Education for life: Creating a more mature society in the 21st century

2 December 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock

702 words

Last week I ended with a reference to the concepts of ‘bildung’ and ‘folk-bildung’. For those interested in how we evolve our culture to a more mature one, better suited to live in a socially just way within the limits of the one small planet that is our home, these interesting concepts are worth pursuing.

In exploring the German concept of bildung and the Danish – and more broadly Nordic – experience of folk-bildung I am indebted to a lengthy 2018 overview by Jonathan Reams of the 2017 book The Nordic Secret by Lene Andersen and Tomas Björkman. They trace the roots of the concept of bildung back to the Enlightenment in the 18th century, and to a small group of intellectuals that included Goethe.

A key point was when Wilhelm von Humboldt undertook a complete reform of the Prussian education system in 1809. Andersen and Björkman tell us that it was based on the principle that education “must be personal development, moral development and a deep engagement with the academic endeavors. It must be a path to finding one’s true personality. . .”.

These ideas were later picked up in Denmark by  Nikolaj Grundtvig, a pastor, teacher and politician who, Reams tells us, wrote in 1836 about the need for ‘education for life’, by which he meant “a school where the peasants of Danish society can be ‘bilded’ or shaped into responsible citizens who can participate in and contribute to the betterment of their society”. His ideas were taken up and implemented by Christen Kold in the 1860s, who founded the ‘folk high schools’ – a 19th century cross between a community college and adult education.

These ideas then spread to Norway and Sweden, and both Reams and the authors of the Nordic Secret believe it is the implementation of these ideas of folk bildung – “the intentional cultivation of moral, emotional and cognitive development” and of “a sense of responsibility towards self and society” – that were key to the success of the Nordic countries in the 20th century. That success, Reams suggests, is founded on three “key principles evident in Nordic society; humanism, trust and responsibility”.

And how is this relevant today, and here? Well, we are at a transition point not all that different from the scale and significance of the transition “from poor agricultural to rich industrialized countries” that the Nordic countries successful achieved. Our transition, however, has to be from a rich and materialistic but often unjust consumer society to one that is more ecologically and socially responsible, more mature in its relationships with the Earth and with other people, what we and others call a One Planet society.

This transition requires the development of new core values to drive our societal and personal decision-making, as well as the knowledge and skills needed to live a socially just One Planet way of life. We think one way to successfully navigate this transition, beyond the Conversations we currently organise on what it means to be a One Planet region, will be to create a 21st century version of ‘folk bildung’ and ‘folk high schools’ here in this region.

This is in accord with a column by George Monbiot in The Guardian a year ago in which he wrote of the need for “the reclamation of a culture of public learning” and the restoration of  “a rich public culture of intellectual self-improvement”. This will mean re-acquiring “the habit of rigorous learning in adulthood” that we have lost.

Monbiot points to the workers education movement of the early to mid-20th century as an example. Inspired by the UK model set up in 1903, the Workers Education Asssociation of Canada was set up in Toronto in 1917, and while now much reduced, until the advent of community colleges in the 1960s was the primary provider of adult education in Canada, according to its website.

Now we cannot simply take the 19th century concepts of bildung and folk high schools, or 20th century models of worker education, or even the small modern folk school movement in North America and apply them today. But the social transformation we need will require something along those lines; what would a 21st century version of this look like?

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.


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