Unlocking the spirit of Europe – European Bildung Day 2021


How did we all develop a national identity, and can we develop a European identity as well? What is bildung, and why would anybody need two days for it?

The world is going through a major transition from fossil fuel based industrialized nation state economies to—hopefully—a sustainable, globally interconnected highly digitized economy. In this transition, nation states as well as individuals risk losing their foothold. The nation states cannot muscle the tech giants on their own, citizens risk losing their current jobs, and the understanding of the world that we were taught in school is generally becoming increasingly insufficient.

As a result, across Europe and elsewhere, national chauvinism is emerging as a cultural force telling people that we can return to the past. We cannot. The technological development is pushing us out into a globalized future, and in order for that to happen peacefully, we need to upgrade our understanding, our narratives, our cultures.

The good news is that this does NOT mean that people must give up their national identity and local culture. Quite the contrary. We can and must strengthen both. But we also have to add something: a European identity and a global sense of self.

This is why we need bildung, and it is why we need new conversations about Europe and being European.

Therefore, we are a group of people who have created the European Bildung Network and are hosting the European Bildung Day on May 8th and 9th (it expanded after we aimed for just one day on Europe Day).

What is bildung?

Bildung comes from the German word Bild, which means image. In the 1600s, as part of the Reformation, Protestant Pietists discovered personal faith in a new way, and it became a religious goal to shape oneself in the image of Christ, in his Bild. This process was called Bildung.

As the Enlightenment emerged, the strong faith declined, and from around 1750, a new understanding of bildung emerged: the image in which to shape oneself was one’s individual character, and the goal of bildung was to become an autonomous person. What Immanuel Kant eventually—and famously—defined as enlightenment in his essay “What is Enlightenment?”:

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) "Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

In other words: bildung is moral autonomy and courage, and it is the education, formal and non-formal, that goes into developing it. Among the German Idealists who explored bildung before and after Kant were Herder, Schiller, Fichte, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Hegel. Along with bildung, they also talked about the spirit, Geist: that sense of being a people, the collective self that emerges from sharing a language, traditions, culture, and a collective fate. From around 1780, Bildung and Geist were the new black! Among the bourgeoisie.

The Nordic Secret: Folk-Bildung

As the Bildung concept and the idea of a “spirit of a people” travelled to Denmark, pastor NFS Grundtvig realized in the 1840s that it wasn’t just the bourgeoisie who needed bildung, the peasants needed it too. Not least did they need it because industrialization caused revolutions across Europe; Denmark was industrializing too, and if the peasants did not have the skills, education, and moral character, i.e. bildung, to handle the changes, Denmark would see violent revolutions as well.

To make a long story short: in 1851, school teacher Chresten Kold invented the folk high school that gave young farmhands (soon also young farm girls) the bildung they needed to become skillful farmers, local community organizers and capable of starting cooperatives and running them successfully. The schools were soon copied in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and they were a key player in developing a self-confident but non-hostile national identity throughout the populations.

Why the European Bildung Day?

Since then, PISA tests and market thinking have entered the school systems everywhere, and education is being reduced to spreadsheet friendly data rather than bildung.

Meanwhile, we are facing major technological and environmental changes that increase the need for bildung. We need the bildung that allows us to grasp what is going on, to seek out valid information, not fake news, and to take moral responsibility for our individual part of the development.

Whether I am a computer engineer, a politician, a nurse, a doctor, a school teacher, a janitor, a CEO, or occupying any other profession, I am also a citizen and I need to take moral responsibility. Therefore, I need to understand the context that I am in and I need to be able to grasp the bigger picture.

200 years ago, “the bigger picture” was the nation state. Therefore, we have invested heavily in creating national identities, national bildung and a national spirit so that we would all love our country enough to pay taxes, join the army, and vote for conscientious politicians, not hotheaded narcissists who promise us the past.

Today, as the nation states are too small to solve the biggest problems and we need continents to act politically, we need continental identities, continental bildung and a continental spirit.

This is why we have created the European Bildung Day, and we picked Europe Day for it and Robert Schuman’s famous quote as the welcoming on www.europeanbildung.net:

World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.

Part of bildung is knowing your past, but it is also the creativity and ability to imagine the future and keep peace. For that, we need to unlock the European spirit.

About the author:

Lene Rachel Andersen is an economist, author, futurist, and one of the co-founders of the Copenhagen based think tank Nordic Bildung.

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