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Civic Education in Denmark | Country Profiles: Citizenship Education Around the World |

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Civic Education in Denmark

Per Mouritsen Claus Haas

/ 14 Minuten zu lesen

Take a deeper look at the situation of Citizenship Education in Denmark with a focus on the definition, the ecosystem of non-formal CE, the legal environment as well as on stakeholders and challenges. Additionally, there is a chapter about the ambiguities of the conceptualization of citizenship.

Denmark (© bpb)

1. A History of Danish Citizenship Education

As the formal Danish school system was established in the nineteenth century, primary and lower secondary education became tied to promotion of a national-cultural form of citizenship. It included Lutheran Christianity, pre-democratic ‘patriotic’ virtues and sentiments, and – with the rise of Danish nationalism after lost wars against Germany (1848-51 and 1864) – promotion of a romantic identification with the Danish nation. Some of these elements were softened during the twentieth century, as the increasingly unitary and comprehensive Danish common school developed, but Citizenship Education was not fundamentally re-framed within a discourse of democracy until the 1975. The preamble of the new law reforming primary schools in that year stated that:

‘The primary school prepares pupils for life and co-determination with others in a democratic society, and to take responsibility for the solution of communal concerns. Therefore, the teaching and entire daily life of the school must be grounded in freedom of thought and democracy.’

This concern for democratic participation became incorporated into curriculum guidelines of individual school subjects and was progressively established as a central normative reference of the educational system as a whole. However, this process took place without using the actual term ‘Citizenship Education’, or indeed ‘citizenship’, a concept not widely used in public discourse before 2000.

The later 2006 preamble, in addition to similar language about democratic participation, added a passage about preparation for ‘rights and duties’ and re-placed ‘co-determination’ (medbestemmelse) with the vaguer ‘participation’, indicating a subtle shift of emphasis relative to the emancipatory language of the seventies. The onus on democracy as a practice and general ethos which should permeate the entire school, including informal, open classroom interactions, and prepare children to be responsible and active democrats in the wider society, nevertheless remains across the educational system and among teachers.

While this broad notion of Citizenship Education avant la lettre is widely accepted and reflects wider societal conceptions of Danish democracy as a participatory way of life and of consensual decision-making (folkestyre or ‘people’s rule’), it competes with and increasingly blurs into two additional narratives, which have gained importance since the beginning of the millennium. First, whereas seventies’ and eighties’ understanding of democratic citizenship in part reflected reform-pedagogical currents ostensibly aimed to challenge authorities and traditions (including earlier understandings of national and Christian education), politicians now reemphasized socialization goals with connotations of national culture and history to anchor both identity-formation and belonging in a globalized world. This included non-confessional emphasis on Lutheranism as cultural heritage and attempts to re-interpret Danish, Christianity, and History as important ‘identity-creating’ subjects. Secondly, and emerging already in the late 1990s , Citizenship Education is increasingly framed within a discourse of cultural and religious diversity. The political onus, here, has been on conflict resolution and value integration in the fashion of a national liberal version of German-style Leitkultur , rather than inter- or multiculturalism.

This tripartite division of Citizenship Education remains in the comprehensive reform of the primary school, implemented during 2014, in the overall legal framework, and within curriculum guidelines . It is also visible, if to a lesser degree, in upper secondary educational tiers. Rather than replacing the democratic conception, the two novel strands overlay and colour the former in a manner which reflects a broader trend in Danish political debate on social or national cohesion and the integration of immigrants, particularly Muslims. Here, national identity and national history, indeed Lutheran church-state relations and ‘secularism’, is often associated with a particularly liberal and participatory brand of Danish democracy , which, in turn, is potentially jeopardized by cultural diversity.

While Citizenship Education as elsewhere in Europe is thus increasingly discussed in relation to immigration-induced diversity, the particular political equations noted are by no means uncontested in educational circles, let alone classroom practices. Some educators (and many politicians) consider Citizenship Education as an identity- and national values based bulwark against multicultural disruptions of cultural cohesion and treat the democratic element primarily as an established national creed to impose unilaterally on newcomers. However, others, for whom the democratic element is primarily a didactic practice category, regard Citizenship Education as a means towards more inclusive processes of intercultural dialogue and understanding, which involve minority and majority pupils alike, and which thematise the very category of citizenship.

