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Carnegie Education

Learning through the life course: the German concept of Bildung

The concept of Bildung can be found at a large church event in Germany and in foreign language teaching. In a joint interdisciplinary research project with Rev Ruth Dowson (Senior Lecturer in the School of Events, Tourism and Hospitality Management) we are examining the concept of Bildung.

Bildung – why is this concept important?

The German concept of Bildung /’bɪldʊŋ/ is a unique term that cannot be easily translated into English (Horbacher, 2017, p. 131). It is associated with the knowledge, understanding and skills attained at school, further and higher education but the meaning goes beyond this.

Bildung refers to a broader experience of lifelong learning that involves the widening of historical, social, political, spiritual and moral understanding of the world and one’s place in it (Zirfas 2011). As such, whilst Bildung is developed through learning, it should continue throughout life, long after formal education has finished.

Reflecting on the word Bildung offers an understanding of learning that considers its holistic and long-term nature, as well as its relationship between the individual, society and the world (Watson, 2010, p.53-54).

The concept of Bildung has been used in different ways over the last few centuries in German speaking societies, with a range of social and political consequences. In the second half of the 18th century, Bildung referred to the concept that could only be achieved by the distinct class of the bourgeoisie, through effort and self-examination (Horlacher, 2017, p.45). In this sense, the idea was only possible to achieve for the higher classes, and thus was a way of keeping others excluded or in their social place.

In 1870, compulsory education was introduced in the German state of Prussia. In this autocratic German state, an educated proletariat was regarded a threat to the social and political hierarchical structures since education offered the ability and understanding for the working classes to criticise the state (Allmendinger, 2013, p.1-2). This showed that students from lower backgrounds were dissuaded from aiming higher educationally in order to stay in their social sphere. The threat that the idea of Bildung generated indicates, therefore, that it was seen as a democratising concept, offering freedom of thought and action – an impetus for change that threatened the social order.

In the 1950s, Bildung became a basic social right in West Germany and was regarded as an essential element of democratisation and emancipation (Dahrendorf, 1965, p.6). The holistic nature of Bildung also became more significant, as it was seen as influential over people’s life chances, including health, life expectancy, employment and social integration (Allmendinger, 2013).

Understanding the Kirchentag through the concept of Bildung

The context of our research is focused on the connection of Bildung as an event purpose of the German Protestant Kirchentag (DEKT).

Established in 1947, the Kirchentag is a large-scale church assembly that takes place every two years in different German cities, which aims to bring together Christians from various Protestant churches but also individuals and groups from other denominations, faiths, or non-faith backgrounds. The Kirchentag often attracts over 100,000 people from many different walks of life and nationalities.

Having attended the event previously, Ruth interviewed organisers and participants about their motivations for attending and establishing their perspectives of the purpose of the event. One of the interviewees was a member of the DEKT planning committee, who asserted that the purpose of the DEKT was ‘Bildung’. This prompted our joint research which took place at the 2019 DEKT.

We wanted to find out through interviewing participants (both in German and in English) whether Bildung was in fact the purpose of the event. In June 2019, Ruth and I carried out ethnographic fieldwork at the 37th Kirchentag. The convention was centred around the theme of ‘Was für ein Vertrauen’ (‘What confidence is this’). The theme was purposely made without an exclamation or question mark, in order to maintain ambivalence.

The emergent nature of the festival, both experientially and through debate, fitted in with the idea of Bildung and as researchers, we were interested in examining this.

What became clear in many interviews was how much participants enjoyed and appreciated the open and non-judgemental exchange with others on many different topics, and its multifaceted nature. Some research participants on the project described the Kirchentag as a space that provided the starting point for social and political changes.

Why does Bildung matter to modern foreign languages?

In modern foreign languages learning, students learn about the systems of the languages and practise and consolidate language skills and experience aspects of life in different countries and cultures. This helps them reflect on outlooks and attitudes that might be taken as the norm and thus widen their horizon. 

The pandemic has shown all of us that life and its many facets cannot be taken for granted and have made us look differently at social structures, interaction between people and life in general. Reflecting on this, all this is part of lifelong learning (Bildung). As educators we strive for Bildung for our students- a personal development that continues throughout life.

Bibliography and Links

  • Allmendinger, J. (2013) Bildungsgesellschaft- Über den Zusammenhang von Bildung und gesellschaftlicher Teilhabe in der heutigen Gesellschaft. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. https://www.bpb.de/gesellschaft/bildung/zukunft-bildung/158109/teilhabe-durch-bildung (accessed 07.06.2018)
  • Dahrendorf, R. (1965). Bildung ist Bürgerrecht. Plädoyer für eine aktive Bildungspolitik. Hamburg, Nannen-Verlag.
  • Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag (DEKT) Dortmund 19.-23. Juni 2019, Programm 2019.
  • German Protestant Kirchentag (DEKT) Dortmund 19-23 June 2019, Programme highlights, International Programme 2019.
  • Horbacher, R. (2017) The Educated Subject and the German Concept of Bildung. A Comparative Cultural History. London, Routledge.
  • Jacobi, J. (2013) Deutsche Bildungsgeschichte- eine Zeitleiste. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. https://www.bpb.de/gesellschaft/bildung/zukunft-bildung/145249/geschichte-des-bildungssystems (accessed 12.07.2021)
  • The German Protestant Kirchentag (no date) Kirchentag Homepage https://www.kirchentag.org.uk/ktaghist.html (accessed 10.07.2021)
  • The United Reformed Church (no date) Kirchentag: ‘a platform for debate and dialogue. https://urc.org.uk/media-news/2372-kirchentag-a-platform-for-debate-and-dialogue.html (accessed 10.07.2021)
  • Watson, P. (2010) The German Genius. London, Simon& Schuster.
  • Zirfas, J. in: Kade, J./Helsper, W. (ed.) (2011) Pädagogisches Wissen. Erziehungswissenschaft in Grundbegriffen. Stuttgart, Kohlhammer.