Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

“What do you want to learn today?” My class stared at me blankly, trying to figure out what I wanted from them.
“Um, weren’t we supposed to start the American political campaign?” asked A.
“Yes, but we’re trying something new first,” I answered.
In the back, H raised his hand. “political system,” he said. I don’t think they were quite getting the exercise.
“Okay, good,” I wrote it on the board, “what else? What would you like to learn that you think we might not cover? What have you spent your lives wondering about?” With a bit more prompting, they began to suggest things: cultural norms in America, food, singers… still, they played it pretty safe. Nobody shouted “hang-gliding” or “how to paint one’s nails” as I’d expected. Finally, A raised her hand again.
“But aren’t you, the teacher, supposed to decide what we study?” Thank you for playing my straight man, A.
“Yes. We could decide that way. Anita, the head teacher (let’s call her the president) and I (VP, okay?) could decide. What would be good about choosing that way?”
One of the Sara’s decided she had had enough. “Well, obviously, you know how to teach us.”
“Good,” I said. “That’s true. On the other hand, we’re not the ones actually learning, so there’s a downside; we don’t properly represent your interests. How else could we decide?”
One girl answered, “vote.” H suggested, “class council.” We went through different methods of governing the class, debating the pros and cons of each. The Norwegian reluctance to break traditional class norms slowly gave way under our probing discussion. They thought about the result of anarchy, matched individual choice against expert opinion, discussed the need for representation of everyone, and learned about how majority rules means forgetting the minority. Finally, I stepped back to the front and made the connections between American democracy and our exercise. 

For the next two weeks, the kids are going to be doing a project on the American elections. In groups, they’ll research a candidate and then present him/her. As I presented the Republican candidates and we discussed the situation in America today, it became clear that it’s going to be very difficult to explain how conservative the States are. Even the strongest American liberals are ten times more conservative than Norway’s most rightwing group. Things like having a female president, abortion, and healthcare are non-issues in this country—they can’t understand how they can be so divisive in the States. As I listed the candidates’ stances, their faces knotted into confusion. Finally, as though to pick at least one issue to understand thoroughly, they requested an explanation of Obama and healthcare; why would anybody be against national insurance? I labored to explain how sketchy the actual proposal was, and that people were frightened that they wouldn’t have control over their own health care. I told them about fear of “death panels,” where doctors would decide who lives and who dies. Very different from nowadays, where money does. (I may have leaked a little of my own political stance into the class discussion. I’m going to have to be more careful).

After the class, A and two other girls called me over to ask about the death penalty. They were shocked by American standards. A explained,  “even the… man… who, at Uttøya, on July 22, yeah? I sometimes wish he would die, but I couldn’t condone a death sentence.” Another of the girls agreed, “that would bring us down to his level.” I wanted to applaud. These high schoolers give me hope for humanity’s future. 

As they walked out, A turned back to me. “You know, it’s so hard for us to understand the American system. Because here, the government makes sure everyone has free education, and there’s almost no unemployment, and health care for all. And the thing is, it really works. So we can’t understand anything else. Because it works.” That, I think, may be the final word in favor of the Scandinavian system: it works. More than that, it’s starting to seep into my psyche. The desperate clawing to the top of the heap seems less and less important as months go by, and I'm beginning to understand that rather than become something extraordinary, there's something to be said for being simply extraordinary at the ordinary.

There are downsides to Norway’s safe, equal lifestyle. People don’t need to push themselves, they’re not as competitive, and they don’t smash their way to the top with the glorious heroic desperation that Americans evince. It makes masters literature classes much less exciting. It ruins elections (where was the drama? the tv mockery, the nasty slogans, the backbiting?). It doesn’t make for good movies.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this: Norway has free healthcare and education, while America rivals that with its free public bathrooms. So, to put it bluntly, Norwegians prioritize their longevity and their children’s futures, and America cares about shit. 


  1. Yeah, Norway's getting under my skin, too. My blood pressure is a bit lower. I smile a lot more. I sleep better here, too. I am getting better work done, spending fewer hours doing it. And I have a Ph.D.... so it's been a few years since I have had to hack it out on minimum wage. I also learned that one of my neighbors back home got hurt, lost his job, and lost his house. I don't know how we got ourselves so turned around, but I hope we can find our way back in a positive direction.

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  3. http://www.rockpapercynic.com/strips/2009-04-16.gif

  4. Brian Deane, I love it. Brilliant.
    Davin, good to know it's affecting everyone. And we need to plan a Bergen Fulbrighter reunion! I'll get on that, as soon as I get a minute...

  5. I like this post and the way you have worded priorities in both countries and systems. Our American assistant has tried to explain to my high schoolers how he admires our free education and healthcare system. And it doesn't work as well in France as in Scandinavian countries.
    I also enjoyed the cartoon drawing.