A Finnish word, sivistys, adds to wellbeing and helps solve future challenges

Finland’s Year of Sivistys 2024 spotlights a long-established concept of societal enlightenment and learning, and harnesses its strengths to face challenges now and in the future.

Any student of the Finnish language will be familiar with the challenge of succinctly translating certain vocabulary into English.

Sisu is a case in point. It has achieved fame as the word Finns allot to their own trait of tenacious, persistent determination in the face of challenges ranging from the trivial to the life-threatening. You can’t express that adequately using only one English word.

Sivistys is another characteristic, or set of characteristics, that evades satisfactory monolexical translation. The concept is so broad that its promoters chose not to attempt to translate it in a single word. The Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation (known as the KVS Foundation, based on its Finnish name) has designated 2024 the Year of Sivistys.

Describing sivistys as a “dynamic, evolving and innovative concept,” the foundation offers two definitions. The first is a “general societal aim and value” that we can condense to the word “enlightenment.” The second refers to a type of person whose civilised behaviour contributes to environmental, communal and societal wellbeing and development. Neither definition is a measurement of training or education.

Action and empathy

Several students sit at tables with laptops and books in a large room with bookshelves and a balcony level.

The main library of Helsinki University offers an impressive environment for reading and learning.Photo: Mika Huisman/Helsinki University

The Year of Sivistys 2024 program partly aims to illustrate how sivistys relates to Finland’s often-vaunted education system, but also how it can be identified more broadly in Finnish society.

“Sivistys is a concept that it is oriented towards both society and individuals,” says Lauri Tuomi, CEO of the KVS Foundation. “It consists not only of diverse knowledge, critical thinking, action and empathy, but also the knowledge, skills and abilities required for the resolution of societal problems with others.”

The program marks the 150th anniversary of KVS Foundation’s establishment in 1874, before Finland’s independence from Russia (in 1917) and long before Finland, like the other Nordic countries (Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), became associated with high levels of education, affluence and social cohesion.

Democracy and participation

Two men in suits stand side by side and smile.

After the second round of Finland’s presidential elections in February 2024, candidates Alexander Stubb (left) and Pekka Haavisto awaited the results together while continuing to encourage each other.Photo: Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva

“As a Finnish concept, sivistys has not developed in a vacuum,” says Tuomi. “The concept has a long history, and it is very close to what is known as bildning in the other Nordic countries or Bildung in German.” The roots of the term can be traced back to at least the 19th century, when Finland was a considerably poorer region.

“In those days there was a strong initiative to provide every citizen with the opportunity to learn,” says Tuomi.

Sivistys, he believes, has the power to strengthen democracy and encourage citizens to be active participants in their society. It played a distinctive role in Finland’s evolution from relatively poor to one of the most successful countries in the world. The concept of sivistys itself has evolved, and Tuomi sees the 2024 events as a reminder of its contemporary relevance.

Helping find solutions

An audience is seated in a large space listening to several people who are having a discussion on a stage.

Think Corner, a café at Helsinki University, holds discussion events open to the public.Photo: Matti Pyykkö/Helsinki University

“The importance of sivistys will be strengthened in people’s daily lives and rearticulated with an eye to the future,” says Tuomi. “Actors and networks from various sectors of society are invited to participate.” These include fields as diverse and significant as education; business; media; science; sports; culture and the arts; youth work; museums and public libraries.

“The message from the Ministry of Education and Culture in approving the Year of Sivistys 2024 and the KVS Foundation as coordinators was that it’s time to wipe the dust off the concept,” he says. “We face huge challenges, such as climate change, war and digitalisation, and sivistys can be seen as one of the means for finding solutions to these challenges.”

“We invite everyone to learn about the history of sivistys, and to discuss what it means today and in the future,” says Tuomi. “Our aim is that Finland will be well known globally not only for sisu, sauna and [composer Jean] Sibelius, but also for sivistys.”

Year of Sivistys: events and info

Four small wooden blocks are stacked on a table, each with a word on it: future, democracy, love, technology.

“The Foundations of Civilisation” is a game with dozens of miniature blocks at Soppi, a science centre for education and learning. Clockwise from top: future, democracy, love, technology.Photo: KVS Foundation

Digitalisation and empathy are the parallel themes, with events that fall into these categories:

  • sustainable future
  • diversity and equality
  • culture and arts
  • science
  • literacy and dialogue
  • lifelong learning

A sampling of the events on offer:

  • combining sports, nature and wellbeing at a sports institute
  • a garden poetry event in Kittilä, in the Finnish far north
  • a Finnish evening in Luxembourg
  • volunteer conservation projects with the World Wildlife Fund
  • a festival of vintage literature
  • archaeology for the general public, organised by Heureka Science Centre in Vantaa (north of Helsinki)
  • Forest Science Day, arranged by Helsinki University

The KVS Foundation also runs a science centre for education and learning, called Soppi, in the Helsinki neighbourhood of Töölö. The exhibition there describes the history and way ahead for the Finnish educational system.

By Tim Bird, May 2024