In Search of a Modern Society: Upper Secondary School Students Reflecting on their Present Time


  • Lars Andersson Hult



history, modernity, tradition, high school exams, gender (boys and girls)


The aim of this study is to analyze and discuss different uses of history as these are expressed in student test responses at two state grammar schools, one for girls and one for boys, in the early twentieth century. The primary focus is on the questions or themes formulated in relation to how the students consider their present society and how boys and girls use history in their responses. Sweden was in the early 1900s undergoing a major social transformation with significant political divides, which is partly reminiscent of Sweden’s situation today. The theoretical conclusions in this article are based on the concepts of pre-modernity and modernity.

A large portion of the students avoid discussing the transition from a more pre-modern traditional country into a modern society. Most test responses are dominated by objectivist responses, focusing on neutral facts. In other test responses, students express a concern for the lack of stability and unity in Swedish society, an increasing gap between people and rapid technological developments. When threats are presented, the concerned students tend to use historical examples to illustrate the problems by using a narrative of decline, in addition to warnings of decay and a dream of a better past.

Gender differences are found in the test responses, particularly in relation to a theme concerning a Swedish women’s rights leader, Fredrika Bremer. Boys and girls both write factual biographical descriptions, while the girls also express their disappointment in the lack of gender equality in their current society and an almost impatient longing for a more modern society. The boys do not problematize the existing society the way the girls do.