Sent: June 6, 2019
To: A young Swedish-American
Subject: Should you study in America?
The last time we met, you asked whether I think you should attend college in the United States, the country of your father, or Sweden, the country of your mother, and how I view higher education in Sweden after spending the past ten months as a visiting professor in Uppsala. I am happy to share my thoughts, but you should take what I write with a hefty dash of North Sea salt. I don’t pretend to be an expert in anything Swedish, past or present. I am an outsider, a specialist in American constitutional law, I don’t speak the language (whose rules of pronunciation obviously were crafted by demons), and I still haven’t traveled to Norrland, the fabled
By the way, have you ever read Susan Sontag’s essay “A Letter from Sweden,” which appeared in the New Left magazine Ramparts in 1969? It’s a classic of Swedology. Parts are maddening (after all, it was written by Susan Sontag), but it’s brilliant (ditto), and much of it remains deeply relevant to thinking about the country, including her main concern: the Swedish tendency toward lugubriousness and emotional repression, which of course Swedes themselves have been quick to talk about and make a subject of their national film and literature. Sontag explores the theme through a dizzying range of social and cultural illustrations and provocations, from “the mediocre food people put up with” (note to self: if presented with the opportunity in the next life, don’t serve korv to Susan Sontag); observations about “stiff” Swedish bodies (especially “the rigid pelvis”—her words, not mine); and the deep, all-pervading Swedish love of nature; to Sweden’s world-historic role as a mediator on the international stage. She’s actually a big fan of Sweden, but in the end she suggests that the nation’s capitalist social democracy, which is merely reformist and ameliorative, hasn’t “awakened the Swedes from their centuries’ old chronic state of depression.” For that to happen, she urges, sounding a Marcusian note in finale, “Sweden needs a revolution.” Like I said, parts of the essay are maddening. For myself, at least, I would rather have looked not to political cataclysm but to loving parody and humor as a force for cultural liberation (the linked example stems from the same era). I suppose that’s part of what makes me a liberal, not a radical.
Yet in revisiting the essay last week, it struck me that a crucial facet of the country has in fact changed utterly in the fifty years since she wrote—that there has been a revolution, just not of the kind she envisioned. In 1969, Sontag could speak straightforwardly and without exaggeration of the country’s “essential homogeneity” and “lack of internal cultural diversity.” That was then. Nobody who has walked the streets of Stockholm, Malmö, or Gothenburg, not to mention smaller cities like Örebro or Borås, could ever describe Sweden that way now, except when speaking of its elite or establishment institutions. After all, about a quarter of the population today was either born outside the country or has at least one foreign-born parent.
This isn’t to say that Sweden is a multicultural society, at least not deeply, or in American terms. But certainly the most obvious and important structural feature of contemporary Sweden is its swiftly-rising ethnic diversity. Immigration from non-European, largely Muslim societies in particular will eventually alter the basic emotional and psychological texture of the country, and both the specific topics and general framework of Sontag’s analysis will be overtaken by demographic events. Migration to Sweden represents the sociological equivalent of a shift of tectonic plates, in which parts of the cultural lithosphere will in time be subducted beneath the surface of consciousness. To take one example, Swedish foodways, which for Sontag were a significant tell about the country’s inner life, are already being deeply transformed (“what is ‘Swedish’ food, anyway,” mused a brainy friend of mine the other day, totally without guile, before I suggested that his love of pickled herring might be one place to start). Likewise, non-European immigration bears upon my answer to your question about college, though not in ways that most Swedes might expect.
That’s because in light of Sweden’s growing heterogeneity, I’m convinced that every highly ambitious and talented young person who, like you, could study comfortably in either country should attend college in the United States, especially a liberal arts college or a university that has institutionalized liberal arts ideals for its undergraduates. Swedish students who remain here, moreover, should demand more American-style college instruction, and they should push for the various institutional reforms which would make such education possible—including the charging of moderate, progressive tuition fees, enabled politically through policies of lower overall taxation. They should do so because the American model offers personal and intellectual advantages that aren’t fully available in Sweden, or elsewhere in Europe. As a political matter, those advantages would benefit the country as it deals with its changing demographic circumstances by encouraging Swedes to develop a more productive relation to their culture and history, and by training young people in positive forms of verbal self-expression and dialogue. As the ethnic composition of Sweden radically shifts, some of the most important labor of the country will have a literary character; it will be the work of language and the imagination. Widespread liberal arts education could help that labor succeed.
