Bildung in the 21st Century

–Why sustainable prosperity depends upon reimagining education

Jonathan Rowson

B
ildung is a Germanic term with English and Greek roots and Nordic and American fruits. It describes a sense of fulfilling one’s nature or purpose in response to the challenges of a particular historical and societal context. Bildung entails a dynamic world view that values independence of mind and spirit grounded in ecological and social interdependence. The premise of this essay is that we need to reconsider Bildung today because the challenge of ‘understanding’ in Understanding Sustainable Prosperity is pivotally important. The complexity of the world is overwhelming the complexity of our minds, and addressing thatchallenge is fundamental to our attempts to create aviable and desirable future. Our understanding of the world is not a spectator sport, but more like an active ingredient in societal renewal. Bildung is about our responsibility for and participation in an evolving process of social maturation that reimagines culture, technology, institutions and policies for the greater good.

My focus is therefore not on education as it is currently conceived, but on how a cultural ethos and educational praxis, Bildung, could refashion the institutions and purposes of society. In academic terms, the underlying question is characterised by interdisciplinary ambition: how might a psychologically informed philosophy of education enrich new economic thinking? In more applied terms, the aim is generative synthesis: how might the cultivation of our inner lives help initiate and sustain an ecologically sane societal transformation in a world of accelerating technological change? And to put it more plainly, as a cri de cœur, what’s the point of life in a world that’s on fire?

In his 2014 essay, Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty, German philosopher Thomas Metzinger offers the following dark prognosis: Conceived of as an intellectual challenge for humankind, the increasing threat arising from self-induced global warming clearly seems to exceed the present cognitive and emotional abilities of our species. This is the first truly global crisis, experienced by all human beings at the same time and in a single media space, and as we watch it unfold, it will also gradually change our image of ourselves, the conception humankind has of itself as a whole. I predict that during the next decades, we will increasingly experience ourselves as failing beings.

As a species we are defined by our failure to perceive, appreciate, understand and emotionally engage with an economically globalised world in a way that allows us to make the decisions we would take if we were wise. Many people think, for instance, that the climate crisis was born in the .scientific naivety of the industrial revolution, but more than half of all industrial CO2 emissions have been released much more recently, since 1988, the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created. As the Neo-Confucian Philosopher Wang-Ming put it: ‘To know and not to act, is not to know. To restore ecological sanity with the commensurate speed, scale and discernment, we have to learn howto know in a new way, and that way should give us some sense of direction and hope.

The kinds of Bildung we seem to need to survive and thrive today will relate not merely to subject knowledge, but also, for instance, how we relate to nature, technology, and our emotions at a time when our capacity to direct and control our attention is the front line. Building that coherent educational programme in theory and practice is part of the intellectual, design, networking, and implementation challenge of sustainable prosperity. The challenge amounts to asking: what is the optimal form of the relationship between education, technology and culture today that will allow people to develop the kinds of capabilities that are fundamental for ecological sanity and human welfare?

For a full read of this brief, click here or on the picture to download the pdf file.

  

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ECONOMIC ASSESSMENTS AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT