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The Americanization of the Finns

John Wargelin, A.M.,

President of Suomi College and Theological Seminary

Chapter I.  Introduction. Meaning of Americanization Discussed.
Chapter II.  Historical Background of the Finnish Race.
Chapter III.  Causes of Immigration from Finland.
Chapter IV.  Finnish Immigration to America.
Chapter V.  Distribution and Occupations of the Finns.
Chapter VI.  Cultural Life of the Finns. a) School.
Chapter VII.  Cultural Life of the Finns (continued). b) Press.
Chapter VIII.  Cultural Life of the Finns (continued). c) Church.
Chapter IX.  Cultural Life of the Finns (continued). d) Societies.
Chapter X.  Naturalization and Political Life.

Chapter VI.
Cultural Life of the Finns.

a) School.

The educational system in Finland has become well established, both in the Elementary and Secondary schools. The church has been a great factor in the early education of the people here as in other Protestant countries. According to the belief of the religious leaders it was necessary for every individual to be able to read the Word of God and thus understand the fundamentals of Christianity. Instruction was first given at home, and general public examinations, known as "kinkerit" (might be originated from Kinderlehre, German, through the Swedish), were held yearly, where the youth, and also the older people, were examined as to their ability to read and understand the Christian doctrines. It is interesting to note in this connection, that every person who wished to be married, first had to satisfy the minister that he was able to read; this insured intelligent parentage in the country. This explains the fact why the percentage of illiteracy in Finland is so small. At present it is below one per cent (7/10 of 1 %), while in America, due to our southern population and certain classes of immigrants, the percentage of illiteracy is nearly 10 %,. Very few countries excel Finland in this respect.

In comparing the number of illiterates found in Finland with those in other countries, it is necessary to explain that in the statistics of Finland, illiteracy is defined as including those persons that are not able to read. It does not consider those who are unable to write. In the United States, however, we class as illiterates those who are able neither to read nor write. This would raise the number of illiterates in Finland to some extent, for a few persons are found among the older generation who cannot write although they are able to read. This is understood more readily when we remember that the public school system was organized in Finland as late as 1866. This fact does not, however, materially change the general truth, and we can say that Finland stands among the first countries in Europe in the degree of literacy found among its people.1

Many facts could be given in proof of these foregoing statements, but we shall point out only two that have come to our attention recently. The first comes from the Honorable Charles L. Kagey, United States' minister to Finland, our first minister to the new Republic. He has just recently returned to America for a brief vacation. On being interviewed by the reporter of the "Daily Call", published in Beloit, Kansas, he made some very interesting statements concerning the country, the people, and their educational system. On being asked concerning the educational standard of the country, he said,that "the ability to read is wonderfully high there, and in general I have been assured that 98 out of every hundred persons are able to read and write. Finland has an educational system covering the whole country, and several colleges and universities which rank among the best in the world."

The other statement comes from a man who is well versed in international affairs, namely, Francis E. Clark, the founder of the Christian Endeavor League. He wrote an article in the Christian Herald, New York, in Sept. 1920, in which he paid tribute not only to the high intelligence of the people in general, but to their great physical agility and endurance, as exemplified within the last few years by their achievements in international games and contests, like the Olympics in Antwerp a few years ago. As we remember, the Finns broke several world records and won the second place, the United States being first. We shall come back later to the subject of athletics.

The majority of the young men and women coming to America from Finland, have had at least an elementary school education. - The Finnish "Kansakoulu", public school, comprises, in the writer's estimation, a year or two of high school work, with such subjects as practical geometry, general history, and manual training. Many have attended higher institutions of learning. Finland was the first country to organize manual training as a part of its school instruction, for as early as 1858, Uno Cygnaeus outlined a course for manual training involving bench and metal work, wood-carving, and basket-weaving. In 1866 this work was made compulsory for boys in all rural schools.2 So when the Finn comes to America, and finds public schools in the community in which he locates, he is glad to send his children there. Compulsory education laws do not bother him, for he has been used to them in Finland. In general it may be said that school authorities do not have any more trouble in compelling Finnish children to attend school than they have in compelling those of other nationalities.

Having given this brief background of the educational standards of the Finns, we shall now try to point out a few facts from their actual life in America.

Public School. The following table is from the Hancock Public School records. It shows the total number of children enrolled, and the number and percentage of Finnish children.

Table X.3


Total No. of Ch.

Finnish Ch.

Per cent of
Finnish Ch.

























