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Finland, Values, and Phil Berger

Jennifer Mangrum

We all are familiar with many of the first colonies in the United States. From early childhood we are taught that the Pilgrims came to this land to escape persecution under the English Crown and those that made it here found freedom, success, and the right to pursue happiness. Looking back at the history of granted colonial charters we can see that “[t]he New England colonies, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were conceived and established “as plantations of religion.” These settlers of the eastern seaboard came here because of passionately held religious beliefs that were not accepted under English rule at the time. In some cases these religious groups had been persecuted. Some of these groups that had faced the worst persecution were groups under the umbrella term, Anabaptists, these are what we are familiar with today as the Amish. Other groups were Roman Catholics, and monastics orders such as the Jesuits and others. Also, there were the movements that gave birth to today’s evangelicals, the Puritans, which are more familiar as Southern Baptists today being the largest heir to the mantle, along with Reformed churches. No one will deny that these groups faced extreme hardships under English rule, the Church of England was the religion of the state, and many of these other sects could not find places to worship, let alone jobs because of the stigma attached to many of the ways they sought to live out their faith. So as they came to the New World, they hoped to create their own “city on a hill” and a witness to England, and the world that God was with them.

Jennifer R. Mangrum, PhD. is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at UNCG.  She is a former elementary classroom teacher in Guilford County Schools (1989-2001). She is committed to social justice and equity in the classroom and an advocate for public schools.  Jennifer is new to the political scene but preparing to go all in!

Finland, Values, and Phil Berger

On Easter Sunday, I arrived in Oulu, Finland.  Five of my student teachers from UNCG and I were going to work in Oulu International School for two weeks.   I knew we’d learn a lot but I didn’t realize how transformative it would be for all of us. We left with a revived hope for education, new perspectives and ways of thinking and what it means to be an American citizen.

Finland’s education system has been ranked among the best of the world since 2001, ironically, the year we passed No Child Left Behind in the U.S.  This is not to say their education system is perfect nor do they claim it to be. Their scores can be partially attributed to their homogeneity and their framework of “social democracy”,  a term they shared with me our first day. Finns pay a hefty tax each year but all Finns receive free healthcare, education (including college) and a pension at retirement.

But I believe at least part of their success is their collective philosophy about children, family and life.  The Finns put a lot of emphasis on education and by that I mean “the learning process”. They do not put a lot of energy into grades and ranking.  Report cards only go out twice a year, the end of each semester. Students do not take a standardized test until middle school and even then it is not compulsory. Oulu International School doesn’t use teacher made tests either. What type of work did we observe children doing?  The first grade was researching living things and creating water color presentations and reports. The second grade had been designing and building homes from around the world and we attended their exhibition. In middle school, 8th graders were writing and delivering persuasive speeches and in ninth grade students had just written fabulous diaries about their lives.  All the projects were completed at school. Rubrics were used to assess each product and when I asked students what score 0-8 they were anticipating, the majority of them said 5 or 6. 7s and 8s are given only when the work process has been exceptional. Notice I said process. They are not scored on their finished product but what skills they practiced along the way.

The Finns have short schools days, 9am-2pm with a break every 45 minutes. Oulu International calls itself a “Moving School” and students are expected to get up and play or move around as often as they need. Teachers intentionally see children in strength-based ways and build on those strengths. If a teacher notices a child off task they don’t scold the child or give them a consequence because they expect and understand that children will lose attention. Instead, they ask the child what they need to be successful. Sometimes it’s a new type of seat or a quick jog around the playground or maybe just choosing a better space to work in.  Rooms are noisier, busier and happier than many classes I’ve witnessed in the U.S. Finnish teachers also give very little homework and anticipate that children have other things to do once they leave the school building.

Another major difference is the autonomy that children are given at school. They come and go without walking in lines down the hall or hearing bells to dismiss at the end of the day.  They serve themselves their own hot lunch, carry breakable plates and glasses to their seats and when the occasional accident happens, they clean it up. They find their way home by city bus, bike or walking and if they feel bad in the middle of the day, they just go home.  They learn to knit, sew, build, cook and create at school. I saw students sawing wood, drilling holes, and knitting scarves. They are trusted to work diligently and carefully and no one imagines that they wouldn’t.

So what does this have to do with our political system or my hopeful run for the General Assembly? First, I recognize that we are not Finland. Nor do I strive to be Finland.  But I did learn several lessons from observing, discussing and reflecting on the trip. Finland believes that every man, woman and child has a right to a decent living, to be happy and to have a good life as a citizen of their country. Because these are shared values, they make laws and decisions that reflect those values.  For instance, when children begin school at age 7, they begin learning how to be self-sufficient and learn skills that will help them later in life. Music, art and movement are integral to their school day because of the impact they have on one’s happiness and whole being. Finally, children are treated as people who have a voice and are trusted so that they will grow up to be informed citizens who will provide for the future of their country and the lives of the citizens who will follow behind them.

