Adult learning and education organisations should focus more on teaching empathy and ethical issues. The concept of “Bildung” does not save the world, but the old and new ideas conveyed by the terminology are extremely important inspiration for the current debate on the role of adult education.
In recent years, there have been many discussions on the concept of “Bildung” within the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA). We have even started an Erasmus+ project about it with twelve European partners, from Moldova to Ireland and from Finland to Spain. How did this come about and what do we want to achieve with it?
I would like to start with a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous Crime and Punishment:
Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear the most.
It is the rampant fear of change – at a time when we all realise that transformation is inevitable – that made us look for new ideas for adult learning and education (ALE). On that journey, we came across Nordic folkbildning, which is an example of implanting a specific concept of education to overcome a systemic crisis. When learning more about this thinking, we thought: Isn’t it an example of that it is possible to create a change, activate people and overcome crises with the help of ALE? What could we learn from it for today?
Feeling of powerlessness
First of all, we can learn that education is not limited to imparting knowledge. This is certainly not a new idea, but if you go through the curricula today, especially of the formal education system, you will find very few elements on aesthetics or ethical issues, at least in Germany. It is remarkable that in public discourse the longing for ”new narratives” is prominent, but at the same time we find very little of it in our formal education institutions (and even in non-formal ALE).
The lack of emotional learning is even more dramatic. Where do we find substantial approaches for teaching empathy or the ability to work together constructively and respectfully? UNESCO’s latest report Re-Imagining our futures together: a new social contract for education rightly points out that competition still determines the goals of learning. This is demonstrated by an overflowing examination system designed to assess learning outcomes and create a ranking of individuals.
In my view, a certain inertia and timidity among large groups of people is closely related to their feeling of powerlessness in shaping their living environment (you can find more information here and here). This feeling comes from two sources: Firstly, there is the impression that the complex structures of modern societies are difficult to understand and even more difficult to change. Secondly, this impression is reinforced by many citizens feeling that they are helpless when confronted with the existing power relations. What can an individual do if entire states are unable to defend themselves against global corporations? What can each of us contribute towards ensuring that social and ecological standards are respected by everybody?
Searching for new approaches
It would be presumptuous to think that a change can be reached by reforms in the education system alone. We shouldn’t be so arrogant because it would lead to new disappointments. But neither should we underestimate the influence of education. History shows us that, for example, the educational efforts of the Enlightenment, folk education and anti-authoritarian pedagogy have had a noticeable impact on the development of our societies.
In recent years, many adult educators have searched for new approaches in realisation that there are new needs in our sector. It is just as obvious that we in Europe have come across folkbildning and the concept of Bildung behind it, as it is that many Latin American colleagues have returned to Paolo Freire (and the pedagogy of the oppressed). As mentioned above, we should understand the historical examples as suggestions for the design of ALE today, not as a blueprint to implement one-to-one.
As a German, I am particularly concerned to point out a danger associated with the concept of Bildung, the consequences of which we have painfully experienced: Education must not be understood as a criterion of social hierarchy. The term ”Bildungsbürgertum” (educated bourgeoisie) describes a thoroughly fatal (German) tradition: ideas of classical authors such as Goethe, Schiller, Herder, or Lessing, who are also often quoted in the current debate on Bildung, was misused to distinguish oneself from the ”ignorant proletariat”. ”Humanistic education” was ultimately not very humane, but an instrument of social demarcation.
The risk of polarisation
It is extremely important to shape our educational efforts in such a way that they do not promote polarisation. We have seen how easily this happens, even in a situation where life and death are at stake. During the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the German-speaking countries, substantial parts of the population followed irrational and partially extremist messages, forming a movement called “Querdenker” (German for “Person thinking outside the box”). In the current climate debate, too, we have seen that concern about the effects of climate change is labelled as a ”luxury problem of the wealthy”. This narrative, promoted by some interest groups, certainly resonates in the broader public.
Bildung does not save the world, but the old and new ideas conveyed by the terminology are extremely important inspiration for the current debate. We intend nothing less than a renewal of adult learning and education, with the aim of empowering people to shape the necessary change, in solidarity, together. We are exploring how this can be done, and every suggestion is welcome!
Uwe Gartenschlaeger, M.A, studied History, Political Science and Philosophy at the Universities of Berlin and Cologne. After working for four years with a Christian adult education provider specialized on topics of reconciliation and history, he joined DVV International, the Institute for International Cooperation of the German Adult Education Association, in 1995. DVV International is the leading professional organization in the field of adult learning and education (ALE) and development cooperation. DVV’s main focus is on improving the framework conditions for ALE and offering capacity building for the partners. Within the institute, he has held the positions of Country Director in Russia and Regional Director in Central Asia and Southeast-Asia. Since 2019, Uwe Gartenschlaeger is DVV International’s Deputy Director and President of the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA), the main European ALE network with around 120 members from 43 countries.
Freedom and Responsibility of Adult Education (SVV) -program publishes a blog by the name Sivistystori. In the blog, researchers and experts of liberal and popular adult education and SVV’s partners with an interest in general knowledge and education write about educational work and the importance of general knowledge and education in society. The blog will be published on SVV’s website approximately twice a month.