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Schooling and State Formation in Early Modern Sweden

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Schooling and State Formation in Early Modern Sweden

By: Bengt Sandin

Podcast Interview

Bengt Sandin discusses his book, Schooling and State Formation in Early Modern Sweden, with Johanna Sköld. Listen here. You can listen to other episodes of the SHCY podcast by visiting the podcast website, or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Bengt Sandin is professor emeritus at Linköping University. Johanna Sköld is Professor and Head of Unit in Child Studies at the Department of Thematic Studies at Linköping University.

This review originally appeared in The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, Volume 14, Number 3, Fall 2021, pp. 483-486:

Schooling and State Formation in Early Modern Sweden

By Bengt Sandin

Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Although historian of education Gunnar Richardson just a few years earlier had provocatively asked whether the history of education had been forgotten in Sweden, the mid-1980s proved to be extremely fertile years for the field. Inspired by a wide range of scholars applying critical conflict perspectives on society—including Louis Althusser, Basil Bernstein, Pierre Bourdieu, Samuel Bowles, and Herbert Gintis—a new generation of Swedish researchers (and future professors) examined education and its history in fresh and innovative ways. The most influential publications included Tomas Englund’s exercise in Swedish curriculum theory, Curriculum as a Political Problem: Changing Educational Conceptions, with Special Reference to Citizenship Education (1986), Christina Florin’s exploration of professionalization and feminization among nineteenth-century primary school teachers in Kampen om katedern (1987), and, not the least, Bengt Sandin’s dissertation on early modern schooling: Hemmet, gatan, fabriken eller skolan [The Home, Street, Factory or School], published in 1986.

Sandin’s dissertation made a key contribution to the first wave of the so-called new history of education, which questioned previous celebratory accounts of progress and instead critically examined the relationship between education and society. In the introduction to his dissertation, Sandin clearly positioned himself by introducing American revisionists to the Swedish field, acknowledging Michael Katz, Carl Kaestle, David Tyack, and the aforementioned Bowles and Gintis. The introductory chapter also contained a healthy dose of Michel Foucault’s analysis of discipline. As a result of this updated theoretical framework and the extensive empirical exploration of early modern schooling that stemmed from this, Sandin’s dissertation remains a self-evident reference for Swedish research on early modern as well as nineteenth-century schooling.

That this landmark dissertation now is available for a wider English- speaking audience is thus a great service to the field. In this edition, the introductory chapter has been fundamentally revised. While Foucault’s concept of discipline remains central to Sandin’s analysis of what he terms a fundamental transformation of governance in the early modern era, the revised introductory chapter places a stronger emphasis on the concepts of family, space, and childhood. The empirical chapters remain, however, largely as they were. Chapter 2 presents popular education in the seventeenth century and includes an insightful analysis of the debate on education at the diocesan synod of Uppsala. Chapter 3 explores the case of Stockholm during the late seventeenth century, chapter 4 deals with urban education during the eighteenth century, and chapter 5 urban schooling in the first half of the nineteenth century, using examples from Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö. The last empirical chapter—chapter 6—addresses nineteenth-century schooling from the perspective of families and the schools. The concluding chapter 7 has been revised and extended. Here, early modern schooling is linked both to the needs of the laboring poor and to the government’s intentions to control the moral conditions of lower-class families.

Since the publication of Sandin’s dissertation in 1986, both our world and research on the history of education have changed drastically. In Sweden, the field has shown remarkable signs of expansion: my dataset of dissertations on the history of education includes about 290 dissertations published 1990–2019, and during the twentieth century, a Nordic educational network, a Nordic journal, and seven Nordic conferences in educational history have been held. Although one cannot expect Sandin to address the avalanche of research published nationally and internationally during this period—consider, for example, classics of the 1980s such as R. A. Houston’s Literacy in Early Modern Europe (1988), James van Horn Melton’s Absolutism and the Eighteenth-Century Origins of Compulsory Schooling in Prussia and Austria and John Boli’s New Citizens for a New Society: The Institutional Origins of Mass Schooling in Sweden (1989), but also more recent publications, including Daniel Lindmark’s Reading, Writing and Schooling: Swedish Practices of Education and Literacy, 1650–1880 and Jeroen Dekker’s Educational Ambitions in History (2011)—the usefulness of this book would have increased by a more active engagement with this new literature, not least that examining Swedish conditions. It would certainly be interesting to link Sandin’s findings to those of Christian Lundahl’s dissertation on early modern assessment (2006), Gunilla Klose’s work on early modern school finance (1992/2011), Björn Norlin’s publications on early modern school spaces (2017, 2018, etc.), and Christoffer Åhlman’s dissertation on early modern female literacy (2018).

Although it might be perceived as greedy, I would also have enjoyed further reflections on the theoretical perspectives employed. Despite that the general framework of educational institutions, families, and changing structures of governance remains valuable, I would have loved a discussion of its possibilities and limitations thirty-five years down the road. How should we now approach Bowles and Gintis’s social control thesis on urban schooling, and Mary Jo Maynes’s classic argument in Schooling for the People (1985) that “[s]chooling campaigns spawned in this [early modern] era bear the mark of fear, of the need to moralize and manage the poor”?

I would also have been interested to learn how Sandin relates his choice of theoretical framework to the widening range of perspectives employed on schooling and literacy, linking education to determinants such as wealth, inequality, land ownership, political voice, but also to taxation, local school organization, teachers’ salaries, and the modernization of credit markets. How does the analysis that he presents relate to such studies? While that question cannot be expected to fit the scope of this book, it remains intriguing and also leads to a set of valuable questions that this landmark dissertation poses: How has the field of educational history changed since the mid-1980s? What have we gained, and what have we lost?

Johannes Westberg
University of Groningen, the Netherlands


Bengt SandinAbout Bengt Sandin

Bengt Sandin is professor emeritus. He was one of the founding professors at the Department of Child Studies in Linkoping when it began in 1989.  His research span the period from the Early Modern to the late Swedish Welfare State including studies on Early Modern Education and State formation, Child Labour, Street Children, Educational Media Politics, and different aspects of Welfare Politics and the Swedish Welfare State  and involve both an engagement in social, political and cultural history of children and the construction of childhood. Bengt Sandin has been the scientific leader of a number of large research programs financed by national government grants. He has been the advisor of some 25 Ph.D. projects.  He was dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences in Linköping for 9 years and department head for 9 years.  He is a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford and also at Institute of Advanced Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.  Bengt Sandin was the president of the SHCY between 2011-13.


This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.