These tensions must be appreciated in the perspective of Citizenship Education’s uncertain place within primary and lower secondary subject and curriculum structure. Whereas democratic Citizenship Education (or ‘democratic formation’), in the general law preamble, must structure ‘the entire daily life’ of schools, it has no designated subject, or even place within a subject of its own. In teacher-training bachelors, however, ‘citizenship’ is part of a three-part subject, which also contains elements of (non-confessional) Christianity and philosophy/ethics, and which is dominated by teachers with a background in history/science of religion. This subject, ‘Christianity, Life-education, and Citizenship’ (see next section), while meant to inform primary education in general, is more closely aligned with the ‘identity-formation’ subjects – in particular Christianity – than the social science subject. The latter retains a more traditional relationship to social and political science, as well as optional practical elements such as participation in nation-wide ‘school election’ projects (coinciding with and mimicking national parliamentary elections). However, while Christianity is a quite substantial compulsory subject from 1st-7th grade, pupils do not encounter Social Science until the 8th and 9th grade. In comparison with French, British or American Citizenship Education , pupils encounter sustained discussion and curricular content about the political system, social groups, and democracy relatively late.

2. Definition of Citizenship Education

Within the field of formal education, the notion ‘citizenship´ (= medborgerskab) is used explicitly only within the official curricular guidelines of bachelor of education, bachelor of social education, within specific branches of formal vocational education, and within so-called language centres. The latter are specialized schools that provide teaching in Danish as a foreign language, aimed at various immigrant groups. In none of these instances is ‘citizenship’ defined. Consequently, no officially approved and applied notion of ‘Citizenship Education’ exists within legal frameworks, curricula guidelines, syllabuses, nor through other official policy documents concerning formal education.

In the formal educational sector, overall official guidelines provide a framework for more detailed syllabuses, the specific content of which is the responsibility of local authorities, schools and to some extent teachers themselves. The Danish state has sought to modify this quite decentralized system – which reflects a historical onus among educationalists on curricular school and teacher autonomy – e.g. by implementing obligatory canons for the primary school subjects History and Danish. Curriculum guidelines for all school subjects, so-called ‘Common Goals’ now specify, for each subject and grade, a range of intermediate and end-learning and competence objectives.

While no formal conceptualization of Citizenship Education or citizenship exists, dominant understandings may be located. One of these revolves around the conceptual constellations ‘active citizenship’ and ‘democratic citizenship’, often used interchangeably. The trope is sometimes linked to volunteering and local engagement and the worry that young people are less active, or active in a less institutional, continuous, and non-instrumental manner, in the country’s historically rich associational life – although numbers here are actually on the rise. More importantly, it reflects worries about social cohesion and integration of immigrants. Citizenship Education, here, often draws very specific attention to the participatory aspect of (Danish) democracy. This usage often foregrounds connotations of democracy as a way of life and an ideal of personhood more associated with inculcated obligations, values, and ethos, than with formal and cognitive political education in the institutions and procedures of democracy, let alone rights and interest representation. It also reflects a worry that descendants, in particular, lack insight into what democracy is about. This use is conspicuous where the state and municipal authorities use formal education as a component in integration policy, including anti-radicalization measures e.g., within language centres for immigrants.

While there are indicators of political alienation – the idea that ‘democracy is not for us’ – among the second generation, this seems to be a result of perceived discrimination and hostile national boundary-drawing of politicians , rather than significant differences in the affirmation of liberal-democratic values. In a country where well above 80% habitually vote, descendants do show significantly lower turnouts, in part reflecting (parental) lack of citizenship (and thus also poorer family traditions of voting) , rendering it just as much an institutional and political challenge. A more general challenge for the Danish school system seems to be, not so much the level of political knowledge or actual competence, nor levels of political trust and expected voting, in which Danish pupils scored very high in recent ICCS-surveys. Instead, Danish pupils, as also evident in ICCS-surveys, rank among those least susceptible to non-electoral participation, including demonstration for human rights or the environment, or to considering this important in their adult life as citizens.

