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Sweden

History & Background

Sweden is a Scandinavian nation of nine million people living in a country of 450,000 km in size. Many of the inhabitants live in cities in the warmer south. Much of the state, particularly in the arctic region, remains sparsely settled. Sweden's government has evolved over the centuries. It has changed over the years from an elected ruler to an absolute monarchy to the current government largely run by an elected parliament with a constitutional monarchy. In 2001, King Carl XVI Gustav survived an attempt by many voters in Parliament who wanted to do away with the monarchy altogether.

Sweden in the 1950s throughout the late 1970s had a standard of living that many civilized nations wanted to emulate. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, Sweden found itself battling high unemployment even as it wrestled with the problem of assimilating a fast-rising immigrant population. For a number of reasons, including a shift from a liberal parliament to a conservative parliament, the government of Sweden undertook reforms in every level of education in the early and mid-1990s, hoping to keep the literacy rate from plummeting and to increase the number of people with jobs. By 1995, Sweden's literacy rate reached 99 percent. In March of 2001, the country's employment situation approached a healthy state again, with only a 3.9 percent unemployment rate.

Sweden is a European country with a comparatively short history because of violent climactic changes many years ago that drove residents southward. The area that makes up today's Sweden, together with connected nations today called Scandinavia, emerged after the departure of the glaciers that had covered all terrain for millenniums. Once woods, vegetation, and grains emerged from the soil, predator and prey prowled the land, followed by early homo-sapiens hunters from the warmer lands to the south (in what is today Europe). Not until 100 B.C. did Sweden's climate warm enough to encourage wider settlement, approximately equaling today's climate by the eighth century. Thus, the culture and lifestyles of the people here lagged far behind Roman and Grecian civilizations.

That today's Swedes are so literate is intriguing, particularly because early Swedes were a non-literate people, leaving no written records. Information about these early Swedes comes from the observations of literate foreigners—mainly the Roman conquerors—plus secrets that archaeologists have obtained digging in the earth for artifacts such as primitive hatchets and arrow tips.

For hundred of years Sweden was a country beset with widespread unrest. Most notably, chaotic conditions were caused by invasions of warlike peoples such as the Germanic tribes in the fourth and fifth centuries (A.D.). Not surprisingly, the Swedish language contains words drawn from the languages of its primitive, so-called "pagan" tribes, as well as Germanic and English words that show the influence of invader and missionary alike. The Swedish language is characterized as Indo-European, and it has much in common with Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic.

Some Viking conquerors that invaded Europe came from parts of Sweden, as well as from Denmark. The early Christian missionaries (ninth through twelfth centuries) were intent on bringing their religion to serf and king alike in feudal Sweden, but they brought with them the gifts of reading and writing as they brought the native people through the process of conversion. The first schools in the country were cathedral schools established in the twelfth century and common in the thirteenth century.

By the reign of Eric IX in the twelfth century, Sweden had become a Christian nation and would become an official Lutheran country (under authority of the king) by the early seventeenth century.

Sweden's king united with the kingdoms of Denmark and Norway, late in the fourteenth century, under the Kalmar Union. Then, Sweden fell for a time under the domination of Denmark. The Danish King Christian II massacred many Swedes in 1520 in the city of Stockholm, including the assassination of a senator who was the father of the future Swedish King Gustavus I (1496-1560). Gustavus I, imprisoned by the Danes for a time until his escape, was elected king by the Swedish Riksdag (Parliament) in 1523. That event coincided with the secession of his nation from the Dane-controlled union and led, in 1527, to the founding of a national Protestant Church.

The Swedes built a powerful navy and became a dominant political power in Europe under Gustavus I, backing up demands with the use of force. Gustavus also used force to extricate his country from the economic tyranny of the Hansas, the powerful north German tradesmen dominating foreign trade who banded together in a federation of more than seventy cities under the feudal mercantile power known as the Hanseatic League.

Sweden was one of the later nations in Europe to begin schools of higher education. From the thirteenth century, the country's young scholars traveled to Paris, France; Prague, Czechoslovakia; Greifswald in Pomerania; or to Leipzig, Germany, for their studies at the university level. At last in 1477, the Swedes established the University of Uppsala with a charter granted by the Pope in Rome. Following the dissent of Martin Luther with some teachings of the Catholic Church posted on a Wittenberg church door in 1517, the Reformation swept across Sweden, leading to a strong interest in learning so that all citizens would become capable of reading the Bible. Lutheran teachings were especially popular with the nobility in Scandinavia, many of whom already were chafing at the confining regulations of the Church in Rome, as well as the church habit of taking properties it coveted.

Gustavus I defeated the Germanic city of Lübeck in 1537, which allowed Sweden to defeat the tyranny of the Hanseatic League and to emerge as an economic power in Northern Europe. At the height of his power, in 1544, Gustavus I ordered the cessation of the practice of electing a king in favor of succession to the crown by members of the Vasa family, starting with his male heir and son, Eric XIV.

