We hiked the steep mountainside leading up to, and then down from, the Norwegian glacier. It was a very difficult hike for me physically. A combination of factors: change in altitude, jetlag, my own conditioning among other factors ultimately meant my Norwegian counterpart (professor Vegard Vereide) and I ended up separated from the group for much of the hike. Once I accepted the reality of my circumstance that I was that student who needed the special attention, and buried my humiliation down inside, we had quite a nice and illuminating hike.
Our isolation allowed us to have an extended conversation comparing the ecosystem, public and higher education, and politics of our two homes. Between this conversation, and my observations for a couple of weeks, I was struck by the similarities as much as any differences between the two. Sogndal Norway and Northern Minnesota are both boreal forests, and due to the peninsula of Norway having been connected to Norther America long after the plants on both evolved, the plants are much the same—both dominated by evergreens and soft-wood temperate forest trees such as birch and aspen. We stopped and sampled blueberries and lingonberries. I was intrigued by one of the pioneer species growing in the recently exposed rock by the receding glacier is a moss that is dark charcoal grey, almost black in color, that I haven’t seen in Minnesota.
During the years that he has led students to this glacier, even though it continues to “flow” down the mountain like a very slow river, it has receded a few hundred meters—meaning it is melting considerably faster than it is flowing down the mountain and adding new snow and ice at the top each winter. I could hear in his voice the frustration with the world unwilling to address the climate crisis. Meanwhile, I was just realizing that if I had visited a few years earlier, I would have had a much easier hike!
On the descent our conversation turned to comparing education systems and politics. Both are wealthy countries with similar gross domestic product per capita though the US has much greater income inequality, greater percentage living in poverty, and Norway provides nationalized healthcare and public education K – PhD (for those that continue to academically qualify for higher education). Of course, they pay for this with a more progressive (and steeper) income tax structure and considerably higher sales tax. Despite that, I never heard anyone “complain” about the high taxes. In fact, in conversations with multiple individuals, I sensed a certain pride that they lived in a society that has decided to pool its resources to ensure that as many as possible are healthy, educated, and happy with a good quality of life. I was spending time with teachers, professors, and educators, so my sample is definitely limited in scope. Everyone did seem happy, relaxed, and fit based on my observations of their interactions with me, each other, and how they carried themselves. They smiled a lot.
In my observations of a few different schools, and conversations with fellow educators, I saw more in common than not between our public education and Norway’s. The teachers, the classroom structure, how they teach, could easily have been happening in Minnesota. They have a national curriculum similar in scope and structure as our state standards, and they are (unfortunately) beginning to implement more standardized testing.
There were some notable exceptions. They have considerably more teachers per students and generally smaller schools allowing for smaller classes (or team teaching a single class). In the primary and lower secondary (approximate to K – 10th grade) the class stays together and the teacher comes to them. They have a much shorter school day, approximately five hours to our seven or eight hour day. The teachers of course work a full day and therefore have considerably more time for planning, professional development, and grading. There school year is a bit longer than ours though. This is expensive and therefore Norway spends about 7.5 % of GDP on education to the U.S. 5%.
As we continued to talk while descending the mountain, Vegard could sense my frustration when I said that the U.S. citizens were simply not wiling to invest the financial resources necessary for universal healthcare, properly funded public education, public transit and infrastructure. He said, “It seems to me that you could afford all of those things if you didn’t spend 700 hundred billion on your military.”
Also informative to me was that he knew how much our military budget is (he was correct, as it is 693 billion for 2019). I couldn’t have come up with that number for the USA, let alone what Norway spends on its military in a casual conversation on the side of a mountain cut off from the internet. It highlighted for me the impact the US has on the rest of the world and how much the rest of the world follows our society and politics. I suspect that while many envy much of what we have, many also must scratch their heads in wonderment at some of the choices we make—especially our current path of seemingly tearing ourselves apart from the inside out.