Can we have some Bildung, please?

The Germanic languages are filled with several words packed with historical context and culture that makes them virtually untranslatable (schadenfreude, angst, blitzkrieg, doppelgänger, ersatz).

So while the British are boastfully proud of their bad weather they don’t have a word like the Swedish “Uppehållsväder” which describes a surprising lull between rainstorms. It’s a word for the absence of falling rain.

Among the more interesting words is “bildning” which comes from the German word “bildung” and is described by Wikipedia as:

…refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation, (as related to the German for: creation, image, shape), wherein philosophy and education are linked in manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation.  This maturation is described as a harmonization of the individual’s mind and heart and in a unification of selfhood and identity within the broader society…

On one level there is an element of education so a person of bildung is a person who is educated but it cannot be confused with education as that would be too simplistic. So how on earth should I translate this term?

There are several terms that seem to be used almost as synonyms liberal education, liberal arts, lifelong learning, adult or civic education, folk education (which stems from another Germanic term Folkbildning). The problem is that all these terms have odd connotations which drag the term in “wrong” directions:

The prefix Liberal brings to mind studies of classics and while this naturally can play a part it is hardly necessary today to have read Homer to be considered a person of bildung.

Lifelong learning may have the unfortunate associations with some form of refresher course necessary to enable people to remain relevant in some context.

Adult education feels like its all about getting people back into the job market after being made redundant. It smacks of re-education.

And any use of the prefix Folk raises pictures of some form of arts and crafts movement or carries the unnecessary connections with folk art or folk singing.

So the problem remains: Can we really discuss that of which we have no name? Is the mind controlled by the word? (sapir whorf hypothesis) or it may be that the word we use is not be so important – just the fact that we point towards the concept shows the importance of bildung.

No matter what I am still stuck attempting to explain bildung briefly and elegantly in a text. And without the word the concept is clumsy: Any tips?

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