What is “Bildung?”

Before posting a series of letters to the authors, “Bildung” must be defined. It is mentioned in the headings of Parts 2 and 3, and acording to the authors, it does not translate easily from German to English.

The authors’ descriptions of “Bildung” start with reviews of Kegan’s five orders of mental complexity and Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development. Then they present a three-dimensional graphic of concentric globes, which represent personal development in three directions:

     The spheres being three-dimensional, we see the horizontal plane representing knowledge, facts about the world and experiences we can share with other people. . . The vertical axis represents our emotional roots downwards and our moral aspirations upwards; as we mature, our understanding of our roots and ourselves becomes deeper, and our moral aspirations can evolve to become higher. The vertical axis represents our spiritual ego-development and paths to moral truths. It represents emotional truths that we have learned through experience not facts through rational learning. (pp. 56 & 57)

     Illustrating our ego-development this way, as concentric globes with horizontal knowledge and vertical truths, allows us to talk about a deep personality, depth of character, and inner roominess, as our mental complexity grows and we mature. Only if we mature and add layers in all directions can we become deep, wise, and rounded persons.  (p. 57)

The authors use the language of “layers” to point to examples of both Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development: (1) oriented toward obedience and avoiding punishment, (2) oriented toward self-interest, (3) oriented toward interpersonal relations and conformity, (4) oriented toward authority and maintaining social order, (5) oriented toward the social contract in general, (6) oriented toward universal ethical principles; and Kegan’s five orders of mental complexity: (1) early childhood, (2) childhood, (3) socialized mind, (4) self-authoring mind, and (5) self-transforming mind (pp. 42 & 43). In general, “Bildung” points to the development of the whole person.

Their discussion of developmental psychology is later combined with German philosophy to complete translating “Bildung” into English.

     Until around 1760, Bildung means religious Bildung: to shape oneself in God’s image (Bild). Around 1770, it got a new secular meaning, which meant an inner development related to one’s emotions. (p. 157)

German philosophers, writers, and key political figures in Weimar “expanded the epistemology of the time. . . ” (p. 159).

      From Shaftesbury to Hegel, the philosophers focused on inner freedom, getting oneself beyond one’s emotions, cravings and drives, and beyond the fashion of the day, the norms and expectations of others. The goal for all of them was a fully rounded, self-authoring layer 4 (Kegan), and they obviously wrote from layer 5, self-transforming, where they could explore their own inner workings and that of their fellow men. Schiller described a stage where one can handle constant change, and it matches (Kegan’s) layer 5. (p. 159)

Part 3 of TNS describes how various Nordic countries implemented a system of education guided by Bildung. Beginning in the 1870s, folk high schools were established throughout Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Finland developed folk high schools in the 1920s. The schools were built by elites to educate the lower classes for full participation in Nordic societies. They were designed to be communities in which young people flourished emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually.

According to the authors, it was this “Bildung-type” of education, that was partly responsible for enabling Nordic countries to go from the poorest European agricultural societies in the late 1800s to the happiest, most prosperous nations in the world today. 

Now that I have covered “Bildung,” each of the following letters to the authors quotes their Part 5, entitled, “Looking Forward,” and finishes with my comments on their ideas.


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