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Does Bildung make you a better person?

Does Bildung make you a better person? The question may seem naive, staunchly conservative and high-flying. It therefore seems almost embarrassing, but is nevertheless worth asking because it is fundamental to the way education should be conducted. In order to provide an answer, the very idea of Bildung must first be described.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

The origin of the Western concept is the paideia of the classical Greeks, which stands for a comprehensive development of human intellectual, artistic and physical capacity. The aim is for the individual to acquire self-awareness, compassion and judgement. Such a goal requires a curiosity without limits and it requires a freedom for the individual to choose their own paths of knowledge. The idea was raised during the Enlightenment, especially in Germany during the 18th century and the early 19th century. The philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder introduced the word Bildung for a process in which a person is cultivated by transforming themself. Immanuel Kant describes the process as “man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity.” Bildung should not be seen as a means to a career or as a status symbol but as the individual’s own choice of guidelines. The concept of Bildung was also the basis for the philosopher and diplomat Wilhelm von Humboldt’s ideas on how a university should be organized. German officials should be impartial and judicious. Therefore, it was important that they obtained Bildung.

The Bildung debate in Sweden has recently mostly been about whether the Swedish schools should have a canon — a collection of works from the various arts, especially literature, that everyone should know about. An exception to this view is the historian of ideas Sverker Sörlin, who in his book Till bildningens försvar (To the Defense of Bildung) (2019) mainly discusses the importance of providing Bildung to the people (“folkbildning”). In Germany, the debate is livelier. A recent book is Bildung: Eine Anleitung (Education: A Manual) (2020), written by journalist Jan Ross, which takes a broad approach and tackles the question of what is gained by striving for Bildung.

Ross offers two main answers. The first is that Bildung broadens horizons. Bildung overcomes our ignorance, our prejudices and our bigotry. Bildung breaks us out of the mental prison that our routines and preconceptions have put us in. Humans not only need a sense of reality, they also need a sense of possibilities. You learn this by exposure to literature, art and science. By embracing the parallel universes offered by novels and other arts, our own inner world becomes wider and deeper. Albert Camus writes: “For a man without blinders, there is no more beautiful spectacle than that of intelligence struggling with a reality that surpasses it.”

What authors do for us

Author Mary Ann Evans, a.k.a. George Eliot, writes that the greatest contribution from writers and artists is that they expand our sympathies and thus our empathy. Novels and films often contain fictional stories, sometimes with elements that do not exist in reality. Can such stories make us wiser? As an illustration, Ross explains how you can walk past a beggar on the street and not be moved, but if you get to follow the beggar’s living conditions through a book, such as Jo in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, you cannot help but feel the misery of his life (unless you close the book) and it becomes impossible not to feel empathy. Once we have empathized with the characters of an author or filmmaker, we regard them as acquaintances who are in dialogue with us. Their experiences become ours. In this way, Bildung leads to compassion and tolerance.

Bildung also requires an awareness of history. Ross writes that history is the medium through which human beings make their consciousness a consciousness of humanity. History is a source of perspective and solidarity — to forget history is to betray humanity. Bildung does not discard experience but preserves and emphasizes it. Those whose interests and knowledge are fixated on the present risk withering away. Bildung is thus an inoculation against the dictatorship of the present.

Bildung is based primarily on curiosity about humans and their world, but there are educated academics who pride themselves on their ignorance of the natural sciences. This is a curious bigotry. Bildung does not just come from reading. To understand the world, one must know something about basic physical, chemical, biological and medical structures. Science does not always lend itself to linguistic presentation, but images, films, computer simulations and other technical methods can be used to present advanced theories in a pedagogical and interesting way without having to understand the underlying mathematics. Understanding the methods of science also provides an insight into the fact that there are rarely any simple answers to a problem.

Bildung and freedom

Ross’ second answer to the question of the value of Bildung is that it gives the individual inner freedom. John Stuart Mill writes his book On Freedom that no one can be free without adequate education and a minimum level of social security. Freedom is not just about freeing yourself from imprisonment and disempowerment, but also about getting rid of blocks to thought and imagination. Bildung gives self-awareness and thus freedom from utilitarian thinking and fads. Nicolas de Condorcet, the French philosopher and mathematician, writes that “one of the greatest advantages of Bildung is that it protects man against false notions in which his imagination and his enthusiasm for charlatans easily plunge him”. The educated become autonomous by giving themselves rules to live by and by taking responsibility for what they choose. Albert Camus writes: “Become so very free that your whole existence is an act of rebellion.”

Bildung requires effort and commitment. It is a lifelong process. Bildung cannot be measured with school grades or the like. An absolute truth is not attainable, but maturity is possible. Bildung is existential and human, not only for the brain but also for the heart.

