Education, Cultivation, Paideia, Bildung

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The ancient Greeks had the word paideia; the Germans say Bildung, the Swedes bildning and Danes dannelse. In English, for example, there is no specific word for it, though it covers, among other things what might be expected of any refined "gentleman" - the acquisition of a cultivated outlook; what might also be called a Liberal Education. The lack of a specific English word has led to the German word being used in English, at least in academic circles.

So what does it mean? What is Bildung or paideia or "a Liberal Education"? And what has it got to do with democracy?

School attendance and education

School is a place where people learn to read and write; it also enables them to acquire factual knowledge about the world and a variety of academic skills. School attendance is a prerequisite for a properly functioning democracy. Without a population that can read and understand what the political issues are about, what are people going to vote for? And if people can't write, how can they participate in the written debate?

Education also helps people to support themselves and their family so they have the energy to engage in the democratic process. A population which is fairly well educated across the board is also a prerequisite for the functioning of the country's economy. It may be possible to establish democracy in a country without a functioning economy, but it will hardly survive for long.

School attendance is a prerequisite for a democratic society, but it is not enough on its own. Personal development is also required.

Bildung - a liberal education

Bildung is more than school attendance and education. It is firstly a broad acquisition of the cultural heritage of a society; that is, its literature, art, film, music, theatre and traditions. Secondly, it is a certain appropriation of the culture of other peoples/countries, so that one has something to mirror one's own culture in.

Thirdly - and this is important - Bildung entails relating personally to the culture one assimilates and thereby learning to know oneself and to find out who one is. What do I like? What do I spontaneously enjoy? What am I provoked or challenged by? What moral position do I agree with? And if I disagree, why do I? Self-reflection is an essential part of Bildung.

Fourthly, and this is probably the hardest part, Bildung also means being able to meet with other people who do not look like oneself, people who have different values and morality, and like other things than one does oneself, and being able to find mutual respect and create a spirit of community with them anyway.

Democracy is based on being able to be different and create a community despite our differences. Bildung is thus a prerequisite for a durable and robust democracy.

But where then, quite specifically, does Bildung come from, and how can you create a culture where Bildung is widespread and creates a foundation for the community?

Where does Bildung come from?

School attendance and education are the foundation, but there is also a need for public libraries, theatres, cinemas, museums and other places where people can experience different kinds of culture and hold meetings concerning the various kinds of culture. The latter typically takes place in associations and clubs where you can meet with others who share similar interests such as art, politics, literature or music.

The educational method practised in schools is also important. Teaching by rote learning and teaching where the teacher says everything without encouraging students to speak their minds, doesn't get children used to reflecting on the information they receive or to discussing it with others.

Bildung and the Enlightenment

Bildung is built up through a wealth of activities and is very much a child of the Enlightenment.

During The Enlightenment, the bourgeoisie in European cities began to get interested in the world in a new way, and they also began writing encyclopaedias to satisfy the new hunger for knowledge.

This curiosity also led to the bourgeoisie, and especially the intellectual elite, beginning to meet in cultural salons. Here, news, culture, politics (as much as was wise under an absolute monarch) and the new scientific ideas were discussed. People met across family ties with friends, acquaintances and business associates who were just as curious and eager for discussion as oneself.

These cultural salons first sprouted in Italy and France in the 17th century but spread to other European cities in the 18th and 19th centuries. Wherever they arose, they became an important factor in the political upheavals of the time and in the development of democracy.

The salons were held in the homes of the upper classes and, interestingly enough, it was typically the women who organised them. In a time when women did not have many opportunities in the public sphere, it gave them an opportunity to meet new people and contribute to cultural life. Several of these so-called salonnières became widely famous in their time and contributed significantly through their initiatives to cultural and political change in Europe.

Bildung in a Danish context - a case study

All democratic countries have their Bildung traditions, and there is not one of them that is the right one. The important thing is that there are many different ways to assimilate culture, and that you are free to meet with others to do so. Moreover, it is important that, together with others - in addition to having fun and being entertained - you remain critical towards what you are experiencing. To illustrate how complex it can be, we have chosen Denmark as an example.

In Denmark, there are five things in particular that play a major role in Bildung and democracy: public libraries, folk high schools, educational associations, other organisational activities and the tradition of educational theory and practice. This is collectively called "informal education".


Free public libraries and mobile libraries ensure that everyone has an equal, unhindered and cost-free access to information, literature and music. With the spread of the internet, free internet access has become yet another task for the public libraries.

Folk High Schools

Folk High Schools are a Danish invention. A folk high school is - in somewhat simplistic terms - a cultural salon that lasts six months or a year. At the school, you will typically find young people before they have begun their professional education. They live at the school for the months they are attending and what they learn is rarely the sort of thing they can live from afterwards. On the contrary, the whole idea of going to folk high school is that you spend a half or whole year of your life acquiring new knowledge for the sake of your own Bildung, enjoyment and personal development.

Now you might think that these folk high schools are a product of the affluent industrial society, but they are not. Quite the contrary. The first folk high school was established in 1844 and addressed itself to young farmhands of both sexes; that is, the peasant population. The motto of the folk high schools was that they should be a popular "school for life"; a school for the individual's life in relationship with others. As more folk high schools came into being in Denmark during the 19th century, they became an essential element in the liberation of the peasant class, in general public education and in the building of democracy.