Stephanie and I have loved our time here. People have been kind and generous. They have cut deeply against the stereotypes that Swedes tend to propagate about themselves: the gloom, the gravitational pull of isolation. When we first arrived in August people were so surprisingly outgoing that we began to suspect that we had stumbled into some Scandinavian version of “The Truman Show.” I also feel a deep affinity for the authors and intellectuals I’ve met here, many of whom stand in opposing political camps. I’ve never encountered a national group of writers whom I’ve liked and admired so much. Finally, there is the landscape, which we’ve explored on foot and even more by bicycle: the hush as we glide past forests of birch, the distinctive silhouettes of people searching for wild mushrooms in the woods, the mercury blue light of winter—it’s like being transported into an oil canvass by Bruno Liljefors or Eugène Jansson.
At the same time, to switch national references, being here also has felt a bit like living in the Victorian world John Stuart Mill describes in On Liberty. It’s a culture animated by a spirit of propriety—not about sex (for reasons Sontag describes at length, with illuminating ambivalence), but rather about society and politics. Certain issues just don’t feel acceptable to discuss frankly in polite company, and one senses a certain tendency toward self-censorship and public denial of the obvious. This is especially the case when it comes to immigration. Early in my time here, I had an hour-long conversation with a very intelligent and informed member of Vänsterpartiet in front of the left party’s squat red campaign hut in the Uppsala town square. How does the party view the challenges posed by mass immigration from outside Europe, I asked. “There are no challenges,” he replied. “None? At all?” I asked, incredulously. “None at all,” he replied, his face completely still. “That idea is just a myth propagated by the Sweden Democrats.” Now, I disagree with the Sweden Democrats, one of whose representatives heatedly told me the next day that his party would ensure that large numbers of refugees who had been admitted to Sweden on false pretenses were rounded up and deported, and that it also would “burn the f***ing EU to the ground.” But the idea that immigration poses no real challenge to Sweden is self-evidently false. The country now has a large and visible ethnic underclass; the great question is whether it will become permanent. There’s a very clear crack in the china. Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had similarly evasive exchanges here, especially with friends on the left, but also with people fairly spanning the political spectrum.
Usually what he or she thinks is that something essential about the country has been lost through policies deceitfully imposed on average people by elites more interested in social engineering than political democracy, and that he or she can no longer feel fully at home.
A related taboo: acknowledging that cultural value differences exist between peoples as members of groups, rather than merely between individuals. Indeed, in my circles even to acknowledge the fact of another person’s ethnic heritage seems to be viewed as somewhere between gauche and shameful. I can still hear the audible gasp made by a Swedish friend of mine, a political conservative, when in the midst of a very pleasant getting-to-know-you conversation about Swedish society over lunch with an American colleague I asked chirpily “so what’s your ethnic family background?” Seeing my friend’s look of distress, we hastily assured him that this was an affirming, friendly question, and the American and I then had a lovely conversation about our shared history, which in any case was obvious to both of us when we met.
Finally, and most troublingly, in nearly every town that I’ve visited in Sweden I have had a discussion with an average person who, within a few minutes of our meeting, without prompting, has said some variant of the following: “My country has changed so much recently, and not in ways that I like, and I don’t feel that I can talk about it with other Swedes, but you’re a friendly American and so finally I can say what I really think.” Usually what he or she thinks is that something essential about the country has been lost through policies deceitfully imposed on average people by elites more interested in social engineering than political democracy, and that he or she can no longer feel fully at home. Whatever the truth of that position (the part about social engineering strikes me as at least plausible: respect for average people and their social and political views hasn’t exactly been a leitmotiv of contemporary Europe and the EU), what concerns me is that people indicate so readily that they are hesitant to speak their minds.
