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«Bildung and the road from a classical into a global and postcolonial concept Bernt Gustavsson I n this article I want to show how a European ...»

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Confero | Vol. 2 | no. 1 | 2014 | pp. 109-131 | doi: 10.3384/confero.2001-4562.140604b

Bildung and the road from a classical

into a global and postcolonial concept

Bernt Gustavsson


n this article I want to show how a European classical form of

bildung has developed in our time into something we can call

a postcolonial, or a new global form of bildung. Bildung is a

contested concept; different parts of it are used for the purpose at

hand. The very aim and meaning of bildung is to humanize what is often considered to be an instrumental education and society, governed by goal-rationality or goal-means efficiency. When searching for meaning in educating people and for the purposes of our activities, bildung is often the answer, both in history and in our time. The intensity of using the concept come and go, and there are always different interpretations of what we can mean by the very concept. Bildung is originally a German word which really cannot be properly translated into English. If it could be, it would be something like liberal education or liberal arts, one of the traditions that adopt this European concept. Today there are at least three different versions of the concept that are described and discussed in books, articles, and at conferences. One is the classical German tradition that has Vilhelm von Humboldt and Berlin University as its most common name. A second is liberal education, today mostly known in the way Martha C. Nussbaum has developed this Anglo-Saxon classical tradition. A third is the concept taken from the hermeneutic tradition, where H.G. Gadamer writes about interpretation and understanding in terms of excursion and return, or bildung as a journey. What is common for these three versions is that different attempts are made to relate this Western or European tradition to other cultures and Bernt Gustavsson horizons of interpretation. This presents the opportunity to start a discussion about a global form of bildung, beyond the Western tradition. With the classical German tradition as a point of departure, there is an idea from Goethe’s concept of world literature, a postcolonial thought of different particular traditions, or literature genres, reflected in each other. In liberal education there is Nussbaum, still with motivations in Western tradition. She is open to studying other cultures, being critical of one’s own, and developing narrative imagination. The hermeneutic tradition is open to the foreign, even in its conception of interpretation. Here there is a relationship between the acquainted and unacquainted, or seeing one’s own in that which is foreign and the foreign in that which is one’s own. In this third understanding of bildung, attempts are made to formulate what schooling of world citizens can mean 1.

In these three versions of bildung there are certain attempts to take the concept out of a limited national or Western tradition and search for an understanding of what we might mean by a global form of bildung. In this broad discussion the postcolonial field makes many contributions to the ambition of including all parts of the globe. Bildung is in its original form a part of the Western Enlightenment. The reverse of this tradition is colonialism and subordination of other people in the name of the white man.

First I will describe the main components of the concept of bildung – what we can mean by this manifold and contested concept. Secondly I will describe what we can mean by the postcolonial. Thirdly I show how we can understand the core problem, the relationship between the universal and the particular. Fourthly I discuss what we can mean by a global concept of bildung including “the other”, or other cultures and parts of the world.

Gustavsson, 2013 Bildung and the road from a classical into a global and postcolonial concept What is the meaning of bildung?

From the start bildung referred to the formation of a human being, expressed in the metaphor of the sculptor carving out a form from raw material. This “forming” became in the Latin world formatio, and was taken into the French language as formation.

Bildung is in this sense the formation and self-formation of the human being. From the Renaissance and up to about 1800, bildung was informed by two key elements – a free, endless process which originated from the Greeks, and a picture of the ideal, Imago Dei borrowed from Christian mysticism 2. As a free process it means that it starts from where we are and what we are, and involves a potentially endless personal process of development. In the classical tradition the ultimate ideal is what the process leads to. This is transformed from the ideal image of God, into a certain type of human being, the ideally educated man, such as Leonardo da Vinci or Wolfgang Goethe. In popular education this goal is transformed into common social goals for popular movements about democratic society, justice, and equality. These two elements, the free process and the ideal picture, or a goal, can be followed throughout history in different versions.

They are also a key to analyzing the transformations of bildung in space and time.

The main idea in the humanism of the Renaissance is that human nature is free to be anything, an angel or a beast, and as such is distinctly different from other species in nature, which are limited by their instincts. In neo-humanism from 1760 onwards, the formation of human nature takes its influence from the classical Greeks, the ideal picture of human culture, in philosophy, in arts, in politics, and as an ideal of living in harmony with oneself and society. In most periods and places one of these elements of bildung, a free endless process or a goal, has been dominant. In the Romantic era the free genius was considered to have created himherself in a totally free process. When bildung was institutionalized, it was mostly transformed into the ideal of the true educated man, limited to a certain content, for example one who read the Gustavsson, 1991 Bernt Gustavsson right kind of books, mostly the classics. From here we still have today the tradition of speaking of bildung as a special canon of works. In some historical moments, the two parts of the concept have been wisely balanced, and these have been the most fruitful periods in the history of bildung. This was the case in Germany, in the time of Vilhelm von Humboldt, and when the tradition of Swedish popular education was created a hundred years later, from 1880 and for a few decades thereafter. The creators of the ideas of popular education had the ambition to combine the free search for knowledge and human development with the ideals and goals of popular movements. Everyone had a right to participate, in order to create democracy and a just society 3.

There are many writers and philosophers within this neohumanistic tradition. They wrote about bildung in different ways.

Gottfried Herder, one of the first, saw bildung as a common people with a common language and cultural heritage, expressed in folktales and peoples’ culture. This nationalist, or essentialist, understanding was taken over by N.F.S. Grundtvig in Denmark, in the liberation from German oppression. Friedrich Hegel took bildung out of this national limited understanding of bildung and presented bildung in his Phenomenology of Spirit as a journey, starting in Greek antiquity, through a phase of fragmentation and alienation, and ending in a new era when the state and society was in harmony. The individual and humanity develop in the same phases, but humanity is limited here to the Western culture.

This is an example of how an idea can be expressed in a certain time, perhaps for us too limited and marginalizing, but carrying the seeds of something new later in history. Hegel formulated the first idea of recognition of the other in the same work, and I shall return to this.

Today we find the descriptions and discussions about bildung, as mentioned, in at least three different versions. The first and most dominant is the classical, with roots in the German idealistic tradition, mostly connected to Vilhelm von Humboldt and Gustavsson, 1991, 1996 Bildung and the road from a classical into a global and postcolonial concept Berlin University. The main aim of a university here is to research, because most of all knowledge is unknown and research has to be free, both from the market and the State. This is called lehrund lernfreiheit, students’ and teachers’ freedom to form their own studies. When attempts are made in our time to humanize an instrumental education this tradition from Humboldt is the one usually used. A second version is liberal education, mostly institutionalized in the English and American colleges and some universities, with great books and general knowledge as the main features. Recurrent attempts are made to give a rebirth to these dimensions of education. The best-known example is an attempt made by Martha C. Nussbaum to include studies of other cultures and school critical minds. A third version formulated in recent times is bildung connected to the hermeneutic tradition, bildung as a journey, an excursion and return. We start from an already known and familiar home, and travel out into the foreign and the unknown, coming back with broader horizons, or a richer interpretation and understanding of the world 4. This is developed by the Danish philosopher Peter Kemp, with the intention of schooling world citizens 5.

What is the meaning of “postcolonial”?

In 1940, a time of ongoing decolonization, many countries in Africa, Asia, and South America fought themselves free from colonial political powers. This was a long-term course of events both before and up to South Africa’s liberation from apartheid, one of the last emancipations. One of the first writers of postcolonial tradition was Franz Fanon, who was born in Martinique and studied in France. At that time there was a renaissance of Hegel’s doctrines, and especially of his dialectics of Master and Bondage.

Fanon’s book Peau Noire, Masques Blancs (1952) takes this into a dialectic of the colonizer and the colonized. It is a study of a black man’s experience of colonialism and Europe, where he formulated the so-called postcolonial paradox: either I demand that others do not notice my skin color, or I want them to notice Gustavsson 1996, 2007

–  –  –

Bernt Gustavsson it. The problems he formulated are still timely; how are identities created in a global society? How are racist stereotypes created and maintained? The ideas and texts of the postcolonial period have their background in liberation movements from colonialism. Decolonization did not mean that the colonial ideas, subordination, and oppression left either the colonial powers or the colonized countries.

A next step in the development of the postcolonial ideas is the influence from Foucault and poststructuralist philosophy. Edward Said wrote about how “The Orient” was created by intellectuals in the West, and in the same way Valentin Mudimbe wrote about how the picture of Africa as primitive was created as justifying colonialism6. They both show how East and West were constructed as dichotomies in relation to each other. Language as social practice is used by Spivak and Bhabha with the intention to show how discourses shape how we consider the differences between races and groups of people.

There are different forms of ideas produced in the postcolonial field, expressed from different parts of the globe. The most dominant writers and philosophers, such as Spivak and Bhabha, come from India. Mudimbe comes from Africa, and Mignolo from South America. It is a common problem to describe colonized people in essential terms. This has been a tendency in the early movements of Negritude in Africa and in the Indian movement in the Andes 7. There is a need to formulate one’s own identity against the colonizer, the dominant European. Essentialism has been criticized by many postcolonial writers, who consider it to be a tool to describe the subordinated in stereotypes or as having special natures. Spivak has called this strategic essentialism 8. On the other hand, though, it expresses a need to formulate a clear identity against the colonizer.

Said, 1978; Mudimbe, 1994 Aman, 2014 Spivak, 1993 Bildung and the road from a classical into a global and postcolonial concept The critical point for many is the question of knowledge. There are different modes and formulations of knowledge in terms of indigenous knowledge directed to the Western monopole on the definition of knowledge 9.

Homi Bhabha identifies two different discourses of the multicultural. Onein particular says that we live in a society consisting of homogenous groups that are different and separated from each other. South Africa was and still is such a society. Another discourse is universal and defines the differences in relation to a normative center, like the melting pot society. There are also differences within a group, without a center, and similarities between groups. Groups of people are constantly changing and the society is more and more described as a hybrid society. Hybridity means that identities are changing and a process of translation is taking place between differences. What traditionally is considered to be fixed identities is changing in a world of migration and diaspora.

In the process a third space is activated, showing the differences in change. In the spaces between differences both in groups and between groups, something new and unforeseeable emerges 10.

For most of the writers in the field it is not a question of either uncritically agreeing or adherence to the Western values, or rejecting values such as democracy or human rights. Instead it is to criticize the selective applications, or powers of interpretation of these values.

The universal and the particular There is, as we have seen, both in the concept of bildung and in the postcolonial field, a play or a problem on the relationship between what we generally can call the universal and the particular, or sometimes the local and the global. The universal is expressed here in terms of human rights, criteria for social justice, or certain values, and the particular is expressed in terms of diversity and differences. This problem is treated in many ways

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