“Obligation to participate in the education debate”

Professor of Spanish Inger Enkvist has written a large number of books about education and teaching. She sees it as her obligation to take part in the debate on education, but she also participates in the public debate in other areas. Most recently, she wrote in Språktidningen about the Catalonian independence movement. Last year she was awarded the Instituto Cervantes intercultural prize for her role as a bridge between Sweden and the Spanish-speaking world.

Inger Enkvist

Professor of Spanish Inger Enkvist gets involved in issues relating both to her subject and to education.

When LUM meets Inger Enkvist in her office at the Spanish unit, she is in the process of writing yet another opinion piece about the Swedish education system. A quick check of the University’s press database produces almost 600 hits for her name in combination with the word school – and that’s only in Sweden.

Inger Enkvist has written a lot of books about teaching and education, but she is also an expert on Spanish and Latin American literature. Juan Goytisolo and Mario Vargas Llosa are two authors who have remained with her over the years, and she has just published a book entitled Att förstå Vargas Llosa (Understanding Vargas Llosa) in which she describes the components used by the Peruvian author in writing a novel.

“You could describe it as a recipe book for a Nobel Prize in Literature”, she says, adding that she is having a hectic time when it comes to publishing books. A group of Mexican university lecturers have asked her to write a textbook in education as part of a major initiative to raise the status of the teaching profession in Mexico. She has also just been asked to write a textbook for the comparative literature programme at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid.

“It’s great that they’ve found me, and great to have an impact in the Spanish-speaking world”, says Inger Enkvist.

However, outside academia in Sweden she is mostly known as a debater on the subject of education. The article she is just sending off when LUM meets her is about how schools are still struggling with what Inger Enkvist claims are flawed ideas about learning – ideas that have been dominant in Swedish teacher training since the 1960s. One of these ideas is that real understanding of a subject can be obstructed by learning factual information, and that pupils should discover the nature of the world for themselves rather than being taught it.

“This is an incorrect notion that damages the Swedish education system”, concludes Inger Enkvist. “Only a person who already has a lot of knowledge can combine it in such a way that group work and information searching leads to new understanding.”

Shortly after the LUM interview, one of Sweden’s major newspapers publishes another contribution to the education debate from Inger Enkvist. This time she writes about the results of five new licentiate theses written by upper secondary school teachers who have been part of Lund University’s graduate school in Spanish. All the results indicate that teaching methods are not as crucial as might be believed. Discipline, or rather lack of it, in the form of late arrivals, chatting and mobile phones had a major impact on pupils’ results.

“A large part of the pupils’ success depends on whether the pupil engages in learning the subject or not”, concludes Inger Enkvist. The teachers’ subject knowledge is also important.

All due respect to scholarship, but isn’t a licentiate a bit unnecessary for upper secondary school language teachers?

Not at all, according to Inger Enkvist. By allowing the teachers to do a licentiate, they gain inspiration and additional career paths. Moreover, their research has benefited the pupils because it has focused on the best way of learning Spanish.

However, Inger Enkvist doesn’t just participate in the debate on education. In the autumn, she wrote an article in Språktidningen about the desire of Catalan nationalists to gain independence for Catalonia from Spain. She said that language has been used as a springboard in the Catalan nationalists’ fight, and that they are a relatively small group who are using identity politics to promote their own interests.

“I wrote the article about Catalonia because I wanted to offer a more nuanced view of the issue, based on my reading of history, literary history and especially knowledge of how the education system has been used by the nationalists”, says Inger Enkvist. “In this case, the issues that I feel strongly about – education, language, the humanities in general – have been used for a narrow political aim.”

The article provoked strong feelings in Språktidningen, with a number of readers expressing their anger at what they considered to be a biased view. They also questioned why a professor of languages like Inger Enkvist was entering a debate as political as that on Catalonian independence.

Inger Enkvist considers that it is part of her mandate from the taxpayer to monitor developments in Spanish-speaking countries and share her knowledge in Sweden. In fact, last spring she received the Instituto Cervantes intercultural prize for her role as a link between Sweden and the Spanish-speaking world, presented by none other than Mario Vargas Llosa – the author she has followed throughout her academic career.

Text: Ulrika Oredsson

Photo: Gunnar Menander

MORE ABOUT Inger Enkvist

Born 1947 in Värmland
Has worked as a secondary school teacher. Completed a PhD in 1986.

Family: Husband, two children and several grandchildren

The best thing about the University: Getting to learn new things all the time and to develop your ideas. Meeting others in the workplace who are eager to learn new things.

The worst thing about the University: bureaucratisation – a major threat to enthusiasm in the workplace

Passionate about: Education. “Languages, literature, history and philosophy are means to understand our world and reason about our common future.”

Read also about other researchers involved in public debate: Andreas Bergh och Roland Paulsen