Of course, perhaps the idea that these people can’t really speak their minds is hokum. It could be that claiming that there is a strongly restrictive speech culture is a risible political ploy, a weapon to gain power by playing the victim. Or maybe it’s a bit like what Foucault said about the Victorians in volume one of The History of Sexuality: far from never talking about sex and being psychologically “repressed” and in need of “liberation,” they were in fact talking about sex constantly. But I suspect not. There’s a palpable element of Protestant moralism about Swedish society, though devoid of its theological content, and the people to whom I’ve spoken seem genuinely worried about being anathematized by their peers.
More deeply, one might wonder whether a culture of speech restrictiveness isn’t actually a good thing, whether a strong spirit of propriety is essential for social cohesion and harmony, and whether it ought to be tolerated or even encouraged. Maybe the Swedish way is better. But the American constitutionalist in me strongly resists this idea. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in Whitney v. California (1927), the framers of our great national text, the constitution, “did not exalt order at the cost of liberty.” They recognized “that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.” Justice Brandeis had in mind restrictions on radical political speech enforced through the sanction of law, the threat of being imprisoned for advocating violent revolution, but as Mill said, too, the same principles of liberty should apply equally to restrictions imposed by culture and custom.
In thirty years the ranks of the top Swedish intellectuals and social visionaries will be peppered with these students.
Even more concerning to me as a personal matter, and more relevant to your choice, these exchanges mirror what I’ve experienced with students in my classes and guest lectures and with many other young people whom I’ve come to know. I care deeply for the intellectual development of my students and for their professional futures, and I’m invested in their flourishing as human beings for their own sake—that’s how I view the role of a teacher. My heart sinks, then, when I reflect that I’ve consistently heard from students that they are hesitant to express the full extent of their political or philosophic views in front of their colleagues. “I wouldn’t say that in class” is something young people have told me privately numerous times, far more often and more credibly than I have ever heard it said in the United States. Sometimes their caution is motivated because they hold views to the right of the mainstream; other times, they just want to be snäll—a rather important Swedish word, as you know, which means to be kind, but which also carries the connotation of overlooking things, and restraining oneself from criticism of others, and which in the seminar context can easily be taken too far.
The major exception to this dynamic is students who have migrant backgrounds, or who are in romantic relationships with students who do, or who have been adopted and are obviously not Caucasian. They have been among the most forceful personalities and assertive intellects that I’ve encountered in the country, unafraid of disagreement and frank in their views. They also have been more certain than majority ethnic Swedes about what they desire from their careers. Whereas the majority radiates a certain lassitude when it comes to planning for the future, they seem much more to know who they are and what they want (and often what they want is to study in the United States). They also have a much clearer idea about the meaning of Swedish culture. In thirty years the ranks of the top Swedish intellectuals and social visionaries will be peppered with these students.
Yet even for them, the structure of university instruction doesn’t help matters when it comes to promoting a positive environment of intellectual self-assertion and professional development. The problem with Swedish universities seems to me that they are much like universities across Europe: not especially selective or competitive; not particularly rigorous at the undergraduate level; too bureaucratically constraining of faculty initiative; lacking incentives that foster student-teacher relationships; and free. Most faculty and students do the best they can within this framework. Uppsala is filled with outstanding scholars and generous instructors, and my own students were a delight. But to my mind they are limited by a restrictive system that I fear will be unable to provide the mass educational goods needed at this moment in Sweden’s history.
To take one very practical example, Swedish universities in general follow a system of consecutive rather than parallel course scheduling, which means that most courses typically run for just five weeks. Each week these courses meet only twice, nominally for two hours per class, but given that classes begin at the “academic quarter hour” and that faculty and students often break for 10-15 minutes midway through, in fact instruction often lasts ninety minutes per session. As the primary framework for instruction, such a schedule is far too compressed to be intellectually enriching in the way that ambitious students like you need when they are in their late teens or early twenties and yearn to dive deep.