The above table shows that the number of Finnish children in the public schools at Hancock has steadily increased. The same thing is true of other communities where the Finns are numerous, e. g. Calumet, Ishpeming, Negaunee, Ironwood, and Wakefield in Michigan, and in Virginia, Eveleth, Hibbing, Chisholm, Ely, and other towns in Minnesota, Astoria, Oregon, Ashtabula Harbor, and Fairport in Ohio. The number of Finnish high school graduates is increasing yearly. In some of the Michigan high schools the number of Finnish graduates last summer was as high as 40 % of the total. This shows that the older members of the race have become established financially, and are able to give their children a better education. But even then it is a sacrifice for the parents of large families, with comparatively small incomes. It can be said with credit, that when a common laborer sees five of his children through high school, as the writer knows some Finnish families have done, it certainly shows appreciation of education. And yet the fathers and the mothers of such families have often themselves had very little or no schooling.

A very high tribute is paid to the Finnish public school children by one of the best known educators and schoolmen in Michigan, a man who has had wide experience as a school administrator with Finnish children. We refer to Supt. Fred A. Jeffers, of Painesdale, a member of The State Board of Education in Michigan. He writes:

"For nearly a third of a century I have known children of Finnish parentage as in large numbers they have come under my observation and supervision in the public schools. The great majority of them have been industrious and intelligent to a high degree. Many of them have ranked among our best pupils in deportment and scholarship. They have not created any special problems of instruction and discipline due to their particular origin, but on the contrary most of them in very short time after beginning school attendance have seemed decidedly American in every aspect of their school life. Very few of them have made any trouble in matters of behavior, reflecting in that respect, doubtless, the excellent training of sensible parents in good homes. They have been not only good pupils in elementary and high school, but many have continued their studies in higher institutions and have become strong and able teachers. It may be emphatically stated that the American school children of Finnish origin have made a creditable record of achievement in our schools, and thus in large and increasing measure are making a fine contribution to American citizenship.

Through the Finnish immigrants and their children the star of the little republic of the far north mingles its gleam with the stars of the great republic of the west and the pathway of America's civilization is better illumined thereby".

Prof. Van Cleef writes on this question, concerning the Finns in Minnesota, that the Finn demonstrates his desire for mental growth by the attendance of his children in the public schools and his own attendance at night schools. "The Finns demand schools no matter how remote they may be. The daily attendance record of their children is very high," says the St. Louis County superintendent of Schools. In a town on the Mesabi Range, where the Finn constitutes only about one-tenth of the population, the superintendent of schools reports that he is the backbone of the night school. Out of a total attendance of 900 over 500 were Finns.4

We quote another man who has had considerable experience with Finnish children in his capacity as high school principal and, later, as county superintendent of the schools of Gogebic County, Michigan; we refer to John C. Watson. Meeting Finnish children for the first time as they came to enroll in the high school of Ironwood, most of them coming from rural schools, he had misgivings as to the ability of these timid and apparently stolid looking children, but the superintendent, who had been in charge for several years, corrected him, saying: "Oh, they are all right. They become good students when they get over their bashfulness." After twelve year of principalship in that school, he writes: "During my twelve years as principal, five of the valedictorians were of Finnish parentage, two of whom were from the country districts. So you see I cannot be blamed if I have lost quite a little confidence in the accuracy of my first impressions. Of those who stood among the one-third highest in the graduating classes, the Finnish graduates always had more than their share in proportion to those taking part in the declamatory contests - thus becoming our representatives in contests with other high schools. Many of the best performers in the vocal and instrumental music organizations were of that nationality. They were not selected through favoritism either. But it was in the field of dramatics that their work was the most commendable. - When we presented Officer 666, the part of the young millionaire was taken by Oscar Ketola. Surely I have never seen a better piece of acting on the amateur stage."5

Modern study of sociology has proved that there is very little difference in the intelligence of different races, given the same opportunities for development. The Finnish boy or girl has generally showed up in a very satisfactory way. Many among them show exceptional ability, it being not an uncommon thing to have a Finnish boy or girl deliver the valedictory at a high school commencement. We could name schools from our personal knowledge where Finnish students have attained the highest records in the history of the schools. There are no records to show in what subjects Finnish children show most talent, but it is our experience that different students show aptitudes for different subjects. Some may excel in mathematics, some again in history or languages, and still others in natural sciences, or in music and the fine arts. The Finnish race has inherited a special love for music and poetry, as their national epic "Kalevala" and the "Kanteletar" well prove.

Evening Schools. In most of the communities, in which Finns have lived, evening schools have not existed until within the last few years. But they have organized such schools themselves in connection with their Temperance Societies or other organizations. The writer has himself been a teacher in such schools in various places where he has lived. Most of the larger Finnish communities have had their evening schools, although many of them have been in existence only for a year or two during the winter months. These difficulties have been encountered: students have found the learning of English too hard for the time they could give to it, And there has been a shortage of suitable teachers. But with the high schools and other agencies, e. g. Americanization organizations, Speak-English Clubs in St. Louis County, Minnesota, going into this work within the last few years, many of these difficulties have been overcome.

