Living in a multi-lingual world, we have all experienced difficulty translating words or ideas between languages and cultures. Currently, on vacation in English, the German word Bildung is one such word. It remains to be seen whether it “sticks” to the English lexicon. However, while it is here, it is a word worth unpacking and wrestling with. At its ordinary level, Bildung means to educate; however, its roots run much more profound, and a literal translation would be something like “building an image”. Bildung is firmly rooted in the German pedagogical tradition and refers to an education that is both horizontal and vertical.
On the horizontal plane is found discipline knowledge and skills, which have dominated educational discourse since the birth of “accountability” in the education movement with its roots in the late 1990s and embodied globally by metrics used by groups such as PISA, UNESCO or various national bodies. While there is no doubt such data is essential to ensure quality education, there is also a growing awareness that all is not well in education systems across the globe. In particular, physical, mental and moral well-being may require more focus. It is in this space that current discussions around Bildung are unfolding.
However, the “word” Bildung is not without its controversies, such as its roots in a particular form of Christian thought or its warping under the Nazi regime. Notwithstanding these viable criticisms, modern educators are beginning to return to the word’s roots, especially the pedagogical ideals expressed by thinkers like Humboldt, Schiller, Goethe and Hegel. This form of Bildung seeks to support students as they grow horizontally, that is, as they become who they “are”. Under Bildung, children do not simply become adults but grow and evolve into adults based on experience, learning, and interactions. With such vertical education, students become the best versions of themselves and live as productive and responsible members of society. They understand that the flourishing of the self and the community is an individual and a collective commitment and experience.
As international community members, we are offered a fantastic opportunity to explore and develop vertical growth. As we enter Fall break, what may the implications of Bildung be?