Another Finnish Word Needed in English?

The Finnish language is a legendary intellectual challenge. It is the with roughly six million speakers worldwide it has a relatively small base, but after Hungarian it is the second largest non-Indo-European language in the world to use the Latin alphabet. Yet even compared to Hungarian its vocabulary is notably idiosyncratic and its grammatical structure follows a logic that outsiders can never fully comprehend.


“Kalsarikännit”, American style.

Even so Finnish has its own rugged beauty to it. Last year it caught a significant part of the world’s attention with one of its finely descriptive words for a state that men of the Homer Simpson mold occasionally find themselves in: kalsarikännit – a state of solo drunkenness in which one doesn’t bother to get dressed, thus sitting around the house in one’s briefs. Yes, that is a common enough state of affairs in this country to need a word of its own, but in fairness it is probably more widespread in other cultures than their vocabularies would indicate. So while I am not an active campaigner for the movement, I would support bringing this term into more widespread use in English, particularly in Canada and Australia, but that’s another story.

This year there is a different untranslatable word from Finnish that might need to be adopted in other languages and cultures, though to be honest, I’m not sure that the phenomenon is widespread enough to warrant a word of its own in many other places. Its role in Finnish life even is becoming somewhat questionable. The word I am referring here to sivistys.

To get the pronunciation right think of the first two syllables as the same as those of “civi-lized.” (Finnish people often mistakenly assume that the words are related, but I’ll come to that later.) The letter Y in Finnish is pronounced sort of like the eu in “deuce”. The T in Finnish also has a somewhat softer, d-like pronunciation in Finnish, particularly in the middle of a word. So overall a close enough pronunciation would be “civis-deuce”.

The primary use of this word in everyday Finnish is in reference to non-vocational education. If you are studying to become a plumber, a carpenter, an electrician or a mechanic then you need to attend an “ammattikoulu,” or in short-hand slang, an “amis”. Schools in Finland which are not geared towards such practical considerations are referred to as “yleissivistävä” – in other words providing not so much practical skills, but a general sort of sivistys.

So what is this mysterious sivistys that young people are sent to school to acquire? This is a challenge to work out specifically, but if the rest of the world wants to learn about the wonders of the Finnish school system, frequently rated as the world’s best still, then the goal of sivistys is what they really have to work out.

snellman1It would be easy to assume that this concept is related to the Latin-based word civility, and for a long time working as a school teacher in Finland I assumed this to be the case. Much later I learned that the etymology for this term is based on the old Finnish adjective “siveellinen,” meaning pure, chaste, moral and/or decent. Sivistys as a word was coined by the nineteenth century Germanized Finnish intellectual J.V. Snellman, as a loose rendering of the German concept of bildung, based on what Wilhelm von Humboldt referred to as “a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without.”  This in turn refers broadly to the Hegelian concept of continuous improvement brought about through a dialectical process of continuously struggling with opposing viewpoints. This supposedly causes one to develop a certain sort of spirit, in the sense of the German word geist, which is rather different from what “spirituality” is taken to mean these days. It has more to do with rising above that which is crude, base and carnal, toward something more refined.

Introducing a concept along these lines into English has been attempted on a number of occasions, without any notable success. One particular example which comes to mind is the discussion between the characters in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice over what it might mean to refer to a young lady as particularly “accomplished.”

Perhaps the closest equivalent though would be cultural literacy – a movement in the 1980s started by a fellow name Hirsch who attempted to standardize what counted as core knowledge. The problems with that approach had a fair amount to do with timing: coming out just before the Internet, its laundry list of facts and phenomena that school children should be aware of was effectively out of date before the ink was dry on the first edition. Nor has the speed of change in society slowed down in any significant way since then; on the contrary, if anything the pace of change has been speeding up. Continuously updating this laundry lists in books like What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know doesn’t seem to be the key to understanding the fluidity that goes with the Finnish concept of sivistys.

ylioppilas 1914

100 years ago to wear the white cap symbolizing completion of secondary school was a sign that one was part of Finland’s aristocracy.

In all honesty there have been times when I have had my doubts about sivistys actually having a legitimate meaning. I have often suspected that it was somewhat of a reification – a conceptually abstract word without a proper extra-linguistic object of reference in the material world, or anywhere else outside of the Finnish education system. My impression was that this conceptual abstraction was made up of a combination of leftover influences of German Romanticism mixed with antique justifications for class distinctions within society. Those with higher levels of general education had this something called “sivistys” which entitled them to more respect, higher political positions and better pay than everyone else. In a time when less than 20% of the population had access to a secondary school education “sivistys” provided a readily understandable justification for all of the division between the aristocracy and the peasantry.

