Bildung/ Education

Have you ever wondered what it means to be educated? Is it possible to define the term “Bildung”? Bildung is a German term, a central concept in the German tradition of Educational philosophy and research.

Although the term Bildung, in the past has been translated into the English term “education”, this translation is seen as being to broad to capture the meaning of the German term. The most usual practice in English academic literature today is to use the original term Bildung.

Today, an educated person may be seen as a person who has knowledge and judgement that exceeds ones profession; the person is broadly culturally and politically, oriented; he or she understands both science and technology, and now, as before, cultivates him or herself with the fine arts such as literature, theatre, visual arts, and music.

Historically, the origin of the word Bildung comes from “Bild” meaning picture; this was first actualized in the Christian idea of man as created in the image of God. Later we find it in the German enlightenment conception of human beings as self-educating.

Self-education presupposes a self and a world. The self strives toward expressing and developing its individuality. The world represents the unity of nature, culture, and society all with their powers of influence. According to the German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), the purpose of Bildung is to unite individual and culture in a rich, free, and harmonious mutual interplay. Bildung designated a comprehensive cultural, political, and educational programme for the people, freedom of speech and a new pedagogy, largely inspired by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

In the Anglo-American sphere, Bildung was tied to the seven liberal arts, first and foremost the classical literature, from St. Augustine to Shakespeare and to the modern novel.

In the Nordic countries we  had a “peoples’ general education”-movement (folkedannelse) during the 19th century. This movement was organized through peoples’ colleges (folkeskole) and the labour movement, and further carried on by a nationally conscious teacher profession attempting to realize this in the Norwegian unitary school system.

This short historical overview illustrates that the meaning of Bildung varies. Today, “being educated” is a broad concept, encompassing knowledge, judgement, a broad cultural and political orientation, an understanding of science and technology, and a cultivation of the fine arts.

Research group

Humanities studies in Education (HumStud)


Published Aug. 3, 2011 12:09 PM - Last modified Aug. 23, 2013 11:32 AM