Jantelagen: Not Just a Scandanavian Principle

Jantelagen or The Law of Jante is the description of a pattern of group behavior towards individuals within Nordic countries that negatively portrays and criticises individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate. The Jante Law as a concept was created by the Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose,[1] who, in his novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (En flyktning krysser sitt spor, 1933), identified the Law of Jante as ten rules. Sandemose’s novel portrays the small Danish town Jante (modeled upon his native town Nykøbing Mors as it was at the beginning of the 20th century, but typical of all small towns and communities), where nobody is anonymous.[2]

Used generally in colloquial speech in the Nordic countries as a sociological term to describe a condescending attitude towards individuality and success, the term refers to a mentality that diminishes individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while simultaneously denigrating those who try to stand out as individual achievers.[3]

The preceding comes from Wikipedia and is a term that has resurfaced in conversation often since I made Sweden my home.  Having lived in several countries, I can guarantee that this pattern of behavior is far from restricted to Scandinavia.  The Scandinavians give it a name more than likely because the Nordic countries are largely rural, with the exception of a few larger cities.  In smaller social contexts, this tendency is much more noticed.  And even in situations where the principle is considered to be limiting, the habits are difficult to undo.  

For better or worse, I have always aspired beyond my current state.  My schooling with little exception was done in very inspiring situations that extolled personal development to the highest level possible.  I began formal schooling at École Jean-Marie Guilloux, a school founded by four Catholic priests over 150 years ago and even today considered the best school my homeland has to offer.  It was an honor to be there.  As with all such schools in Haiti, at the end of each month, report cards were given and students were announced in reverse order of their standing in each class.  The top two students were given medals, which they wore to school for the entire month until report cards were given again the following month.  I wore those medals several times and I remember the names of the students who often wore them.  We were three who most often wore the medals and I remember being very sad to fall to 6th one month.  The school was demolished during the earthquake of 2010 and rebuilt in 2011.  I’m glad that piece of my history still exists even if in a different form.

After I left Haiti, I spent four years in American public schools through the first year of my secondary education.  I achieved highest marks, which caught the attention of my guidance counselor, who then recommended me to the small private school, The Vail-Deane School, at the time located in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  My 10th-grade class had 13 students when I joined the school.  We were 9 when I graduate first in my class.  Because I stuttered and struggled hard to overcome it during my high school years, many of my classmates hoped I would make a fool of myself when delivering the valedictory speech.  That is Jantelagen!  I delivered the speech without a single stutter, thanks to hours of preparation with my then music teacher. However it took me a long time to learn to forgive my classmates.  I had to understand why my success and drive was such a challenge to them.  The School closed a few years after my graduation due to financial difficulties.  It formed in large part the person I would become.

Right after Vail-Deane, I began my education at Westminster Choir College, when it was a school guided by principles.  Our dean, who taught freshmen music history, on the first day of class pronounced that we would not be musicians until we could see what we hear and hear what we see.  This remains the principal guideline of my personal musical development.  I am humbled by the directive every day of my life.  I hear more and I see more, but I will never see or hear everything.  This humility also drives me to better myself every day.  I began in what my colleagues called Bonehead Solfège, the lowest sight-singing class.  My third year I received the composition competition prize.  I began with 11 out of 12 teachers doubting my talent.  My third year, they named me along with a soprano colleague, most likely to have a professional career and awarded me the voice competition prize. This school shaped my musical philosophy.  It is in danger of closing from financial difficulties.

At the University of Michigan, my next destination, I began my first year with a less impressive voice than my voice performance colleagues.  By the end of the first term, with the help of my teacher George Shirley, I was cast as Count Almaviva, a role coveted by every baritone in the school. The competition was high.  It was a major personal achievement.  One black colleague, who had hoped to be cast as the Countess but was not, told me as I was reading the announcement on the Opera Board, that I only got the role because ‘I could pass.’ She meant that I could pass as white!  This is my first memory of black on black racism.  This too is Jantelagen.

Graduating with my doctorate from one of the most respected music schools in the United States, achieving high competence in singing, orchestral conducting and composition and having mastered five languages by that point, somehow I still did not think very much of myself.  I took the first teaching job I was offered because I had just become a father and was thinking of being able to provide for my son.  With my many experiences, in retrospect, I should have waited for a better offer. Underachieving schools are such because they have underachieving leadership.  I did not allow myself the benefit of the doubt.  I did not apply for any other position.  I was recommended by a colleague, I visited the school and was offered the job.  I did not research it to find out if it was commensurate with my values.  I judged myself from within as not worthy of more.  This too is Jantelagen.

I have continued my life in a similar pattern.  Taking on often what seemed promising but in a way was rather expedient.  Despite my own rigorous training and continuous pursuit to better myself, I kept settling for what came easily.  The pressures of life often cause us to make the choice for less–An eternal denial of what we ultimately seek for ourselves.  In essence, a waste of our natural resources in pursuits not worthy of our personal investments.  Most social environments are controlled by the Law of Jante.  Societies would have us grow in their environments in ways that benefit the environment even at the expense of ourselves.  Therefore, it is important to seek an environment that benefits from us developing into our best selves.  Or perhaps, some of us need to go at it alone.  

During my time in Sweden, I have not found it any more limiting than other places I have been.  Whether this remains my final destination is yet to be determined.  There is a lot of potential here.  Whether this potential becomes realized and whether my own personal development matches with it will ultimately decide whether I remain here. For I refuse to ever become a victim of the Law of Jante, whether from within or from without.  

I find it sad and unusual that the three schools that shaped me the most to expect more of myself are all in danger of extinction.  Were it that Kashu-do could eventually develop enough to continue these lessons!

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© May 19, 2018

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