Highlander High School, Monteagle, Tennessee

(a re-write of a few facts from Ebbe Kløvedal Reich's book on N.F.S. Grundtvig: Solskin og lyn)

In the 1920s a young, idealistic American teacher by the name of Miles Horton tried to establish adult education in the southern Appalachians in Tennessee.  He had difficulty in finding the right format for his school until he met two traveling Danish ministers who told him about Grundtvig's folk high schools for adults in Denmark (Grundtvig 1783-1872).

By 1931 Miles Horton had saved up for a trip to Denmark, and upon his arrival at Copenhagen he bought a bicycle which he rode for almost a year visiting several Danish folk high schools. In his own words, he got the Grundtvigian idea of adult education in his blood.

In November 1932 he was ready to open Highlander High School in Monteagle, one of the poorest counties in Tennessee.  Recession had just set in which only made things worse. Horton supported the workers and was arrested several times.

From the beginning communal singing and folk music played an important part in his school.  His wife Zilphia Horton collected folk songs, among those an old Baptist hymn to which black tobacco workers had taken a liking: the song was "We Shall Overcome".

In 1946-47 a young Highlander High student named Pete Seeger (the folk singer) heard the song, and together with Zilphia he altered the lyrics and the tune a little bit.

Shortly after this a black woman named Rosa Parks (the Rosa Parks of Alabama) attended the school. Her stay taught her self-reliance and enlivened her to such an extent that she later joined the NAACP.  Near Christmas 1955 she sat down in a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and the rest is well-known history.

In 1957 Martin Luther King visited Highlander High School to celebrate its 25th anniversary, and in his speech he said among other things: "You (the school) have given the South many of the movement's most responsible leaders."

The primary hymn of the civil rights movement "We Shall Overcome" became known throughout the world, but the lines "We are not afraid" belong to a different situation:

these lines were added two years later when the KKK managed to persuade the police to charge Horton High School with "subversive activities", one of which was the fact that white and black students had been taught in the same classroom.

Four teachers were arrested, and the school was found guilty on all counts and had to close.  However, the following year Horton opened a second school in Knoxville.

Besides Miles Horton other Americans have run folk high schools, but according to Reich only the Grundtvigian ones have survived, mostly because they were not a small cultural piece of Denmark, but integrated in American society and culture, yet still retaining the Grundtvigian hallmark of education: intellectual growth before learning by heart.

Besides America, the idea has spread to Norway, Sweden, Germany, Poland, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, India, Israel, Japan, Africa, Latin America, South Korea, the Philippines...

In his book on Grundtvig and his schools, The Land of the Living, American anthropologist Stephen Borish writes that the foundation of folk high schools belong to a period in Danish history when a series of political and economical crises brought it to its knees (when Napoleon fell in 1815, Denmark went bankrupt), but the country rose again through a non-violent, democratic revolution which may well serve as a model for new democracies.

July 2001
Erik Moldrup