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Bildung: Cultivating WellBeing via Education and Development

Bildung is about building character via education and cultural development.

This guest blog was authored by Lene Rachel Andersen.

There is much attention these days on mindfulness, personal growth, self-improvement, psychological development, and—especially amid the Covid-19 shutdown—mental health. These concepts are addressed mostly from the perspectives of psychology and the wellbeing of the individual. We rarely hear them addressed from the perspectives of education and the culture and social context within which individuals struggle to thrive. This is strange because culture can hold us, guide us, and show us that somebody has been in a somewhat similar mess before in a way that might help us learn and grow.

Bildung connects with psychological development and fulfillment, but the focus is on culture and education to cultivate it. Bildung is a German word that does not have an exact translation in English. Probably the word that comes the closest is formation, in that it is fundamentally concerned with the formation of a person's character.

Although it is not well-known in the United States, bildung has a 250-year-old philosophical tradition in Europe that explores how aesthetics and education contribute to our development and how this development relates to political freedom. Crucially, as I lay out in The Nordic Secret, it has a proven track record in the Nordic countries, which were transformed in the course of a hundred or so years from countries that were impoverished and struggling to some of the happiest and healthiest places on earth, according to several global metrics. This development has even contributed to American history.

Bildung as Education in the General Sense

Knowledge about the world is empowering. Be it science, geography, history, literature, math, or another language, education is the prerequisite for being able to understand and engage in one’s society and to thrive as an autonomous, responsible adult. If everybody in a society is well educated, it furthermore has the advantage that one is surrounded by knowledgeable people who also understand their society and have the capacity to engage with it and take responsibility.

In the German language, this ‘ordinary’ education is also called bildung. Historically, though, bildung has meant so much more.

Bildung as Psychological Development

Among the German bildung philosophers was the poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) who described three kinds of people:

  1. The Emotional Person, who is in the throes of his emotions and who is therefore not free; he cannot transcend his own emotions.
  2. The Rational Person, who has shed his emotional bondage by internalizing the moral norms or "rationale" of society and made them his own. With a modern word, he has become a team player, but he is not free either, because he cannot transcend the norms of society.
  3. The Moral Person, who has internalized the norms of society and who has reconnected with his own emotions, which allows him to transcend both. This makes him free to make up his own mind while also being a good and conscientious citizen.

This emotional and moral development is bildung applied to character, and it matches what modern developmental psychology describes as the emotional development in late childhood (Emotional Person), self-governing acquired during our teenage years and early adulthood (Rational Person) and self-authoring (Moral Person). (For example, see here for Dr. Robert Kegan discussing his views on psychological development, which overlap significantly with this basic outline).

Aesthetics and Beauty

Schiller explores this development in On the Aesthetic Education of Man. He says that in order for the emotional person to transcend his emotions, he needs “calming beauty” that can align his emotions with those of his surroundings. Listening to or watching beautiful aesthetics can bring us in tune with others and society; Schiller’s time was also the time of Mozart. From this perspective, it is no surprise that modern teenagers join sub-cultures through certain kinds of music.

According to modern psychology, one can go through life as a self-governing team player who never questions the norms and expectations of others and society as a whole. But one can also transcend this and become self-authoring. Typically, this happens as part of a personal crisis (divorce, losing a job etc.), which turns one’s life upside-down and forces one to reconsider one’s life on one’s own terms.

Schiller, on the other hand, suggested that this second transition can be promoted by aesthetics. This time not by calming beauty, though, but by invigorating aesthetics, something that shakes us up! This could be paintings, plays, or music.

Both this aesthetic education, the developmental process, and the result, Schiller called bildung.

Danish folk-bildung

In Denmark, these aspects of bildung were popularized and became “folk-bildung.” Beginning in the 1850s, young farmhands (both boys and girls) started going to folk high schools in order to be educated and to become empowered citizens. The schools were boarding schools with a five-month program where the young people learned the latest science and agricultural techniques, history, and political science. But most crucially was the fact that they got to ask questions, discuss their viewpoints, and develop their own opinions. By 1900, some 10% of the annual cohort in Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia went to those schools, and afterwards they went home to their villages and became community organizers.

Crucial in the folk high schools were also aesthetics, not least communal singing and, through that, the stimulation of national (self)awareness. This was a time of transition from feudal, agricultural societies to modern, industrialized nation states, and the sense of shared peoplehood was an entirely new emotion, as this popular Danish song from 1848 suggests (NFS Grundtvig, my translation):

Of the people all must be now

’cross the country, head to toe

Something new is surely rising

Even fools already know

But can all that shatters meet up

With the New that’s born and heal up?

Do we know what our wish is,

More than ”bread and circuses”?

Please don’t mind my asking!

Bildung and Political Freedom

Schiller wrote about bildung in the aftermath of the French Revolution in 1789. He did so because he needed to understand why the French could not handle political freedom and their revolution ended in a bloodbath. His explanation was as follows: The emotional person is in the throes of his emotions and thus cannot handle political freedom, but will succumb to violence, and the rational person is governed by the expectations of others, does what the emotional people do—and thus cannot handle political freedom either. The only ones who can handle political freedom are the moral persons who have internalized the norms of society, but who also have the autonomy to feel their own emotions and tell their fellow citizens if they are morally wrong.

The Danish folk high schools were based on this understanding—which takes us to the US and why bildung is so crucial:

During the Great Depression, a young teacher from Tennessee, Myles Horton, was looking for empowering education for the poorest Appalachians and he heard about the Danish schools. He then went to Denmark in 1931-32, returned to Tennessee, and founded Highlander Folk School, which became an educational backbone of the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks went there for two weeks, experienced for the first time Black and White people eating together at the same table, and later had the moral courage to keep her seat on the bus.

That moral courage was bildung.

Our mental health and well-being

How does this come together as mental health and well-being?

Empowerment gives a sense of hope and the ability to make a difference, and well-educated people who take responsibility for their society create strong societies and functioning institutions. All of which contribute to reducing insecurity and anxiety.

Acting together, educating ourselves and exploring cultural heritage and aesthetics together allows us to bond and reduce loneliness and the sense of being lost. And personally, I have a hard time finding a better example of what Schiller called invigorating aesthetics than this 60-year-old folk-bildung song from Highlander: We Shall Overcome.

PS: As I completed the first draft of this post, I learned that John Lewis had passed away. He, to me, stood out as a giant of bildung, and not having him around anymore is a tremendous loss to all of us.

Note: These insights are from the recently released book Bildung: Keep Growing by Lene Rachel Andersen.

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