This also explains why, when the education reform of the 1970s made general secondary education available to all young people, regardless of economic status or social background, there was a huge cultural push by Finnish mothers in particular to make sure that all of their children would take advantage of this new opportunity and get some of this “sivistys” for themselves. That sort of motivational background for the achievement of individual educational success over the past generation is, in my considered perspective, the single strongest factor in this nation’s educational success story. But now that the vast majority of the population between 20 and 50 years old officially have this “sivistys,” and it no longer provides an excuse for class divisions in what has become an admirably homogeneous and socially mobile society, the question is, what does sivistys stand for these days, and what value remains in the pursuit of such as a goal unto itself? What does sivistys mean to those young Finns who can now largely take an excellent standard of general education for granted? In some ways the appreciation for sivistys as such seems to be in decline; in other ways there is an established gut feeling in relation to this term that isn’t going anywhere.

This winter I attended a symposium held by the national philosophy society here, at which the subject of budget cuts for educational programs promoting philosophy and critical thinking inevitably came up. In the concluding question and answer time I made a public comment that the key to maintaining funding for such programs would seem to be keeping the public, and their elected representatives, convinced that sivistys continues to be something real and something worth paying for. That may or may not have been the impetus for a column written a few weeks later by University of Helsinki emeritus chancellor and professor of theoretical philosophy, Ilkka Niiniluoto, who was also in the audience that night. His essay in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat (13.01.2018), In this piece entitled “Secondary schools must continue to protect general sivistys” Finland’s living philosopher of the highest status did an admirable job of defining and laying out the case for the importance of sivistys as such.


Emeritus Prof. Ilkka Niiniluoto

The subtitle of the column is, “As secondary schools develop, subjects must not be unfairly placed in opposition to each other.”  In particular he is making the point that the teaching of philosophy should not be discounted as “less useful” than that of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Professor Niiniluoto calculates that those currently in secondary school (or high school for Americans) will remain in the work force theoretically until around the year 2070. By that time developments in artificial intelligence and automation technology will certainly revolutionize the global economy many times over. Thus our students will have to be retrained for new jobs many times during the course of their working lives. So how do we train young people today to face those sorts of future prospects? The answer, Niiniluoto claims, is to be found in the concept of general sivistys:

Sivistys is the continuous renewal, development and refinement of human abilities, skills, knowledge, attitudes and values. Citizens need general sivistys every day. For example literacy, language skills and IT skills are useful both at home and on the job. Though the content of general sivistys is constantly changing, there is still a significant continuity involved.”

He goes on to quote the classic Finnish poet Eino Kaila, who defined sivistys as, “that which you are left with when you have forgotten all that you learned,” but Professor Niiniluoto reinterprets this cynical witticism as implying that “rather than rapidly aging factual information, the most lasting and valuable thing is the ability to seek new information.” Thus a university focusing on sivistys, according to Snellman’s Finnish adaptation of Humbolt’s system, has the joint goals of “creative knowing (learning by following research developments and building a life-long love of knowledge), and then intellectual virtue (using expertise for the good of the fatherland).”

In the Internet age this ability/characteristic is particularly important: “Evaluating the validity and interpreting the relevance of information already freely available on line these days requires of the recipient a high degree of general sivistys.” For this reason it remains important to maintain a broad range of required subjects within the general education system: “Curriculum trials which have offered the option of leaving out history, philosophy or physics, for example, have served the goal of providing an understanding of the world poorly. A system of subject studies is a precondition for interaction between these subjects – just as in universities interdisciplinary studies must be based on interaction between established disciplines.”

The rest of Niiniluoto’s column focuses on the balance between national matriculation examination scores as university entrance criteria and university faculties’ freedom to set their own entrance criteria – pointing out along the way the wording of the law regulating Finnish secondary schools: they are to provide students with “necessary knowledge and skills for continuing education, working life, leisure activities and diversified personal development.” Important stuff for those young people trying to determine where they are going next in their education, and their families, but not so important to an international audience considering the value of the word I am proposing that they adopt. The main point remains, however, that an education which provides sivistys is not “teaching to the test” but rather equipping students to adapt to life under unpredictable and ever-changing conditions. For those purposes instruction in philosophy, even when students will not be taking national exams in the subject, remains crucial to the school’s overall educational task.

When it comes to convincing people of the value and importance of pre-college level philosophy teaching, I would still recommend including Dewey’s perspective on making democracies safe to live in; but enabling students to continuously renew, develop and refine their of abilities, skills, knowledge, attitudes and values so that they are equipped to study, work, play and personally improve as freely and productively as possible makes for a rather verbose but immanently worthy goal for school systems. Philosophy as a subject area is particularly important to the realization of such goals.

Crunching all that down to one word, the Finns call it “sivistys.” For lack of a better word in English maybe you could call it the same.



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Filed under Education, Philosophy, Social identity

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