Why sustainable prosperity depends upon reimagining education - Jonathan Rowson explains the concept of "Bildung"
In our inquiry into how emotions and inner life determines how we handle community and power, we have picked up on our kindred organisation Perspectiva’s promotion of the German term Bildung (explained below), over a number of previous posts here.
Perspectiva’s director, Jonathan Rowson, has written a major paper for CUSP (the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity), linking the concept directly to the need for an education culture that makes sustainability thinkable, doable and gratifying.
Here is a lightly edited version of the paper’s introduction:
Bildung is a Germanic term with English and Greek roots and Nordic and American fruits. The word does not sit comfortably in English, but it means something like transformative civic education.
The direct translation of bildung is ‘formation’. The original term includes elements of education, enculturation and also realisation—the sense of fulfilling one’s nature or purpose in response to the challenges of a particular historical and societal context.
The composite meaning of the term is difficult to break down into elements.... Grasping the concept requires a particular way of seeing the relationship between the individual and society, and a related view of learning.
Bildung entails a dynamic world view that values independence of mind and spirit, and is grounded in ecological and social interdependence.
The premise of this essay is that we need to reconsider Bildung today because the challenge of “understanding”, if we want to understand sustainable prosperity, is pivotally important.
The complexity of the world is overwhelming the complexity of our minds. Addressing that challenge is fundamental to our attempts to create a viable and desirable future.
Our understanding of the world is not a spectator sport, but more like an active ingredient in societal renewal. Bildung is about our responsibility for and participation in an evolving process of social maturation - one that reimagines culture, technology, institutions and policies for the greater good.
If this essay has a single intellectual forebear, it is probably Jon Amos Comenius, Czech philosopher and theologian who lived from 1592 to 1670 and declined the offer to be President of Harvard University. Comenius is considered by many to be the father of the idea of universal or democratic education.
Comenius’ genius lay in grasping that since learning is as natural as breathing or eating or sleeping, education should be seen as an aspect of nature’s formative process.
And since nature is often experienced as sacred, and we are part of nature, an organism’s lifelong disposition to learn is the wellspring of meaning and purpose in life.
A healthy society - one attuned to nature and other sources of intrinsic value - depends upon making this educative process the axis upon which society turns.
The strength of the case for Bildung today depends on drawing attention to the relationships between the (ecological) crisis of our time and the crisis of understanding within it. And on prioritising the growth of one type of complex system (human beings) over another (economies).
In the early 21st century, the boundaries between education, culture and technology are increasingly blurred, which means reimagining education is one of many entry points into how we might reimagine everything else too.
Today, learning is often commodified as an instrumental good. This is part of the human capital theory of education, shaped by the prevailing orthodoxy of today: neoliberalism (described by Will Davies as the state-led remaking of society along the model of the market).
We are living mostly sub-specie economicus—under the aspect of economics. Perhaps what we need today, in Comenius’s language, is a method to move towards living sub specie educationis, which requires remaking society under the aspect of a transformative view of education, supported by the state, buttressed by civil society, namely Bildung.
Our institutional and intellectual challenge is as much about reconceiving education, as it is rethinking economics. Indeed, these explorations depend on each other.
The prevailing view of what the economy could be is limited by an inflexible grasp of salient reference points: money, banks, jobs, growth. Equally, our educational imagination is constrained by existing institutions and our own school experience—a limitation compounded by narrow policy debates about exam results in the first quarter of our lives.
My focus is therefore not on education as it is currently conceived, but on how a cultural ethos and educational praxis, Bildung, could refashion the institutions and purposes of society.
In academic terms, the underlying question is characterised by interdisciplinary ambition: how might a psychologically informed philosophy of education enrich new economic thinking?
In more applied terms, the aim is generative synthesis. How might the cultivation of our inner lives help initiate and sustain an ecologically sane societal transformation, in a world of accelerating technological change?
And to put it more plainly, as a cri de cœur, what’s the point of life in a world that’s on fire?