inundated with hundreds of comments (over 400, which is amazing in a country with only 5 million people, but how many readers?!) from angry Finns who feel that Mr Boyes has no idea about our wonderful ‘pine and lake paradise’ in the north. True, Mr Boyes doesn’t give a flattering picture of our nation, which, according to him, is plagued with ‘clinical depression’ and ‘at this time of year is sunk in almost permanent half-light’. But hey, Finns, there’s a lot of truth in what he says, isn’t there? I, for one, am trying to get into grips with my annually worsening winter depression by regular dips into a hole in the icy sea!

I couldn’t help looking into some of the comments, only to confirm my suspicions that, as usual, these Finns take outsiders questioning anything to do with our country as a serious personal insult. I feel this reflects a national inferiority complex – quite typical of small, young nations, I have heard. We crave attention and recognition from abroad, but only if it’s unconditional praise, thank you very much. Finland is absolutely perfect, the best in the world – just look at Kimi Räikkönen, he’s a Finn and number one in the world! I am actually astounded how often suggestions for improvement in Finland are simply dismissed with the excuse of ‘oh, but at least it’s not as bad as in X country’ or ‘well, at least in Y country things are even worse’! Why should we smugly rest on our laurels, because we are not the worst country in the world? Denial of any limitations in our society - the typical ostrich syndrome - may give Finns the reassurance that all is well, but it also effectively stalls any progress and prevents our country from moving forward. Indeed, on the morning after November 7th, some of my colleagues insisted that they didn’t want to say a word about the previous day’s tragedy to our students. This, I would say, just shows the gap between the generations teaching and being taught; in effect like denying the youngsters’ shared trauma (after all, it happened at the same type of school as ours). Their false sense of security, and their pride and faith in their pristine country must have suffered an unbearable blow. Better to pretend that nothing had happened, hide their heads deeper in the sand and carry on as normal, stiff upper lip and all that.

As I live a bicultural existence with lots of connections outside Finland, I feel I’m pushed to the fringes of Finnish society by my fellow nationals. My ideas are frequently disregarded as too unorthodox for mainstream Finnish thinking. A case in point is saying anything even slightly critical about our educational system. In an interview with a Finnish journalist after the flood of comments to his article, Mr Boyes challenges:

“You have a brilliant educational machine. But are children measured on the basis of academic achievement alone, and not on the basis of human development?”
This strikes a chord with me. Despite Finnish authorities, and most ordinary Finns constantly blowing their horn about our brilliant results in the OECD PISA studies, I feel quite sceptical of the limited picture these studies give of school systems. In fact, do they prove much more than Finnish kids are well coached to take exams? While attending international conferences I have felt rather embarrassed by so many foreign colleagues’ questions about ‘the Finnish secret of school success’. There is no secret! I have visited many schools in the world, even taught a year in America, and done a short teacher exchange in South Korea, and I must say that we could learn a lot from all those countries. I have realised that Finnish kids may have a lot of facts in their heads, but they don’t easily volunteer to express their ideas, especially in foreign languages. When we had a year’s sojourn in the States our 6-year-old daughter was encouraged to do so-called ‘show and tells’ almost weekly, which encouraged kids to express themselves from a young age, not just passively know things. On return to Finland, it only took her a couple of months in a Finnish elementary school before her enthusiasm was squashed and she was told to silently learn the facts.

Each school system has its pros and cons. It’s an eternal challenge for educators to strive for a better and happier school for all. But dare to utter this aloud in Finland, especially among peers, and you are immediately in the doghouse! Our system is among the elite of the world, don’t you know! We don’t need to think about any improvements, just keep repeating the same old routine year after year.

There is something frightening in such strong ethnocentrism in today’s world. No country can close itself into a self-satisfied state of superiority from the rest of the world any more. Particularly as I am a foreign language teacher, I feel the pressing need to educate my students to grow beyond their mother tongue and cultural identity to be active and confident global actors in the future.


BOFsensai said...

First you should credit Michael Palin as the creator/inspiration for those apt lyrics (and he wrote them with a twinkle in his eye for isolated ol Fin...)

Then, Finland's pride at its PISA success reminds me of the old UK 'Prisoner' TV show episode 'The General'; in it the 'baddy' secret organisation devises a system wherby the villagers are indoctrinated with facts through asubliminal rote method. It seems impressive until our hero, Number 6(Patrick McGoohan) brooks the system by typing into the machine the simple question 'Why?' on which it overloads and self destructs! (Litle guy against system triumphs again!)
But the line that stays in the mind for Finland's hubristic smugmness in this area is:
Aand what have we got?
An intelligent row of cabbages'!
'Thought you'd like to know'!

Anthony said...

Really well said!

It's a pity it takes something like this (the shooting) to give the country ome news cverage :-(