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The Idea of Bildung in the Current Educational Discourse: A Response to Irene Heidt

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It is surprising that there is a young academic in 2015 working intensively on the German philosopher and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) and his concept of Bildung. In times where – as the author states herself – educational systems globally tend to follow neoliberal principles and where the visibility, commodification, and instrumentalization of knowledge produce a “culture of performativity” (Masschelein & Simons, 2006, p. 19) within a so-called knowledge society, Humboldt’s ideas about Bildung seem very far away from the current mainstream thinking and policy making. But maybe it is just because of this current dominance of neoliberalism in education that it is worth remembering a philosopher and linguist who developed a neo-humanistic concept of Bildung which emphasizes a process of holistic growth, self-realization of the individual as an entirety, freedom, and self-understanding as well as a sense of social responsibility, and which puts the development of the individual’s unique potential and self at the center of educational processes. In her paper the author not only analyses Humboldt’s philosophical concept of Bildung itself but traces the process of its institutionalization in which Humboldt himself, having become a Secretary of Education under Frederick III, was actively involved. Heidt analyses how the concept of Bildung lost the impetus of freedom and autonomous agency and became an instrument for selection and an agent for social and cultural reproduction, discipline, and control. Today’s concept of Bildung is very much – according to Heidt – influenced by neoliberal thinking and so much altered as to become hardly recognizable. For Heidt, Bildung – similar to Humboldt’s concept but at the same time radically transformed – can only be found outside of educational institutions, e.g., in social networks or street art in cosmopolitan big cities. Bildung, according to the author’s main hypothesis, paradoxically no longer takes place in globally stratified educational institutions, but in a kind of alternative counter world and very much through the medium of language.

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