Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Richard Knights Safe in our European home?

There is a darker side to Finland. Over the course of the last year a pall of gloom has descended over the country due to two infamous school massacres. On November 7th 2007 Jokela secondary school student 18-year-old Pekka-Eric Auvinen, killed nine of his fellow students, the school nurse, the principal and then committed suicide. The morning of the incident Auvinen posted a video on YouTube announcing the forthcoming event. On September 23, 2008 22 year-old culinary arts student Matti Juhani Saari walked into Seinäjoki University of Applied Sciences in Kauhajoki shot ten students dead and then shot himself, he died later in hospital.

In October Oulu suffered its own tragedy, all four members of a family were found shot to death in their home in a semi-detached house in the Kaijonharju district. The father of the family used a shotgun to kill his wife, his two children, and finally himself. Both of the parents were local schoolteachers.

Gun ownership is the third highest in the world, 1.6 million guns in a population of 5.3 million. The government is looking at measures to control the easy access to guns. Other social problems include alcoholism, domestic violence and a high suicide rate. The shootings have prompted a period of introspection and soul-searching. Splenetic ‘Times’ journalist Roger Boyes used the occasion to write an edgy ‘controversial’ article on this sickness that was inflicting Finnish youth. Sorry, but the actions of two crazed individuals are not an indictment of the whole of society.

Finland has had to manage the change from a primarily agricultural nation that was dependent on trade with the former Soviet Union to a high tech and services based economy.

There was in interesting article in ‘The Guardian’ that quoted a Finnish psychiatrist, Nina Torkkola who works with teenagers. She noted that, “One reason for the mental health problems of young Finns is that it is common for parents to leave their children on their own. Many parents perceive it a good thing for a child to be independent from a very young age. But this goes on as early as primary school level, when you still need your parents. A bigger problem is the lack of psychiatrists at schools and colleges. Schools need to pay attention to those students who are quiet and lonely. At the moment this is seen as the norm so nobody looks after them.”

In the Finnish schools that we visited they mentioned the PISA results on many occasions. There is a danger that you might rubbish SATs tests but use the PISA results to commend Finnish style schooling where national tests, league tables and a prescriptive curriculum are absent. The PISA tests examine basic abilities in core subjects, you could make the charge that the Finns are just good at being average. What can’t you test? Imagination, creativity and the love of learning. Other studies have shown that whilst Swedish children don’t do as well in the PISA tests they find school more fun and are better at expressing themselves verbally. In Finland children pay attention to the teacher but is this at the price of creativity and communication?

How will the Finns with their love of conformity deal with the challenge of immigration? In Helsinki 10% of the population were born outside of Finland and in some schools a quarter of the children do not use Finnish as their first language. Sweden and Denmark have struggled to integrate immigrants and their model of a welfare society is under threat.

Will young people demand more personal freedom? Is Finland just Dullsville, a boring conformist ‘utopia’, a version of the ‘Truman Show’ where people are screaming to get out?

I’m asking some rhetorical questions here, I loved Finland, true the people tend to be quiet and reserved, but this is a society that is at ease with itself. Wouldn’t you like to live in the kind of place where 6 year-olds can walk to their nursery? It isn’t like America where their great cities seem to be close to barbarism, on the verge of social meltdown. You won’t see legless veterans begging from wheelchairs, they don’t leave the mentally deranged to fend for themsleves on the streets and the public infrastructure isn’t literally crumbling in front of you.

The shootings in Finland generated acres of news coverage, compare that with the almost totally unreported civil war in the Congo, where it is estimated that over 5 million people have died. That’s equivalent to the population of Finland. We’re still safe in our European homes.

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