Bildung should not follow state directives or be socially conformist, and Bildung should therefore be something more than learning according to a fixed programme geared to vocational training. What, then, should one choose to read, see and hear if one wants to achieve Bildung? Some Swedish politicians want to establish a canon for Swedish schools that everyone should have as a common background. Journalist Thomas Kerstan takes a similar position in his book Was unsere Kinder wissen müssen (What Our Children Must Know) (2018). He believes that we need a canon as a cement for a society — without one, there will be islands of people who do not understand those on the other islands. From a German horizon, he selects a hundred works — books (including science), plays, films, songs — that he thinks everyone should know. But Kerstan’s list is very typical of the times and a reflection of his own experiences — each of the hundred works could just as easily be replaced by several others. That is why a canon does not work as a recipe for Bildung. What excites one person will only make another yawn. A canon limits the possibilities of choosing one’s own journey towards Bildung. The proponents of a Swedish canon want it to give us knowledge of Swedish culture (whatever makes it different). But the human condition is universal — so there is no point in a national canon.

Ross chooses the Western tradition from the Greeks onwards as his ideal of Bildung, but he is clear in pointing out that this is his personal choice. He recognizes that globalization requires us to engage with other cultures as well. On the question of what to choose from the great diversity, Ross has a suggestion: take advice from your friends or from people you look up to. Take a theme in a discussion and follow it up with reading, film, art or science. This suggestion is surprising because it runs counter to his otherwise strong emphasis on individual freedom. The problem with this proposal is that the Bildung seeker can easily end up in a bubble. If your friends or those you look up to are united by certain views, their advice will not lead to a free search where you may encounter life-expanding surprises.

Instead, to burst all the limiting bubbles, read uncomfortable books, listen to difficult music, watch unpleasant plays, watch narrow films and repulsive works of art. As Franz Kafka writes in a letter: “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it?” It is when one seeks the strange and surprising that new insights can emerge, but this does not happen when one seeks safe companions of opinion. Ross also devotes a chapter to revolutionary classics — not because they are revolutionary, but because they are powerful vehicles for coming to terms with one’s prejudices.

In addition to Ross’ two answers, Sörlin presents a third aspect of the value of Bildung in his book. His thesis is that we need Bildung in the form of common knowledge in order to live together. Bildung does not consist in acquiring knowledge and skills but in joining a community. This means that he sees Bildung as a social need rather than as the individual development that many others have focused on. Sörlin primarily discusses public Bildung as a way of breaking the knowledge monopoly of the upper class. Through Bildung, one becomes less susceptible to manipulation by superiors. The ideal of public Bildung is not only to provide a good general Bildung but also to teach a series of practises on how discussions should be conducted. This ideal has now partially disappeared and class society has been replaced by a bubble society that leads to polarization of opinions.

Bildung and judgement

There is a fourth answer that curiously is not addressed in any of the above books, namely that Bildung is an important component of good judgment. In general, judgment is a concept that is discussed surprisingly little in humanities and social sciences research. If you look up the word “judgment” in Wikipedia, it does not exist. The Swedish version only says “the mental ability to make rational decisions” with the comment that “a developed judgment is an important part of personal maturity, and crucial for a person to be charged with responsibility “.

Good judgment and wisdom are closely linked. The broadened horizons that Bildung gives us make it easier for us to set aside personal interests and see a problem from the outside from several perspectives. Most professions — not just doctors, lawyers, teachers and social workers — require a well-developed judgment in many situations, which cannot be replaced by the regulatory frameworks that increasingly govern our work.

In her new book (Horisonten finns alltid kvar (The Horizon is Always There) (2020), philosopher Jonna Bornemark gives many examples of how judgment is needed in most professions — and she convincingly shows how the ‘manualisation’ introduced by New Public Management is preventing professionals from exercising their judgement. She writes that judgment consists above all of our “ability to relate to horizons of not-knowing where we accept that we do not know everything and are thus open to the new in every situation”.

Aristotle distinguished between three forms of knowledge: the episteme, which is the intellectual knowledge of concepts and causes; techne, which is the ability to do things in the world; and phronesis, which is the ability to judiciously weigh knowledge and values together. He writes that there are no special rules or techniques for achieving this ability, but the agent must be able to take into account in each situation the particular circumstances — epistemological, practical and moral — that apply. Phronesis requires experience and therefore this form of knowledge is found more in older than in younger people. In the debate on how to design a Bildung system, the question of how to achieve phronesis — or, with the more modern term, Bildung — is totally absent. Here, humanities and social sciences research have a cardinal task.

So, does Bildung make you a better person? If you are a mean-spirited person, then you develop skills that make you even more malicious. If not, then there is a chance that you will become wiser and be appreciated for having good judgment.

Peter Gärdenfors

Senior Professor of Cognitive Science

Lund University




Bildung is the combination of the education and knowledge necessary to thrive in your society, and the moral and emotional maturity to both be a team player and have personal autonomy. Bildung is also knowing your roots and being able to imagine the future.

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Peter Gärdenfors

Peter Gärdenfors

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