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Eenariina Hämäläinen: A century of cultural and political struggle – Ethics education in the Finnish school debate

Tampere University
LocationKalevantie 5, Tampere
City centre campus, Linna building, Väinö Linna Hall and remote connection
Date24.5.2024 9.00–13.00
Entrance feeFree of charge
Eenariina Hämäläinen.
Photo: Marjo Fränti
Contemplating good and evil, right and wrong, is a central part of education. In Finland there has been a debate over the past hundred years on whether ethics should be taught in comprehensive schools based on religious denominations or to all students collectively. M.A. Eenariina Hämäläinen researched the history of these debates in her doctoral dissertation.

The discussion of religious education is stirring. The possibility of a common religion or life stance subject has been debated in Finland, as has been the question of making religious and secular life stance studies optional for all pupils, also for those affiliated with the church. However, the question of ethics has been sidelined in recent discussions on religious education, even though historically it has been the focus of lively political and pedagogical debate in Finland.

Ethics was proposed as a common subject for all pupils during the enactment of school laws in the 1920s, during the comprehensive school reform in the 1960s, during the high school curriculum reform in the 1990s, and during the comprehensive school curriculum reform in the 2010s. However, the proposal was never accepted, and ethics remained part of the religious education curriculum.

Eenariina Hämäläinen's dissertation is the first systematic examination of the history of debates on ethics education. She investigated the arguments used to defend or oppose common ethics education, the interpretations of ethics as a subject produced by the parties in the debate, and the nature of this educational policy struggle.

”A key finding of my study was that the arguments in favor of common ethics education have remained largely the same throughout the century. Pedagogues and politicians advocating for common ethics have supported comprehensive schooling and emphasized the importance of public school and promoting a common value base such as democracy and respect for human rights despite societal diversification. For them, ethics education has been primarily about citizenship education, not about religious education”, Hämäläinen says.

Arguments in favor of ethics tied to religion, however, varied. The presentation of common ethics was seen as a threat to the status of religion, revealing the central role of ethics in legitimizing religious education. Ethics taught in connection with religion was presented as pedagogically superior, promoting individual growth, respecting the educational right of families and maintaining the Finnish nation, but also as a solution that serves multicultural society and the recognition of minorities.

Debates reflect the growing pains of liberal democracy

According to Hämäläinen, the issue of ethics education is an interesting example of how school subjects and curriculum are not self-evident or neutral but historically shaped and contested matters. The taken-for-grantedness and "naturalness" of ethics tied to religion had to be repeatedly reproduced.

The discussion was characterized by moral concern for the citizens. At the beginning of independence, there was concern about the rebellious people. During the comprehensive school reform, there was concern about young people distancing themselves from the wartime generation. In more recent phases, there has been a call for a stable moral compass for pupils living amidst postmodern value confusion. However, there has been disagreement about whether common or denominational ethics education would promote this goal.

"Mikael Soininen's moral pedagogical proposition of a common ethics became politicized at the beginning of independence, and common ethics was stigmatized as anti-religious, unsuitable for Lutheran Finland, and downright impossible. At that time, the framework for ethics education but also for the debate on ethics education in Finland was cemented, and it would remain fundamentally the same for the next hundred years," Hämäläinen describes.

Debates have also revolved around whether ethics is a neutral academic discipline or a normative, ideological subject matter. Both sides have politicized and depoliticized the issue of ethics education. Hämäläinen states that recognizing the normative nature of ethics does not necessarily mean the impossibility of common education since general education is generally normatively committed in a broad sense.

The struggle over ethics education was part of the process of breaking the church's educational hegemony, expanding public education, and constructing Finnish democracy. Debates on ethics education have been negotiations on how communal life is best organized in a value pluralistic and multicultural society. According to Hämäläinen, the debates examined in the study can be interpreted as a kind of growing pain of liberal democracy.

Eenariina Hämäläinen works as a textbook author as well as a teacher of history, social studies, philosophy, and life philosophy at Tampereen yhteiskoulu upper secondary high school.

Public defence on Friday 24 May

M.A. Eenariina Hämäläinen's dissertation in the field of educational science titled A Century of Cultural and Political Struggle – Ethics Education in the Finnish School Debate will be publicly examined at the Faculty of Education and Culture of the University of Tampere on Friday 24 May 2024 at 12 p.m. in the Väinö Linna Hall (Kalevantie 5, Tampere). The opponent will be Docent Eero Salmenkivi, University of Helsinki. The custos will be Professor Emerita Anja Heikkinen, University of Tampere.

The doctoral dissertation is available online

The public defence can be followed via remote connection