Likewise, the grading and examination system here seems designed more to reduce stress than to spark passion. There are only three grades (distinction, pass, and fail), which prevents a sufficiently differentiated ranking of students according to their achievement; and students who miss or even fail the final exam in a course are freely invited to “re-sit” the test, which may protect some students in special circumstances but, in general, creates an atmosphere so forgiving that it strikes me as cruel. Among the various problems of this approach, I suspect that over time it will hinder students with migration backgrounds from breaking into the Swedish elite by preventing them from clearly distinguishing themselves on their academic merits. I could go on and on about the other ways the system isn’t well structured for pedagogical excellence: faculty don’t have sufficient control over course syllabi, which impedes innovation and creativity; because admissions criteria aren’t especially rigorous, there is a very wide range of student abilities in any given class, especially introductory ones, thereby undermining the interests of students particularly at the top but ultimately of everyone; without tough market competition between institutions for paying students, their incentive to improve the undergraduate experience is diminished; and so on. Many of these issues are linked to troubling problems bedeviling Swedish high schools.
As you know, I’m the furthest thing from a jingoist you can imagine, but I don’t hesitate to say that American higher education is simply better. There’s a straightforward reason: as a society we spend a lot more money on it. Take a look at figure 4 on page 11 of “Higher Education in Sweden,” the 2018 report of the Sweden Higher Education Authority. On first glance it might seem that Sweden and the U.S. are in roughly the same ballpark in terms of how much they invest per student (just above $24,000 for Sweden and slightly below $30,000 for the U.S.). But that’s only if you factor in research and development, on which Sweden spends a great deal, accounting for more than half its expenditure, in other words over $12,000 of that $24,000. Look simply at expenditures on education and you’ll see that America leaves Sweden and pretty much every other European nation in the dust. Turn the page to look at figure 5 and you’ll see that there’s also a significant gap when measuring expenditure as a percentage of GDP: 1.7% in Sweden and 2.65% in America (the precise numerical figure for the U.S. can be found here). The major source of funding for higher education in Sweden is public taxation; in the U.S., it’s private wealth. But regardless of where the money comes from, if you spend more you tend to get more—and on higher education per student the United States simply spends a whole lot more than Sweden pretty much any way you count. It spends more on people like you.
The magic of the classroom takes place through repeated dialogues in which students practice forcefully articulating ideas in front of and in conversation with their peers.
But more important than money, American colleges are guided by a better model of how traditional undergraduate education should work—one centered more clearly around students and their needs. Most aspects of this model are generally, though not entirely, lacking throughout Europe. I appreciate that American colleges often fall short of their ideals, but the model exists, and in my experience the American disappointments are often better than the European average.
For one, the student-teacher relationship is deeply prized and encouraged, no matter what the academic potential of the student (some of my best, favorite relationships have been with students who have failed or done poorly my courses). In addition, campuses are residential, integrating study and daily life in ways that are better at fostering unified intellectual and personal growth because they are “total institutions.” College likewise is seen as a time for students to develop a sense of passion and calling; to lack such a sense of personal vocation, or not to be in the process of deciding which one to have, is to risk being pitied. By putting students in greater competition with each other, the schools encourage narrative self-fashioning—students become adept at telling the story of who they are, which in turn helps them know themselves. Finally, education is animated by a theory that what takes place in the seminar classroom isn’t simply a transfer of information that can be accomplished through other means, for instance by reading a book about the subject at home, but instead is a form of learning that provides unique benefits. The magic of the classroom takes place through repeated dialogues in which students practice forcefully articulating ideas in front of and in conversation with their peers. I was shocked that, at the end of both terms I taught here, students who weren’t enrolled in my seminars and whom I had never met informed me that they wished to take my final exam and receive a grade in my course because they had been enrolled in a course on the same subject taught by another instructor in an earlier year, which they had failed to complete. In American terms, this would make no sense.
