Bildung and Moral Self-Cultivation in Higher Education: What Does It Mean and How Can It Be Achieved?

By Bohlin, Henrik | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview
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Bildung and Moral Self-Cultivation in Higher Education: What Does It Mean and How Can It Be Achieved?

Bohlin, Henrik, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

One of the most fundamental questions that can be asked about education is what it is for. Why do we need education? Which are its most fundamental purposes?

The most obvious and generally accepted answer is that education aims at providing students with knowledge and skills which match the demands of employers, thus enabling students to find jobs and employers to find employees--call this the vocational goal. However, many thinkers and traditions of thought have stressed the importance of non-vocational goals of education. In Greek thinking, the ideal of paideia included the development of moral virtues and logical and rhetorical skills which were thought essential for becoming a good human being and democratic citizen. In a similar vein, today's liberal education in the US and other countries aims at providing students with a basis of general, non-specialised knowledge and skills which allow them to contribute actively and positively to society. In German philosophical and educational thought, J. G. Herder, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Hans-Georg Gadamer and others have developed the concept of Bildung, a word which in its most literal sense means formation, but which here refers more specifically to formation or cultivation, in education or otherwise, of human moral virtues and other capacities. (Herder 2002, Humboldt 1791-1792/1993, Gadamer 1960/1989.)

Wilhelm von Humboldt, the German philosopher, linguist, and educational reformer, is arguably the most influential member of the Bildung tradition, and combines theoretical and practical educational perspectives in a way that makes him particularly interesting for anyone concerned with both the theoretical analysis of the idea of human self-cultivation and its consequences for educational practice. In a philosophical treatise from 1791-92, Humboldt defines Bildung as "the highest and most harmonious development of [Man's] powers to a complete and consistent whole" (Humboldt 1791-1792/1993, ch. 2: 10), and, working as an educational reformer for the Prussian state, he says the following about it in a report to the king from 1809:

[The] undertaking is ... to allow each of your Royal Highness' subjects to be educated (gebildet) to be moral men and good citizens (sittlichen Menschen und guten Burger) ... The following must therefore be achieved; that with the method of instruction one cares not that this or that be learned; but rather that in learning memory be exercised, understanding sharpened, judgment rectified, and moral feeling (sittliche Gefuhl) refined. (Humboldt 1903-36 vol. X: 205, quoted in Sorkin 1983: 64. On the relation between individual and civic Bildung in Humboldt's thought, see Sorkin: 66ff.)

According to Humboldt, freedom and a variety of situations are the main conditions for Bildung; a many-sided development of human virtues and capabilities can be hindered by political oppression, but also by a one-sided cultivation of some special faculty or set of faculties at the expense of others. (Humboldt 1791-1792/1993, ch. 2: 10.)

Sweden is one of the countries in which the Bildung tradition has had a considerable influence on educational thought. For example, the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education has recently published a series of booklets about Bildung and education (, and my own university college, Sodertorns hogskola (South Stockholm university college), states civic Bildung (in Swedish medborgerlig bildning) as one of its three main educational goals or profiles, the other two being multiculturality and multidisciplinarity. ( But despite its indisputable influence on educational theory and ideology, it has been questioned whether the idea of Bildung has had much practical impact on Swedish higher education. (Barrling Hermansson 2005.) My own experience as a university teacher struggling with the task of implementing the Bildung ideal in educational practice has led me to suspect that this is more than a coincidence or a result of insufficient determination or effort by universities and university teachers; the very concept of Bildung, I believe, is vague, ambiguous, and difficult to put it into practice in a way that, for instance, multiculturality and multidisciplinarity are not.

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Bildung and Moral Self-Cultivation in Higher Education: What Does It Mean and How Can It Be Achieved?


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