In 1571, following the example of the spread of schools in Germany after the Reformation, Sweden passed legislation authorizing the establishment of grammar schools that the nation's youth could attend for eight years. Sweden's equivalent of secondary schools materialized in 1611. The state passed a law that added four additional years of education in selected cities that had cathedral schools.

Sweden entered a long and violent period of aggression toward other nations under King Gustavus II, better known as Gustavus Adolphus, who conducted an almost nonstop succession of wars during his time of rule from 1611 to 1632. The affairs of the country, at the height of Sweden's stay as a world power, were conducted by its chancellor, Count Axel Gustaffson Oxenstierna (1583-1654). Following Gustavus Adolphus' fall on the battlefield and early death, Count Oxenstierna wielded enormous power under the rule of Christina, daughter of Gustavus II, who never married. During her short reign, Christina was patron and backer of the arts, literature and scholarly endeavors, but her enlightened attitude toward learning was accompanied by near-diffidence toward affairs of state.

After she stepped down in 1654 to convert to Catholicism and to live in Rome, Christina's throne was taken over by her cousin King Charles X, although Count Oxenstierna remained a strong voice in national affairs. From 1655 to 1708, Sweden continued its path of aggression, winning a war against Denmark but suffering a staggering defeat in battle on the soil of Russia. (A century later, during the Napoleonic Wars, Sweden ceded Finland, its grand duchy, to Russia in 1809.)

The Swedish nation began to look to education as a civilizing and stabilizing force in the late eighteenth century. That was a time of national concern and political trauma following wars with Russia, Denmark, and Norway, and the 1792 political assassination of King Gustav III, an enlightened but contradictory and power-hungry despot, who spoke several languages and was passionate about world literature, while he was in attendance at a masked ball.

Literacy rates improved dramatically as the state emphasized the need to read and write. About half the population of Sweden was able to read by 1800. Nonetheless, Sweden's class-conscious society practiced a segregation of upper class children from those perceived as belonging to the lower class.

Sweden's last war was a confrontation with Norway in 1814. Since that time, most of two centuries, Sweden has stayed neutral in wartime. It replaced its lust for warfare with a zest for quality education.

In the 1820s, Swedish thinkers began to consider ways to reform schools in the nation, and perhaps the most important educational development in the nineteenth century was the decision to make education compulsory. The state, looking for even greater success in the development of an educated people, passed a law in 1842 requiring compulsory education of boys and girls. Sweden was a poor country then, and many of the 1.5 million who left the land for America and other nations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did so because hunger had become a daily nemesis. Emigration continued into 1930 but eventually lessened, as Sweden became an industrial power and an attractive state to dwell, following the close of the 1940s It also became a welfare state, guaranteeing citizens a free education and healthcare at citizen expense.

Under the reign of Karl XV (1859-72), a system of local self-government was adopted in 1862. Parliament then was reformed in 1866, becoming bicameral; that system lasted more than a century until Parliament became a unicameral system in 1971. The citizens of Sweden appointed members of Parliament via election. The elected assembly in 1866 was hardly representative of the Swedish population as a whole, and the nobility and special interest groups such as the Lutheran clergy were given high status. Nonetheless, those who made a living from the land, while generally not high in status, were unlikely to object given the harsh treatment of peasants and serfs in nearby Poland and Russia.

Although participation was not compulsory, in the nineteenth century Sweden's brightest pupils, selected by examinations, attended elite schools of learning. This was changed by the state in 1904 into a ten-year program divided into the primary and junior secondary school (realskola) of six years, followed by four years in an upper secondary school referred to as the gymnasium.

At that time, a fifth of Sweden's population lived in Stockholm, the capital, and other cities, and many more were destined to move to urban pockets from rural areas to work in industry throughout the twentieth century; Swedish leaders thought the time was right for improvements in education. Swedish industry, communications, and government all found a place for educated or vocationally savvy youth. The twentieth century saw Sweden thrust from an agrarian economy into an industrialized society. Perhaps as a civilizing influence, throughout the twentieth century, Swedish schools at every level have emphasized theater, music, and the arts. This influence harkens back to theater-loving Gustav III, whose own assassination ironically later was the subject of a fictive opera by Verdi, "A Masked Ball."

Massive changes occurred in Sweden in the 1990s, as public opinion soured on the government after years of high unemployment, soaring taxes, and government welfare spending. After more than a half-century with socialists in the ruling party, the Moderates were voted into Parliament in 1991, with Carl Bildt as prime minister.

As of 2001, school and university decentralization continues to take the power to govern directly out of the government's hands and puts much decision-making directly into the hands of educators at the local level. The Swedish Parliament outlines its objectives for quality education and the education of teachers. Individual administrators at Swedish schools strive to fulfill those objectives. In the 1990s through 2001, many in Sweden talk about a need for further reforms. Although literacy is high, scores by Swedish youngsters on standardized tests have been disappointing when compared to scores of similar youths from other developed nations.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceSweden - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education