What our studies say about us

Danish university curriculums have some major gaps. It's not possible to pursue a master's degree in gender theory, and the only university programme dedicated to Greenlandic culture might be forced to close. It sends a bad message, and Denmark is the worse for it

Actress Emma Watson – aka Hermione in the Harry Potter franchise – recently announced that she’s taking a year off to home-school herself on gender theory. While I’m envious of her personal-development sabbatical (can’t we all get one?), I have to laud a celebrity who is taking her activism seriously and willing to acknowledge the complexities of a discourse she’s been asked to publicly represent. You can’t learn gender theory in a day, and if you could, maybe fewer people would misread it as a thinly-veiled conspiracy to really, really hate on men.

For the rest of us mere mortals who don’t have stacks of cash against which to prop up our copies of The Second Sex, there’s always good old higher education. But while Scandinavian countries are recognised as leaders in gender equality, a cursory glance at Denmark’s educational landscape suggests that the options for gender studies here are pretty bleak.

While our Nordic neighbours in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland all offer two-year Masters degrees in gender studies from their leading universities, Denmark doesn’t offer such a stand-alone program at all. Students at the University of Copenhagen can incorporate subjects from the Centre for Gender Studies into their Humanities or Political Science Masters, or can otherwise come up with crafty ways to work a gender slant into their final thesis. Other universities offer similar options.

Aalborg University does offer a Masters in Global Gender Studies, which discusses gender in the context of development studies and international relations. The course description promises some national analysis, but the program’s website shows a picture of what looks like a beleaguered woman in a war zone or conflict space, suggesting that sexism is one of those problems to be located and dissected ‘out there’, packaged in with our international development work.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that we’re less likely to riff gender politics compared to our Nordic neighbours, and more likely to roll our eyes at the term ‘feminism’.

Last month, I wrote about Denmark and Sweden’s bizarre PC standoff over feminism. I discovered that more Swedes identify as feminists than Danes, despite the two having relatively similar egalitarian values. While I’m not claiming that Sweden is an ultimate feminist utopia, let’s look at what it does do. It has a feminist political party, a national blog dedicated to discussing gender and intersectionality called ‘genusfolket’, which is financed by the unions and attached to a major Swedish newspaper and a whole string of male voices actively participating in the conversation.

In Denmark, there’s a much bigger binary dividing men over gender politics. As Noa Redington put it in Politiken last month, men have two options in the Danish debate – to slam feminism as a leftist conspiracy, or to feel ashamed of their penis. Learning about gender theory means appreciating its nuances, so we’re less likely to turn the issue into a bloody battlefront and force people to pick sides.

It’s a chicken-or-egg scenario – do Danish universities shy away from offering gender studies because talking critically about gender is ‘so three decades ago’ now that we’ve locked-in anti-discrimination laws? Or are we having fewer conversations because we’re not churning out enough gender studies graduates to spark the debate?

Either way, it speaks volumes about what we value learning about – and what we don’t. And it sends the message: “our work here is done, feminists, you can pack up and go home. Or take an extra-curricular class for fun.”

Cuts to Arctic Studies
While the big gender-studies-shaped hole in Danish universities reflects Denmark’s uneasy engagement with feminism, the likely  closure of the Eskimology and Arctic Studies Bachelor says a lot about its relationship with Greenland – a former colony which became a self-governing territory in the Kingdom of Denmark in 1953.

The University of Copenhagen’s decision to axe the program comes after deep budget cuts to higher education. Although it’s expensive to run and has a small uptake, it is the only course in Denmark to examine Greenlandic language, culture and society. Which in itself, is telling.

I fear that the closure risks resurrecting the one-way cultural exchange which occurs between countries with colonial histories – one where the coloniser leaves an unmistakeable footprint on the colonised culture, but doesn’t take the opportunity to learn from, promote or place value on that culture in turn.

It sends an explicit message to Greenland: “sure, the two of us have an economic relationship, but don’t expect us to care about your way of life”. How are we supposed to engage in Arctic politics, an increasingly important region on the international scale, without a generation of graduates who understand Greenlandic society?

Moreover, Greenland has a rich and unique history, one which deserves a platform – and if not here, then where? Denmark risks writing the presence of Greenlandic culture out of Danish society, making life tougher for the Greenlanders who live in this country, and already have to deal with stereotypes about themselves and their culture.

Yes, funding limitations are an issue for public education, and we can’t teach every program in the world. But where we choose to invest our money is a major indicator of what we value as a society. If we don’t teach the important stuff, we are the ones who will suffer. M


By Lena Rutkowski

Politics & Society Editor. Lena is a journalist and translator from Australia. lena.rutkowski@gmail.com @Lenarutski

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