3. An Ambiguity in the Very Concept of Citizenship

In a number of books and teaching materials, a crucial conceptual distinction is made between two different aspects of citizenship. In most European languages and in social sciences academic usage, citizenship (citoyenité, citadinanza) refers to aspects of (a) membership of a polity, (b) the (equal) rights and duties of citizens, (c) participation - as either political claims-making or system-supporting ‘good citizenship’ – and possibly (d) identity or psychological aspects relating to each of the above. However, the Danish ‘medborgerskab’ (unlike the Swedish ‘medborgarskap’), in its contemporary usage (unlike its use in the early nineteenth century) does not really connote either the aspect of membership (nationality) or civil rights, which, much like in the German language, are covered by other concepts (‘statsborgerskab’ and ‘borgerrettigheder’ respectively).

This conceptual constellation is currently loosening. However, one very influential author, historian and educationalist, who has been a main student and influencer of Danish Citizenship Education has made a point of stressing the separation between legal and objective aspects (relating to rights and polity membership) and emotional and psychological aspects (relating to identity, belonging, and subjectivity). He reserves only the latter as the main content of citizenship as ‘medborgerskab’ and, by implication, Citizenship Education. This conceptual move, which also downplays citizenship as participation, construes Citizenship Education above all as a matter of character formation (‘Bildung’) and social integration in a multicultural society, which may be a precondition for citizenship in its legal sense, but remains phenomenologically distinct from it. Such an emphasis certainly exploits the progressive potential of citizenship as a more open and inclusive conceptualization of identity than either ethnic or religious identity. However, it also arguably places a number of aspects traditionally associated with Citizenship Education at the margins, including questions of rights struggles and constitutionalism, but also the very delineation of the citizen-demos – in a country where some eight percent of the population, including some young pupils and students do not have citizenship.

The ambiguities of this conceptualization of citizenship come out quite clearly in guidelines and ensuing controversies about the already-mentioned teacher-training subject ‘Christianity, life-education and citizenship’. The constellation – particularly with Christianity as a component – provides a series of easily politicized linkages, e.g. between liberal democracy, ‘good citizenship’, Lutheran secularism, identity and meetings of cultures. In many ways, these encapsulate particular tensions between different understandings of citizenship ‘formation’ as primarily concerned with reflection about individual character, belonging, and social integration within a multicultural and multi-religious society, and less with the substantial preparation of future political citizens and rights-bearers capable of criticizing and influencing the shape of their polity. It is perhaps noteworthy, in light of these very Danish emphases and controversies, that no reference is made to either EU nor Council of Europe guidelines within officially -sanctioned formal education.

4. Ecosystem of Non-formal Citizenship Education

While ‘Citizenship Education’ is finding its way into formal education only sporadically, the situation is somewhat different within the non-formal education sector. Especially within so-called ‘folk high schools’, Citizenship Education has been a key concept since around the year 2000. These schools offer a wide variety of short and long-term educational activities, within almost every subject – arts, athletics, social sciences, philosophy, and so on – as well as more leisure-oriented activities. Folk high schools are significantly inspired by the educational ideas of the Danish priest-poet N.F.S. Grundtvig, as formulated during the nineteenth century. Originally, Grundtvigian folk high schools served as an alternative to the formal educational system, particularly for the rising social class of free-holding peasants. As such, they had a dual aim – to provide traditional school learning (reading, writing, but also modern farming techniques), and to provide a spiritual – national, religious, but also democratic-political - ‘awakening’, which contrasted with the ‘dead’ academic learning of bourgeois elite education. Also, within civil society NGOs, e.g., in the areas of human rights and third world development, explicit use of ‘Citizenship Education’ is common, and the practice of such education takes place in quite various forms, both inside and outside Denmark, not least with an onus on volunteering and other community work (‘active citizenship’). Such non-formal Citizenship Education predominantly takes place with NGO project-based activities, financed by public as well as private funding.

5. Legal Environment

In legal terms, Citizenship Education, understood as part of a discourse of democratic education, found its way into formal education as part of the 1975 reform of the primary and lower secondary school in 1975. The preamble to this law, cited above, has been a main legal reference for different sectors of the educational system ever since, but – again – almost invariably without any detailed specification of what Citizenship Education really consists of.

6. Stakeholders

Key stakeholders in the field of Citizenship Education in Denmark include, in order of importance:

  1. Academics researching at university level, particularly within educational science, who are engaged in theoretical and conceptual discussions of Citizenship Education, as well as empirical research. The most important actor in the field of research, science and expertise in Citizenship Education in Denmark is the Institute of Education, Aarhus University, but recently sociologists and political scientists, too, have taken an interest in the field.

