Education for the Soul: An Exploration of the Concept of Bildung

I received a lot of great and constructive criticism on my article about the value of a liberal arts education. Upon further reflection, I wanted to write a follow up piece to clarify my argument.

My position is not that one should pursue a formal postsecondary degree in the humanities or liberal arts to gain the wisdom and self-cultivation that I believe that these subjects inspire. Rather this type of knowledge can be diffused through a myriad of different ways. For instance, it can be disseminated through social norms or through dialoging and learning from different cultures or from different periods in history.

On a broader level, learning about the subjects of the arts and humanities, gives us a deeper understanding of our place in the world. It provides insights and opportunities for personal development by offering new ways of living – new ways of being. Perhaps this can enable us to break free from the chains of our cultural conditioning and become authentic individuals. Individuals who have a degree of internal freedom, who are independent thinkers and are not merely persuaded by the trends of the time or opinions of the masses.

One of my readers introduced me to the German concept of Bildung. The notion of Bildung can be broadly defined by the type of education offered to an individual which focuses on holistic growth, self-realization and a social responsibility. Its aim is to cultivate and educate the person as a whole. The concept of Bildung seeks to promote freedom and autonomy whilst encouraging our sense of responsibility towards others as citizens existing in interdependant communities.

Of course, I am not diminishing the significance of acquiring technical skills. These are needed in the modern economy. However, I believe that they must be supplemented with a degree of emotional intelligence and maturity.

My concern with equating education to merely skills training is that it is reductionist. That is, it reduces the creativity and freedom of individuals to mere cogs in economic systems.

We are not machines, nor are we commodities. Moreover, contrary to the beliefs of many economists, we are not mere ‘utility maximizers.’

 As I’ve argued elsewhere, there are negative consequences that stem from defining success exclusively in terms of our jobs or ranking on the economic ladder.  

This idea of Bildung allows us to expand our ideas about what education is and should be about. It is not confined to school but is a lifelong process of learning. It is about nurturing one’s character, capacities and living lives of meaning and purpose.  

To quote the German philosopher and inspiration behind the educational ideal of Bildung, William Von Humbolt,

There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature and, more importantly, a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without



Source Image: Pexels Free Photos

5 thoughts on “Education for the Soul: An Exploration of the Concept of Bildung

  1. I love this, a wonderful clarification and condensation of ideas you have put forth before. One way I like to think about “liberal” arts education, in the use of the term liberal that means open and broad, is that it is crucial to gain exposure to a multitude of perspectives and ideas, no matter what the title of subject matter. I agree that it isn’t about a university degree or even a formal class. For me the critical element is that we are able to experience a broad range of things and gain exposure to subjects and ideas that might not filter down to us without outside support.
    Humans are idea colliders: our imagination works by smashing together two things we have some knowledge of in order to create something new. Liberal arts, for me, is primarily about feeding our potential for imagination. The more things we have exposure to, the more fodder we have to develop those ideas into something new. Fuel for our idea atom-smashers!
    Thanks for returning to this subject!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for you thoughtful comments and constructive criticisms in helping me refine this idea. Love the bit about the cultivation of the imagination, atom smashers indeed!

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  2. Thanks for these reflections to which I resonate strongly. Just thought it also worth flagging up Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Matter with Things’, his two volume follow up to ‘The Master & his Emissary’. He mobilises a mass of evidence to support his contention that (page 350) ‘the bizarre, alienated condition enjoined on us today and reinforced by a toxic combination of bureaucratic and scientistic (not necessarily scientific) thinking’ all tends ‘to the view that we are machines.’ Whereas in reality (page 497) ‘We are moral beings, capable of selflessness, fulfilled through our interconnectedness with one another and the natural world at large.’ He also places a strong emphasis on the importance of the arts as an essential antidote to the toxic reductionism of our materialistic culture.

    Liked by 1 person

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