The whole idea behind the folk high school movement is that the individual, in his/her encounters with others, acquires an all-round, historical and cultural education in a discussion-based environment. Conversation is one of the cornerstones of every folk high school. In addition, one of the fundamental ideas is that the teaching offered by the school is knowledge that the individual appropriates for the sake of his/her personal development, not as part of a formal education. From the beginning, the teaching in the folk high schools included both intellectual subjects and practical subjects, such as agriculture. To begin with, the folk high schools were largely Christian-based, but later some political ones started up and, more recently, some have focused more on sports, art and music.

Evening classes and educational associations

Evening classes and educational associations arose out of an approach to popular education similar to that of the folk high schools. Many people, especially workers in the cities, had no opportunity to stay at a folk high school for six months or a year at a time, but they were free in the evening and also wanted to acquire some knowledge and experience something cultural. Various political interest groups therefore set up associations that organised evening classes with different types of lessons and discussion meetings.

The oldest education association in Denmark, AOF (the Workers' Educational Association), was founded in 1924. Since then, other political movements have started their own educational associations, and thus today in Denmark there are the Liberal Educational Association, the People's Educational Association, the Free Educational Association, the Capital City's Educational Association and the Socialist People's Educational Association. These examples are just given to illustrate that, within the sector of informal education, there are several players, each representing their own ideology or values; liberal education is in every way pluralistic.

Other associations

Local and national associations play an important role for democracy in Denmark. The associations can be involved with everything from politics to DIY, music, sport or lectures, or they can be benevolent associations, patient associations and other interest groups.

Common to them is that the work of the association, even down to the smallest local associations, serves as a basic learning arena for the exercise of democracy. People learn to become democrats through working together to get an association to function for everyone’s benefit. In addition, they learn to formulate regulations and to assume responsibility for a community. Furthermore, the associations have the effect that, through commonalities of interest, people meet other people from other parts of society than they would do through their friends, colleagues or family.

Whether it's an athletic association, a sewing club or a political party, the associations create networks and friendships which criss-cross society. These relationships create a sense of community which helps Denmark to feel culturally together as a nation, even outside the workplace, friends and family. Through meeting other people and creating new communities, people get a feeling that they are living in the same country and making decisions together. Through the associations, they get to meet "the others" and become united through ideas and activities.

Educational theory and practice

Finally, an important prerequisite for the Danish democracy is the Danish educational tradition that builds on the work carried out by the educationalist Christen Kold (1816-1870).

In 1814, education became free for all children in Denmark. They learned to read and count, and they received instruction in Bible history. But the teaching was, to put it mildly, of varying quality. Wealthy citizens arranged for private teaching for their children, while the children of the urban lower middle class went to the so-called citizens' schools. The children of the poor went to the poor schools, which in reality were factories making products, and out in the countryside, the peasants' children went to the village schools where they only learned the absolute minimum necessary.

One thing common to the schools for the general public was that the teaching consisted of memorisation and rote learning bordering on drill. The teacher directed the instruction with a whistle, while the pupils marched around to various teaching boards in groups. At the boards, the teaching was undertaken by the brightest pupils.

As a young graduate of teaching training in 1835, Kold had an experience where a revivalist preacher completely turned his faith upside down. Instead of the official, gloom-and-doom, royalist Christianity that was prevalent in Denmark at that time, Kold was awakened to a joyous Christianity. Later he experienced as a teacher how children didn't understand a word of what they were being asked to memorise, but how they loved to hear stories that were told to them with feeling. These two things led Kold to the realization that children perceive rote learning as meaningless and incomprehensible, and that if the meaning disappears, we lose interest in learning.

On the other hand, he discovered that when children are exposed to teaching which suits their own development and experience, and are thereby met with a recognition of their needs, they actually want to learn! Years later, he discovered that the same applies to adults. Moreover, a teacher is obliged to give something of him/herself. One has to share one's personal engagement and feelings with the audience and meet them in real fellowship. This fellowship includes conversation, also in teaching. People have to be woken up!

Christen Kold's calling in life thereafter was to teach and educate the common people according to his ideas. By day, he was a private tutor, but in the evening he held evening classes for adults, and these became a great success. Gradually, the practice became more common and, in 1851, at the age of 35, he started Ryslinge Folk High School and a year later, Dalby Free School. Ryslinge became the model for Denmark's other folk high schools.

Kold's thoughts and views on schools and educational theory and practice shaped the Danish school and educational tradition in several ways and his ideas in this field still have enthusiastic supporters in such countries as India and Japan to this day.


Bildung is a rather abstract concept, but it is significant that even the ancient Greeks discovered the phenomenon and cherished it. Personal bildung, paideia, was in their view a precondition for being a free citizen.

Bildung, i.e. a broad or liberal education, is today fundamental in a healthy democracy; if it is to function in the long run, citizens need to have knowledge about both the world and themselves, and we need to create communities together with people who do not share our political beliefs, tastes, values, world-view and interests.

Bildung can have many sources and individual countries have different traditions. Denmark has only been highlighted to give a concrete historical example of how complex the phenomenon is and how many different types of institutions are required to support a liberal education.

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