The Danish word for shoe is sko & the Danish word for school is skole. These words are related insofar as they contain similar letters, but what matters for this post is that I am utterly fascinated with both as locations of cross-cultural analysis of people’s use of objects and spaces. Indulge me as I take a stab, after returning from a stint of consulting work on kids and education in Denmark (along with some shoe shopping), at cultural understanding using foot fashion and education as my sites for some casual sociological investigation.
I spend what may be an inappropriate amount of time looking at people’s shoes (sko), especially in less familiar places. Inappropriate because the looking can make me a bit judgy or jealous or fixated on consumption or miss my stop on the Copenhagen Metro because I’ve been looking down for seven stops in a row. But this looking is nonetheless useful, partly because I find shoes to be interesting markers of gender, culture, class, age, and ability to predict weather patterns. And partly because of my own feet. When I was a kid, doctors told me that my feet were in so much trouble that I may grow up not being able to walk. I had to wear special built-up ugly shoes that were never quite normal looking enough for my desire to fit in on the school playground, even despite my addition of shoelaces with cartoon balloons on them in the third grade. And so, my adult overconsumption of nice shoes, and fascination with others’ footwear, may just be me compensating for a childhood of self-consciousness in school and shoe ugliness.
When I work overseas, I find myself not only looking at people’s shoes (“Those New Balance shoes on the hip European teenagers are a slightly different style than the ones found on American endurance athletes and 50-year-old men with wide feet”), but also wondering if it is at all possible to make comparisons across cultures about anything, given that I have not actually walked a mile in a Danish person’s shoes. And I only know the language well enough to read “The Little Red Hen” to kids in Danish, not to translate Kierkegaard (“Ikke mig?” gryntede den eksistentialisitiske gris. “Not I?” grunted the existentialist pig). But the comparisons kept popping into my head as I looked down at the array of footwear on the streets of Copenhagen.
Here is what I tentatively noticed about Danish shoes:
- What I saw in Denmark a few years ago is what I see in the U.S. today, with regard for popularity of certain styles. Having worked in Denmark a few times over the last few years, I come back to the U.S. and keep an eye out for how long it takes the fashion there to reach the shores of Eastern Washington. Turns out, about two years. This means the boots I bought will look great in Walla Walla in 2017.
- Every other pair of shoes is black. Black tennis shoes. Black heels. Black loafers. Black boots. All appropriate for bike riding, by the way. This may be an urban thing, but when you live in a country dedicated practically and politically to the good of the collective, and where standing out as an individual is frowned upon (just look up “Jante Law”), it makes sense that a relatively uniform color palette is present in footwear.
- No sandals until it’s at least 75 degrees. This may also be an urban thing, but it’s probably more about the weather. Bare feet among the grown-up urbanites seem to be taboo until the sun comes out for that one day that locals affectionately refer to as “Danish Summer — The Best Day of the Year.” I had to buy black boots in June because it was 55 degrees and raining. But hey, new black boots. To be unveiled in Walla Walla in 2017, when they’ll be in style here.
In addition to the shoe thing, I spend what I believe to be a perfectly appropriate amount of time thinking about schools. Appropriate because schools are important. Also appropriate because I have a kid in a school. I went to school. I teach in a school. My parents and my husband’s parents worked in schools. I’ve done consulting work for schools. I teach a class about how schools are sociologically interesting. In a celebrity academic death match, I could totally “school” someone if the category was “schools.” But, as anyone reading this who is a K-12 classroom teacher would tell me, I should learn more. Walk a mile in a teacher’s shoes…
In an effort to learn more, my fascination led me to some consulting work that allowed me to visit Danish schools (skoler), talk to Danish teachers and pedagogues (this term refers to education professionals who work more with the social and emotional well-being of kids, often in preschools and afterschool programs, both of which a majority of Danish children attend), and interact with Danish schoolchildren.
But given my tentativeness about the aforementioned shoe claims, how can I make claims about something as important as schools (not that shoes aren’t important — they’re very important — I wear shoes every day!)? About how Danish schools, for example, are better or worse than American schools? For that matter, how can I make claims about *all* schools in each respective country given the vast variety even within national borders? Sociology is about comparisons, but sometimes we create problems when we make the categories we’re comparing a bit more real than they actually are. For vocab nerds, this is called reification. And it’s a more subjective process than pointing out differences between cross-national New Balance shoes. But you can’t take the sociologist out of the girl, so…
Here is what I noticed about Danish schools:
- What I see in Denmark today is what I saw in the U.S. a few years ago, with regard for national revisions to how schools and their corresponding professions operate. Recent nationwide Danish education reform (The National Reform Programme), now a year old, was the subject of much conversation and controversy among education professionals with whom I spoke. The reform means changed mandates from the state regarding teachers’ roles, more time at school for kids, and more collaboration between teachers and pedagogues to promote holistic and child-centered learning, all in an effort to improve children’s academic success and enhance collaboration across different education professions. Opinions on this depended on people’s position in the system, but everyone’s reaction was intimately related to the fact that change is difficult, and autonomy in work is important for job satisfaction. Much of this sounds familiar: Politicians saying reform is better to compete internationally. Teachers saying they are disrespected. Pedagogues saying they’ve got to take on new tasks that they’re not trained for. Administrators saying that the overall picture is better for kids even with the bumps of the last year. And kids saying it’s hard to be in school until 3 p.m.
- Every other child has blond hair, and the continued preservation and promotion of Danish culture in governmental policy (the new government saw a huge increase in parliamentary seats among the Danish People’s Party, which is decidedly anti-immigration), means that schools in Denmark are still, and will likely still be, quite homogeneous. This is despite the fact that there is more variation in quality of school and affluence of surrounding neighborhood than many are aware of. As someone who lives in a community where bilingual education is present given the racial-ethnic make-up of our community, it was fascinating to hear Danish education professionals discuss how the lowering of the age at which kids learn English (now 1st grade) was touted as necessary by some researchers and politicians for effective brain development and language acquisition, but the same argument was never made when Turkish children started entering Danish schools. This is a country with the challenge of a small increasingly multicultural society that is trying to preserve its long heritage while upping its status on a global educational scale.
- No shoes required on the playground, even if it’s 55 degrees. Smart scholars who’ve written lots about Scandinavian childhoods portray images of freedom, independence, and play as necessary ingredients for a good childhood. This is how democracy works — the kids create their own democracies first, without hovering adults. Add to that a society with universal health care and a pretty large safety net, and people are also less concerned with safety rules, fear of unlikely dangers, and kidnapping. All of this helps explain the fact that I saw a third grade child on a school playground, during school, swing from the monkey bars and run around with no shoes on, with no teacher watching, and with no fear or concern that he’d get in trouble.
If only I could have been that Danish kid wearing no shoes on the playground when I was in third grade. He didn’t have to worry about feeling self-conscious. He doesn’t have to worry about getting in trouble. Or what other kids think. But then again, because I had to wear weird shoes, I grew enamored with the lifelong quest for keen observation of objects and spaces, and a thirst for understanding the complexities of oversimplified renditions of difference.