  2. University College teachers who are involved in the branches of formal education where ‘Citizenship Education’ has begun to figure in the curricula.

  3. Municipal authorities who articulate and implement various forms of politics of integration or inclusion, especially, but not restricted to immigrants.

  4. Actors within the field of non-formal education who conduct projects and trainings, which relate to Citizenship Education in its broadest sense.

  5. NGOs that have shown some interest in Citizenship Education.

  6. The Danish state, in particular the Ministry of Education, but also other ministries (e.g., the Ministry of Integration), and to a lesser extent those municipal authorities which regulate and implement formal education.

7. Challenges

(1) The very concept ‘citizenship’ is only rarely used within the legal framework and curricular guidelines of formal education, although themes and issues which are typically associated with Citizenship Education are integrated into history, social science and Christianity. As such, and because the very content of citizenship is quite contested – e.g., in terms of the relationship between education to democratic competence, identity and character development, and social integration of a multicultural society - ‘Citizenship Education’ needs more critical discussion, clearer conceptualizations, didactical clarification, and a more clearly defined position within curricular guidelines.

(2) A concrete challenge relates to issues of immigrant incorporation. As in other European countries, Danish Citizenship Education has been too closely bound up with a very specific, and overly politicized project of fostering loyalty, democratic values, and civic competences of descendants, within a too starkly idealized conceptualization of a culturally homogeneous, indeed Christian nation. Descendants should not be the only or even primary target group of Citizenship Education, and otherwise laudable ambitions of civic integration should rest on a safer foundation of social science research about the actual constraints and challenges of minority incorporation.

(3) An EU/European perspective needs strengthening. Although some movement is visible, education for some kind of European citizenship is largely absent from formal education. While this reflects hostility towards more identitary and symbolic aspects of EU supranationalism in the Danish electorate, the importance of EU policy-making for future Danish citizens, as well as the rights and potential democratic influence at the European level which relate to it, should not be ignored.

(4) The Citizenship Education initiatives of informal education and civil-society organizations should be brought into closer contact with formal educational settings. Improved synergy between these fields could strengthen the relevance of Citizenship Education in Denmark.



  1. The article is based on a comprehensive review of existing literature and the past and present legal framework for Citizenship Education in Denmark. In addition to the literature cited below, see also i.e.: Korsgaard, O., Sigurdson, L., & Skovmand, K. (Ed.) (2008). Medborgerskab – et nyt dannelsesideal [Citizenship – A new ideal of educational formation], Copenhagen: RPF. Mouritsen, P. (2013). The resilience of citizenship traditions. Civic integration in Germany, Great Britain and Denmark, In: Ethnicities, 13 (1), pp. 86-109; Haas, C. (2014). Kulturelt medborgerskab. Men I /med hvilke forestillede fællesskaber? [Cultural citizenship. But in/with which imagined communities?]. In: Browall, S. (Ed.). Rum for medborgerskab [Room for Citizenship], Copenhagen: Statens Museum for kunst.

  2. 'Formal education’ comprises those forms of education, which are accredited as part of the formal public educational system. ‘Non-formal education’ as forms of teaching and education are only to a limited degree part of the public educational system, frequently based on private initiatives, but receiving some financial support from the state.

  3. Korsgaard, O. (2004). Kampen om folket: Et dannelsesperspektiv på dansk historie gennem 500 år [The struggle over ‘the people’: An educational formation perspective on Danish history through 500 years], Copenhagen: Gyldendal; Mouritsen, P. (2015), En plads i verden – Det moderne medborgerskab [A Place in the World – Modern Citizenship], Copenhagen: Gyldendal, pp. 395-98.

  4. Undervisningsministeriet (1975). Lov om folkeskolen 26. juni, 1975.

  5. Mouritsen, P. (2006). The Particular Universalism of a Nordic Civic Nation: Common Values, State Religion, and Islam in Danish Political Culture. In Modood, T, Triandafyllidou, A, & Zapata-Barrero (Ed.). Multiculturalism, Muslims and Citizenship: A European Approach. London: Routledge, pp. 70-93.