Sweden seems to be slowly developing a true American liberal arts style of education at some institutions, notably in Visby and Gothenberg. I hasten to admit that I’ve not visited either program, but that’s of course incredibly promising. Nevertheless, the approach is light years younger here, and it exists within a culture which at the moment, I believe, pushes against the spirit of the model.
What about tuition fees? One shouldn’t fall into the common trap of European self-deception about this. It’s far from the whole story, but free higher education in Europe is often a case of middle and upper-middle class people defining their own interests as human rights and supporting themselves through a system of regressive taxation. When it comes to universities, Europe redistributes wealth through the state, and often it travels upward; in America, certainly at the best colleges, it’s redistributed downward through separate institutions. People who benefit from college pay for it to a significant degree directly. On a more practical level, tuition fees encourage students to get the most out of their studies, and they provide a dynamic incentive to schools to offer the kind of education and services that students want and need. Not to be too Hayekian about it, but one of the most socially useful acts of communication in modern society takes place when consumers purchase something and thereby make a private statement about how they assess the relation between the good’s value and price.
The book would herald a new consciousness for a deeply multiethnic country, inhabited by people defined historically in so many different, sometimes competing ways, yet held together by their common relation to this place right here, and as seen through each other’s eyes.
The kind of college experience provided in the United States will be better for you personally. I’m convinced of this because we’ve known each other since you were little, and I’ve watched you grow up. You’re a serious-minded person. When you were young one of the gifts you asked me to suggest that your father buy for your birthday was an excellent dictionary. The last time I visited your whole family, you were having a spirited conversation about Jung around the dinner table (perhaps that was a harbinger of your plan to major in psychology). But I also hope you’ll study in the U.S. because you’ll have a role to play in Sweden’s future as a Swedish-American. You have lived in both nations and know them intimately, and yet you also spent your formative years in a Muslim society in the Middle East. No matter what you do in life, you’ll help Sweden ride its coming demographic wave. Studying the liberal arts will help, because ultimately one of the things that defines a society is the way it reads and relates to its core texts. The boundaries and resources of a community are defined by its approach to hermeneutics (the civil war happening within Muslim societies, for instance, is partly a conflict about interpretive literalism). Just as students profit personally, and in their careers, from regular practice in crafting a narrative about who they are, so Sweden needs to articulate a more explicit and believable story about what it is—a robust and yet fully inclusive story of peoplehood, through new engagement with its traditions and texts.
It’s summer now, and nearly every morning Stephanie and I take our bicycles and peddle along the shore of Lake Mälaren. The water is unspeakably beautiful. To me it brings to mind something Herman Melville once wrote, in Moby Dick, that “not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.” I hope that’s true, because on a summer day Mälaren is a vision of perpetual peace. I used to think that one signal that the integration process in Sweden was truly succeeding would be when a writer whose parents were born in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalia produced a great book about the Swedish natural world, about the shores of Mälaren, or the forests of Småland, or about foraging for mushrooms in Dalarna, or marveling at the wildflowers that blanket countless meadows—making an uncontestable literary claim of belonging by enabling ethnic Swedes to see this beloved landscape differently. The book would herald a new consciousness for a deeply multiethnic country, inhabited by people defined historically in so many different, sometimes competing ways, yet held together by their common relation to this place right here, and as seen through each other’s eyes. (Since writing this sentence, a friend has told me about the poet Jila Mossaed, whose work indeed seems to be in this vein.) But in answering your question, it occurs to me that the book would have to be a double volume. In it, another writer, someone whose ancestors have lived in this part of the world for a long time, would produce a forceful interpretation of Swedish culture. That book would reveal the new language and ways of being emerging here in the midst of historic flux and confluence, binding the present to past traditions.
The new Swedish nature, the new Swedish culture. I believe that you’ll read those books some day, just as I suspect that, out there now are two young students who may not yet have met, but who, through their reading and studies, are preparing to write them.
Good luck, and work hard in your freshman year. One way or another, I hope to see you in the United States.