Bring Back Bildung: Thoughts About the Future of Education

*Bildung refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation, wherein philosophy and education are linked in a manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation. Wikipedia

On Valentine’s Day 2020, a New York Times writer and a forward-thinking bright student at Starbucks gave me new hope for the future of education.  I share their gifts with all of you!

My husband and I were having an afternoon of complete self-indulgence on his unexpected day off for Lincoln’s Birthday this past week. (Unlike many institutions, his college celebrates both Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays on two separate days.) After doing some banking chores we wandered into our local Starbucks, a place we rarely frequent. As I waited for my husband to place our order, I sat at one of the window seats. Two seats away an attractive young man was reading a slim book by John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934). As he read he took notes on his laptop while wearing the earplugs requisite for all students nowadays.

When he paused for a break, I struck up a conversation with him. “Is that book by John Dewey, the education philosopher?” I asked him. “Yes,” he eagerly replied. “Are you an art student?” I asked. “No, but this is part of the reading for a course I’m taking for my graduate studies at Columbia University.”

That got the conversation rolling and I soon learned that this bright student who exuded confidence was a former alpine skier who had attended boarding school during his high-school training years, then attended Boston College. He is now enrolled at Columbia in their newly revived Philosophy and Education Program to pursue a Master’s and eventually a PhD In order to become a professor/administrator at a small liberal arts college.

I can’t remember when I’ve had such a delightful and uplifting conversation about education. He explained to my husband and me that his undergrad years at Boston had led him to believe in the importance of the Liberal Arts as part of the curriculum. Nowadays, he explained, so many students are pursuing technical degrees, computer degrees, science degrees, but without a liberal arts component which he now believes is essential to becoming productive and well-rounded in any career. His current status as a student  in the Philosophy and Education Program at Columbia is helping him to focus on his personal reasons for wanting to teach as well as learning how to integrate the various worlds of teaching and learning that exist separately on college campuses. We soon parted but I spent hours thinking about him and our conversation. He kept repeating the phrase, “I want to become part of the conversation about….” This academic metaphor for saying he is anxious to get into his field of work made me smile because it is so hopeful.

Today (February 14), I came across an editorial by David Brooks in the New York Times Op-Ed section entitled “This Is How Scandinavia Got Great.” Mr. Brooks spoke about how it is the “generous welfare states” that most people admire in the Scandinavian countries. But for him, it goes deeper than that. He firmly believes that “What really launched the Nordic nations was generations of phenomenal educational policy.”

As the Nordic countries began to experience the arrival of immigrants in the late nineteenth century, Mr. Brook explains, they soon realized that if they were to going to continue to “prosper” as nations they needed to create “folk schools” for the least educated among them based on the concept of ‘bildung.’ A German word for a philosophy of education, Mr. Brook explains that “It means the complete moral, emotional, intellectual and civic transformation of the person starting from a very young age.” A simpler definition is “self-cultivation.” He further explains that it was believed that “if people were going to be able to handle and contribute to an emerging industrial society, they would need more complex inner lives.” To go through the various stages of life that we all pass through with some degree of security and optimism, they would need to be taught how they fit into the larger picture. This would help people realize that making a contribution to the stability of their nation will result in a better chance at their own future wellbeing. In other words, they would learn to develop personal responsibility as well as responsibility toward others.

This makes total sense to me as I think about how divided our country has become. People can’t have “complex inner lives” when they are forced to struggle for their existence. Until we build a safety net for all people that will allow them to thrive and think about the “greater good,” we will continue to experience the deep divisions we are now experiencing that threaten the security of all our lives and our individual sense of wellbeing.

Bringing the concept of bildung “back into the conversation” seems like a good idea to me. Weaving it into the curriculum from an early age seems to offer the best chance we have at producing well rounded, responsible citizens who have learned to care about one another, not just how to create the latest, income generating “app.” We have so much to relearn.