  6. Fernandez, C. & Jensen, K. (2017). The Civic Integrationist Turn in Danish and Swedish School Politics. In: Comparative Migration Studies 5; Mouritsen, P & Olsen, T.V. (2013), Denmark between Liberalism and Nationalism. In: Ethnic and Racial Studies, 36(4), pp. 691-710.

  7. At the initiative of then Minister of Education Bertel Haarder, a small addition was made, as early as 1993, to the primary school preamble, so that schools ‘must make students intimate with Danish culture and contribute to their understanding of other cultures’, L509, cited and discussed in Fernandez & Jensen, The Civic Integrationist Turn, op.cit.

  8. Mouritsen P. et al. (2019), Leitkultur Debates as Civic Integration in North-Western Europe: The nationalism of ‘values’ and ‘good citizenship’. In: Ethnicities 19(4), pp. 632-53.

  9. For detailed discussion see Haas, C. (2014). Staten, eliten og ’os. Erindrings- og identitetspolitik mellem assimilation og livet i salatskålen [The State, the elite and ‘us’. Politics of memory and identity between assimilation and life in the salad-bowl], Aarhus: Aarhus University Press; Haas, C. (2008a). Citizenship Education in Denmark: Re-inventing the nation and/or conducting multiculturalism(s)?. In: London Review of Education, 6 (1), pp. 59-70.

  10. Mouritsen, P. (2006). The Particular Universalism of a Nordic Civic Nation: Common Values, State Religion, and Islam in Danish Political Culture. In: Modood, T., Triandafyllidou, A., & Zapata-Barrero (Eds.). Multiculturalism, Muslims and Citizenship: A European Approach. London: Routledge, pp. 70-93.

  11. Mouritsen & Jaeger (2018), Designing Civic Education for Diverse Societies: Models, Tradeoffs, and Outcomes, Report, Washington: Migration Policy Institute, Download at [Externer Link:] Accessed June 2, 2021.

  12. As evident in the most recent report on Danish volunteering, see [Externer Link:] Accessed June 2, 2021.

  13. Haas, C. (2011). Demokrati som kulturarv og erindringspolitik: In Haas, C. et al. (Ed.). Ret til dansk. Uddannelse, sprog og kulturarv [Democracy as cultural heritage and politics of memory]; Haas, C. (2010). At spotte radikaliserede børn og unge. Demokratisk dannelse som sikkerhedpolitik [Spotting radicalized children and juveniles: Democratic education as security policy]. In: Unge Pædagoger 3, pp. 55-62.

  14. Simonsen, K. B. (2019). The Democratic Consequences of Anti-immigrant Political Rhetoric: A Mixed Methods Study of Immigrants’ Political Belonging. In: Political Behavior. Online first. [Externer Link:] Accessed June 2, 2021.

  15. This is one of the findings of P. Mouritsen and associates’ on-going project When do Children of Immigrants Thrive, [Externer Link:], accessed June 2, 2021, where several publications on the effect of school context on descendant political integration are under submission (2020).

  16. Bhatti, J. & Møller Hansen, K. (2017), Valgdeltagelsen blandt ikke-vestlige indvandrere og efterkommere [Electoral participation among non-Western immigrants and descendants], Politica, 49 (3), pp. 249-272.

  17. For Denmark’s ICCS 2016 scores, visit [Externer Link:]

  18. See e.g. Korsgaard, O. (2004), Medborgerskab, identitet og demokratisk dannelse [Citizenship, Identity and Democratic Education], Copenhagen: DPU.

  19. Jensen, K, Mouritsen, P, Bech, E.C & Olsen, T.V. (2019), Roadblocks to Citizenship: Selection effects of restrictive naturalization rules, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, E-pub ahead of print, [Externer Link: 10.1080/1369183X.2019.1667757] Accessed June 2, 2021.

  20. Haas, C. (2008). EU på skoleskemaet. Flerkulturel kulturarv og/eller demokratisk medborgerskab [EU in the School curriculum: Multicultural heritage and/or democratic citizenship], Historie & Samfundsfag 4, pp. 8-14; Haas, C. (2008), EU’s identitets- og uddannelsespolitik [EU’s Identity and Education Policy], Nordisk Pædagogik 28 (4), pp. 255-271.


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