Is it easy for a Finn to learn English? For those who come to America. very young it offers no difficulties. He is able to learn English quite easily, and this in spite of the fact that he has learned his mother tongue first. The two languages are so different that there is no possibility of mixing the two. But it must be admitted, as is well known from the study of languages in general, that the idioms of one language affect the use of another language at times. One thinks in the idioms of a certain language and translates these into another, thus bringing strange constructions into the language which is not his native tongue. Those who have come as immigrants at a later age, say about the age of 17 or 18 years, find it difficult to learn English perfectly. The Finnish language lacks such sounds as wh, th, sh, ch, and a mistake is quite often made in pronouncing words like "which", "there", "share", "church" etc. The distinction between the letters b and p, t and d, also causes some confusion, for Finnish has only the p and t letters; while b is found only in words of foreign origin, and d never stands at the beginning of a word. Of the pronunciation of English words, it might be said in general that they offer infinite difficulties to immigrants whose language happens to be phonetic, as the Finnish is. We are not, however, arguing for the phonetic spelling in English for the sake of the Finn, unless other weightier reasons are found for introducing the change.

The Finnish people have special difficulty also in distinguishing the gender of pronouns, because no gender is observed in Finnish in classifying pronouns. For an example, a Finnish man may make a mistake like the one which happened in an evening school in Minnesota. The teacher asked him, pointing to his wife, "What do you call this?" He replied: "I call him she." These facts, and others which might be added, do show that there are many reasons to account for the slow progress which the immigrants often make in learning our language; they may also help us to sympathize with them in their difficulties.

To what extent do Finnish parents send their children to colleges and higher institutions of learning? We are unable to furnish any figures in this respect, but it may be said that their numbers are growing very fast. From our knowledge we could name at this moment several Finnish students attending the universities of Michigan, Chicago, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, Boston, Oregon, and California, Dartmouth College, Wellesley, Michigan Agricultural College, Michigan College of Mines, Chicago Art Institute, and numerous Normal Colleges and Musical Conservatories. The University of Minnesota reports that there are enrolled this fall (1923) in that institution about 100 Finnish students. It would be very interesting to give a list of Finnish university graduates, but we do not know that any such list exists. From our knowledge we shall point out a few, without making it personal nor exhaustive. From the University of Michigan we can think of seven, four from the Law Department (one of these men became the first Finnish Congressman in America two years ago), two from the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and two in Medicine; one from Columbia, three from Chicago, and four from Minnesota, without trying to name others. Injustice to the Finnish medical men, we should add that we are acquainted with a large number of them, who have received their professional education in America. The teaching profession, however, has attracted the largest number of Finnish young men and women. It has been estimated by some authorities that there are as many as 1,000 of them in this profession in America. The figures given here of various kinds of graduates should not by any means be taken as representing a total number. They have been cited at random only as illustrations of a fact important to notice in this connection.

Suomi College and Theological Seminary. Besides sending their children to the public schools, the Finns have been interested in organizing educational institutions for higher learning of their own. We shall give a few facts concerning the one which already has an important history behind it. This school is Suomi College and Theological Seminary, located at Hancock, Mich. It was founded by the Suomi Synod in 1896 and has continued its work ever since. It is the only educational institution in existence today, for general culture, organized by the Finns in America. A theological seminary, operated by the Finnish National Church at Ironwood, Mich., for a few years, has now closed its doors. Of the other church schools, e. g. Sunday Schools, etc., we shall speak in connection with our discussion of the church. But why organize a school in America that seems to savor of foreignness? Why was Suomi College organized?

Something in the name of the school partly answers our question. It has been organized, in the first place, for religious reasons. The state does not build our churches, or provide us with pastors, or take care of the religious training of our children in America. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." So we read in our Constitution; and yet this country was to be a Christian land, according to the idea of the framers of the Constitution. This ideal could be secured only through the separation of the state and the church. In our judgement it is not only our privilege but our duty to see that the democratic principles and Christian ideals, on which the foundation of this nation was based, are perpetuated in our national life. The great men in the history of our country, beginning with George Washington on to President Harding, have all emphasized the need of religious instruction in our country. The Finns did not need to be taught this idea in America, for they came from a country where religion has exerted a great influence over the minds of the people. The Finns needed churches and ministers in America, and in order to satisfy the spiritual needs of the people amid new and strange conditions, it was necessary that the ministers understand the life and the thought of the people, whom they were to serve. The ministers coming from Finland soon found that the people were changing fast in their ways and the younger element especially was forgetting its mother tongue. A native born and educated ministry was needed. This was the prime reason for the founding of Suomi College.