It made it even more clear to me that we, the Democratic Party, as well as our dual party system, need to uncover what values we hold as non-negotiable and set policy and laws in place that support and foster those values. I thought our Declaration of Independence laid this out for us in 1776.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –

If these are our core values, why do we allow Phil Berger to remain in power? He does not work to insure that all men are created equal.  In fact, he does the opposite. He creates laws that discriminate, he defunds schools so that children don’t have the same opportunities when they grow up and he rules the NC Senate as though he were King, grabbing power from our executive branch and ignoring the consent of the governed.

I am more resolved than ever that WE must rise up against this injustice, regardless of party.  We must be clear about what we value and be just in how we create laws that impact our children and families, both today and in the future.  

But the English colonies were not isolated, America was still a dream that would not come to pass for almost another century. The lands of the colonies were bordered with French, Spaniards, and even groups from as far as Austria. Many with different expressions of faiths, seeking asylum in a new land far away from their countries laws. The main issue that would come to pass is the domination of Puritans in New England, and the legacy they left. The Puritans as the precursor to today’s evangelical movement shared many key similarities. For example, the Puritans were find with being considered Anglican, or members of the Church of England, but they sought to “purify” the faith from the stain of Catholicism in their theological views. As such in the New World this idea of a pure faith met others with differing views, and those the laws of the New World mirrored much of the laws of the old, but with a new faith in power. More so, these New England colonies simply passed Old Testament laws as the laws of the land, again believing they were the New Israel, as well as, a better England. In the 1660s Cotton Mather was born who was the Franklin Graham of his time, and he traveled with the goal of repentance for the Kingdom. His particular fervor for faith led many who heard him to commit suicide at tent revivals because they considered they could not be “saved.” Also during his hay day we saw the Salem Witch trials, and the expulsion of women from colonial towns who were even considered to be friends with the witches if they escaped death. While Mather cannot be linked to starting the trials, his faith group found that to be a solid expression of true and pure faith.

So as the development went on, the idea of religion, or a particular religion needing status protection in the current United States is not new. It has been undergirding many denominations expression of faith for hundreds of years. It took the colonies less than 50 years to begin enshrining some religious practices as valid, while criminalizing others. The persecuted became the majority, and with power quickly turned into the thing they despised, the tyrant, the oppressor.

How may this be valid in today’s landscape? Well the Mennonites are still among us, their faith denounces war, and denounces taxation, and they simply live on the land, farming, and building. The Amish are very welcoming to outsiders, and in places like Lancaster will welcome you to their houses or for tours of their land. The Puritan faith however has left us with a generation that seeks a return to the majority days and still seeks to create a law that uplifts their particular understanding of Christianity at the expense of the diversity that our country has. Today we see religious leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr., who uses the Bible to advance paying taxes for war, supporting Donald Trump, and having concealed carry on public universities. This man like the early Puritans seeks to use power to enforce his version of Christianity that is more inspired by Thomas Hobbes than Jesus. For example, Hobbes wrote that man-made religion needs to enshrined, the worshipper needs to feel they are protecting God, and they do this by using law. Now Hobbes rejected this saying it is unfit for a political endeavor, however, it is an accurate description of the faith of the evangelical leaders in our state, and country. It is not like the faith of Jesus that said he did not need a sword, and that the greatest law was how we loved one another.

So as the power of the evangelicals seems to be wrapped up in the current structure of the GOP those of differing faith must recall history, and show how the church in many cases has left its heart of love, for a grasp at absolute power. Any religious expression that demeans the value of others has become the unjust oppressor. Christianity is not free from the stain of power. The good news is that like in the writing of the Constitution the Puritans did not get there way. The protection and establishment of any one religion was rejected. The founding fathers were familiar with religious persecution, and religious oppression in both England and in the colonies. There greatest fear was for it to be repeated. So as progressives we can look out for the faith that builds unity, and we can affirm each other. We can reject modern day witch hunts, as we reject the wall, the immigration ban, and the religious liberty orders. But we must continue to be vocal. As a progressive Christian, it is my job to say this in any church I attend, and to also seek ways we can build bridges. I have seen the history, and I will not let it repeat as many wish for it to do. The Church must not be the State. Because an oppressive and legalistic Church is actually no heir to the wisdom and love of Jesus. So here in North Carolina we must continue to call out attempts at hate, like a marriage amendment and any legislation aimed at the LGBTQ community. We must work together for LGBTQ protections, and for the protection of our immigrant and refugee neighbors. Christians must call out those within their faith that support these acts, because at the heart they are more like the Puritan and Pharisee then like the Jesus who welcomed all people. That is my hope, that as we learn from history we will not repeat it. America hasn’t been too great at that so far in 2017, but my hope is that as we become louder, so will love, and we too will overcome.

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