Growing up in a household with five kids and a teacher and a pastor for parents, I was always looking for ways to make an extra krona or two. In fact, I was quite the entrepreneur (Warren Buffet style).
In middle school, I figured out that I could get paid to lead study circles—courtesy of the Swedish government. I led an environmental studies group with my peers and a “remember with music” circle for older people with dementia. (I later learned that there is a name for this: music therapy!)
Since then, I’ve come across study (or learning) circles only a couple of times in the United States. Cecile Andrews describes how to explore simple living through “simplicity circles” in The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life. And the new Transition Streets project (meeting with your neighbors to learn about sustainable lifestyle changes) has a study circle feel.
So I was interested to hear a couple of different calls for study circles in response to a possible (and then actual) Trump’s victory. The first one came from an op-ed, Five Ways to Fight Fascism in the Age of Trump. The other came from Van Jones in his Facebook live stream to depressed progressives the day after the election on “Surviving the #WhiteLash.”
What Are Study Circles?
Study circles started in Russia in the late nineteenth century and gained popularity in Sweden in the early twentieth century—starting in 1902, to be precise. Oscar Olsson, a Social Democratic congressman, designed the circles to combine learning with socializing in a democratic setting.
Study circles evolved hand in hand with the workers’ movement and they provided a way for working class people to get educated on important issues related to politics and civics. The beauty of the circles is that there is no teacher, but rather a facilitator, and the model relies on group participation.
Today, Sweden has several organizations that offer study circles, Arbetarnas Bildningsförbund (ABF)—the Workers’ Educational Association—being the oldest and most well-known. From the website:
Democracy, diversity, justice and equality are the foundations of the ABF’s operations. Our goal is for people to study together and form an opinion on key social issues. Everyone should have the opportunity to gain the knowledge to influence their own situations, and to be able to influence local and global developments.
Study circles provide liberal education for the broader population, for improved civic engagement.
Why We Need Study Circles
The public school system general does not teach people how to think critically or to look at the big picture/take a systems approach to problems. Said another way, most people in our country never experience a liberal education. (Approximately 32% of adults 25 and older have a college degree and only a fraction of these people attend a liberal arts college.)
As such, it is imperative that we create opportunities for continuing adult education—and I’m not talking about formal education. I’m talking about the opportunity to join with friends, neighbors, or community members to learn about a topic together. This is not something that can be done with a top-down approach—it requires a grassroots movement.
Anti-intellectualism in this country is strong (thanks reality TV and corporate media!) and it has taken our country in a disturbing direction. Study circles offer a solution—a non-threatening way to learn in community.
How to Form a Study Circle
You don’t have to wait for an association to take the lead on this. Here are a few ways to get started:
- Start a Transition Streets group with your neighbors.
- Pick a topic and advertise through your local library. You might select a book such as The New Jim Crow to study over the course of several weeks.
- Form a group with other members of your faith community.
- Find others interested in simple living and start a simplicity circle.
- Walk and talk—hike through the woods and learn about your local flora and fauna.
- Create a learning circle through this website.
- Host a Democracy School.
I was part of a Transitions Streets group in Decorah, Iowa earlier this year, and it was a wonderful experience. We all took turns facilitating and learned so much from each other. I look forward to bringing more study circles to the region when I return from my stint out East.
I guess I’m coming full circle (except this time, I’m not doing it for the money!).
P.S. Let me know what ideas you have for creating your own study circles.