What is a Folk School?

The idea that young people should be taught skills that are relevant to their socioeconomic and political environments prompted the creation of folk school learning throughout Northern Europe in the late 19th century. These private schools that taught students practical life skills were traditionally supported by local churches and later heavily promoted by trade groups. These socially conscious schools are now established worldwide and have recently become popular again as people seek to apply more sustainable living practices to their daily lives. Here are some examples of courses that are offered by modern folk schools.

Language Arts

Because of government annexations of territories many ethnic groups risk losing part of their cultural identities as their languages fall into disuse. Examples of this can clearly be seen among Native American tribes living in the United States as well as the people of Cornwall and Wales residing in the United Kingdom. A folk school operating within these regions might offer language learning classes that help to keep that element of ethnic culture alive for future generations. Additionally, these schools may offer courses that focus on the ethnic groups’ literary works. Instructors that teach these types of courses at folk academies generally have specialized training or are uniquely qualified because of their close associations with the ethnic groups. They often use knowledge of the group’s oral history to pass information to students through traditional story telling methods.

Skilled Artisans and Handicrafts

One of the objectives of many folk schools is to instruct students in how to make useful and decorative objects in the same ways that their ancestors made them. For example, pottery was needed for dishes and cookware in ancient times, and people living in that era did not have online stores with thousands of mass produced, decorative clay pots from which to choose. Ancient people would likely go to their village potter and purchase pottery from them that was best suited to their needs. The folk academies instruct students on how to make unique pottery pieces from clay using the time tested methods that the village potter would have used in ancient times. The Industrial Revolution also brought automation to the textile industry, and manufacturers were able to mass produce textile items quickly using machines. However, the instructors at folk academies teach students how to spin yarn and weave cloth just as textile artisans did before widespread industrialization. Folk academy graduates often use their new skills to start their own businesses to sell their unique items.

Culinary Arts

Another side effect of the modern age is the proliferation of packaged, convenience foods. Folk academy courses relating to culinary arts often teach students about the types of regional dishes that were served by their ancestors as well as how to prepare the food in the traditional fashion. The schools are usually equipped with kitchen gardens, and students are encouraged to use the fresh produce in their school projects. Folk schools rarely let anything go to waste, and the culinary creations of the students are usually served in the schools’ dining facilities. Instruction on the traditional dishes and cooking methods sometimes inspire students to open their own catering businesses or write their own cook books.


When societies sensed unwanted winds of change that threatened their cultures like the proliferation of mass produced processed food and the obsolescence of ethnic languages, their defense mechanism of choice was education. A folk school helps to ensure continuity of the life skills that communities value.