The second reason was to give the children of the immigrants a chance to receive Christian education together with instruction in other necessary branches. Thirdly, to provide those immigrants who came to America in mature years with a school where they could come to learn English and receive instruction in other fundamental subjects. Lastly, the founders have had an idea that they wanted to give their children an opportunity to learn to know and understand the language and the history of their native land, not from any opposition to English, but in harmony with it. This last idea is not hard to understand, for every race has a warm spot in its heart for the life of its own kin. "If I forget thee, O, Jerusalem", expresses a human sentiment. The last named reason does not play an unduly important part in the life of Suomi College today, in our judgment. A few years ago we read in the annual catalog of the institution that "the institution takes into consideration the requirements of an American education, at the same time cherishing the heritage of the Old Fatherland", but this statement may be interpreted as being more for the satisfaction of the older friends of the institution than anything foreign in the spirit of the school. The institution aims to be an American educational institution, contributing its services to the cause of citizenship by the education of leaders for the Finnish people who will be mentally keen and spiritually sound.

Suomi College has five departments, namely, the Preparatory, Music, Academic, Commercial and Theological Departments. The Preparatory Department is an important factor in Americanization work, courses being especially arranged to meet the needs of immigrants who are mature in age, and who can not for this reason attend a public school. English is the main subject taught, the number of hours per week being from 20-25 hours. United States history and geography are taught in connection with the English work. Music Department offers instruction in piano and organ and in choral singing. The Academy offers a four-year high school course. Nearly all the instruction in this department is given in English. Two years ago the Academy was admitted on the accredited list of high schools by the University of Michigan. The Commercial Department offers a two years' course in bookkeeping and shorthand, together with allied subjects. The work of the school, in general, was favorably commended by the state inspector, Prof. J. B. Edmonson, and he paid special tribute to the Commercial Department because Civics was taught there to all the pupils. The Theological Seminary offers a three-year course; it prepares ministers for the Finnish Lutheran Church in America. Plans are now under way to open up a Junior College this fall.

The school is directed and supported by the Suomi Synod; yearly reports are made to the annual convention by the president of the institution. Five years ago the first president, Dr. J. K. Nikander, died; the office was filled through the election of Rev. John Wargelin, who also acts as manager of the institution. The faculty numbers twelve members at present, of whom nine have received their education and training in American colleges and universities; the others have been educated in the University of Helsingfors, of Finland. The enrollment has risen to 165 students, but during the last two years it has been somewhat smaller, due to the unsettled economic conditions experienced in America. Since the school is the only Finnish educational institution for higher learning in America, the students come from all parts of the United States. It is the only school where the Finnish language can be learned properly in America, as no universities offer courses in it, and for this reason it has possibilities of development which may mean a great deal for it in the near future. Letters are continually received from Americans who would like to take a course in Finnish, but thus far no special courses have been offered for those not already familiar with the language. As there is a plan for adding new departments of study to the curricula, it is possible that a school for graduate work in Finnish may also be added.

Two years ago the school became free of debt and since then there has been some talk of moving it to some other place which would be more centrally located. A number of places have shown their interest in Suomi College by trying to induce the Board of Directors to consider them as possible new locations for the school; among these may be mentioned Duluth, Minnesota, and Painesville, Ohio. But at the time of this writing it does not appear probable that it will be moved away from Hancock. The city has always shown great interest in the school, and when the question of a new location came up, the Chamber of Commerce of Hancock appointed a committee to confer with the president of Suomi College to try to find out what could be done to keep the school in its present location. This only shows that Suomi College has made friends in wide sections of our country.

In closing the discussion of this question, we quote what others have said about Suomi College. Mr. Clemens Niemi writes: "There are skeptical opinions as to the influence of denominational schools in immigrant groups. Some hold the opinion that they perpetuate racial boundaries; others again consider them to be means of enriching American culture. Each one may pass his judgment upon the matter according to his mental attitude. The college under consideration seems to have become a force in the adaptation of the newcomer, whatever its original aim may have been. In the organization of religious work the college has exerted a powerful influence. The ministers trained in it have learned the English language and the American viewpoint in church work. In other words, it has tended to demolish and to destroy old ways of thinking and formalism through educational channels. The institution also has acted as a medium in the dissemination of American principles through nationalist leadership. Its graduates of various departments have played an important role directly or indirectly in the Americanization process of community life. Numerous teachers in public schools have received their preparatory training in the college and they, knowing the idiosyncrasies of their people, have been able to approach them with effective results. American influences have been thus brought more readily home. The school, furthermore, has prepared many newcomers for American citizenship by teaching the language of the country and its history."6

1 Republic of Finland, Govt. Publication.

2 See History of Education, Cubberly, p. 769

3 Americanization of the Finnish People in Houghton County, Clemens Niemi, p. 40.

4 The Finn in America, p. 23.

5 "Koti-Home", No. 6, 1922.

6 Op. referred previously, p. 33.

Publication: John Wargelin, The Americanization of the Finns. The Finnish Lutheran Book Concern. Hancock, Michigan 1924, 185 pages.

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