Bildung and Political Science

This text was written for a short oral presentation at the Department for Political Science, Aarhus University, September 26, 2019.


Here is what I am going to talk about:

1.The existing state of affairs

2.The relationship between science and Bildung

3.The virtue of non-fitting

4.The Bildung of political sciences


1. The existing state of affairs

At the birthday of Aarhus University last month, Connie Hedegaard, who is chair of the university board, said, that the university should not be too concerned about labour markets, economic growth and societal profits. Instead, she said, university should be about Bildung, in Danish: Dannelse.

She said:

”If I am right that we are witnessing a paradigm shift, we will once again need people that provides perspective and depth in opposition to what is superficial and shallow. We will need people investigating big questions about who we are, where we come from and what is the meaning with it all. If I am right in all this, then we are – more than ever – in need of strong universities”.

And she concluded: ”Perhaps it is time to put more focus on what the university is also capable of providing – spirit, for instance Bildung.” (my translation)

Unfortunately, In the strategy of the university, Bildung is only mentioned twice and only in minor areas of the text. And my own institution DPU, that ought to be the center of Bildung-theory, has for many years worked directly against such ideas, often based on quite harsh interpretations of post-structuralism and systems theory. The word “Dannelse” has zero hits in the official strategy of DPU.

In my recent book on “Dannelse”, I point at five levels of Bildung. In this presentation I will only consider some internal differentiations on what I call level 1, that is, the interplay between Man and world, in other words, “Kundskaber”. This is about the in-depth search for truth in itself as it appears suspended from labor and bodily survival. From this ontological strata of nature and society, we return to society with “new pearls” of knowledge, to paraphrase Walther Benjamin in one of his letters to Hannah Arendt. This whole system of Bildung will certainly generate “spirit” in all spheres of social life, also to thee practices of work and to private life.


2. The relationsship between science and Bildung

Must science be useful for society? For the competitive state? For scoring higher on UN’s sustainability goals? For economic growth, for the “optimization of learning-indicators”?

The answer to such questions decides the horizon of “scientific education” and whether or not Bildung should be a part of it.

If yes, science is instrumental, the freedom of science is only freedom of method. I sometimes say: science degenerates into research. The purpose of education, in this case, is only concerned with methods and techniques for optimizing policy, instead of – which is the opposite – leading a scientific life that enlightens politics.

If not, if science is something more than answering the questions from the level of policy and vested interests, science in itself must be something else than a functional unit in society. It must be something in itself. Something like, as Abraham Flexner expressed it in 1939, “the usefulness of useless knowledge”. We might say: Science must be “some thing” in itself.

What could this “some thing” be? What is the thingliness of the scientific thing? Its essence? It is “Bildung”. Wilhelm von Humboldt, one of the founders of modern theory of Bildung, talked about Bildung as “the most unrestrained interplay” between man and world. In this case Bildung is not about character building separate from knowledge. Rather, it is truth-seeking in itself together with its moralizing effect, and this “seeking” is both existential, that is lonely, and utterly social. Hannah Arendt called it “a two in one dialogue with my self”.

This is how the matter was expressed by Humboldt himself:

“It is the ultimate task of our existence to achieve as much substance as possible for the concept of humanity in our person, both during the span of our life and beyond it, through the traces we leave by means of our vital activity. This can be fulfilled only by the linking of the self to the world to achieve the most general, most animated, and most unrestrained interplay. This alone is the yardstick by which each branch of human knowledge can be judged.”

He also talked about making “fruitful those things that would otherwise remain eternally lifeless and vain”. (Humboldt 1793)

So Bildung is about the investigation of the things in nature and in society, not knowing what we find, what may be invisible but may come forth. And when we have found some thing – perhaps in such great complexity og invisibility that we can hardly express it alone – we may return to society. And society may resist you, may complain about you. You are “free” with your “thing”, but also in a sense “alone”, in a “community of those who have nothing in common”, to borrow an expression from a book by American philosopher Alfonso Lingis.

These reflections resembles a number of legendary theories of child-pedagogy. There is a kind of similarity between the highest educational processes and the little child. Friederich Fröbel, the father of kindergartens, defined in 1826 a school as the free interplay between human and thing, mediated only by an ontological spinozist “substance”, which he called God. His book was called “Die Menscherziehung”.

And about 100 years later, Maria Montessori, a legendary Italian doctor and psychologist, talked about how pedagogy should be concerned with the “riddle of childhood”, looking for the soul appearing together with the objects. Indeed, in Montessori’s view, the pedagogue should be working in a “scientific spirit”, investigating and taking care of the objects at hand and of the child appearing in school life. These are the basics of our kindergarten education. And it has nothing to do with learning and competitive states.

This is why kindergarten are important. They are – in a sense – small universities. And the university should never forget that it is only realizing the Bildung ideals of the child. The system of Bildung is pedagogy as such on all levels.

So, Bildung is the invitation, the initiation, of the youngs into this questioning and interplay with the suspended objects of a particular discipline and society. Bildung is not something next to science, something other. It is science as such. Science is not about “what works?”, but – as British philosopher Michael Oakeshott once asked – about “What is going on?”

The educational process is about looking for and initiating the young’s process of increasing suspended interplay, his evolving self and the objects of a pluralistic scientific tradition and life. This is what education as such is all about in my view. If all members of society would engage in such purpose, the result will be a more authentic democratic community with both deep roots and far horizons at the same time, that is the community that commons the community of those who have nothing in common.


3. The virtue of unfitting

Now, what happens, when “what is going on?” meets “what works?” when we return from “kundskaber” to functional social life?

This is about the power of being useless, the inability to fit, the inability to explain. This is the virtue of incompetence, as French philosopher, Jacques Ranciere, or maybe even Socrates, would put it.

This calls for a distinction between research and science, which is equivalent to a distinction between learning and education? In this case we get a two-world language about educational matters.

Functionality Bildung
Learning Education
Research Science
Policy Politics


The school-reform from 2013 is an example of this. It was pure research and learning, but a denial of science and Bildung. The free interplay between the questions and their objects was destructed and replaced by output-goals determined in advance.

This return from “kundskaber” to society can take many forms: The most common form is “critique”. Certainly, this is a concept belonging to the tradition of Bildung.

Another way of returning is political action, the involvement of others in changing structures into rythms of Bildung

A third way is “waiting”. Education is establishin a kind of waiting room. Perhaps you whole life. In such case education becomes a kind of melancholy, a company till you die.

And there are many more, I think. Something for the teacher to look for.

What I hope to have done is to have providided an alternative vocabulary to think with in your further discussion on the matter.


4. The Bildung of Political Science

What is the Bildung of political science? Most of your candidates is going to work in public administration, that is, under the reign of policy. The danger, therefore, is great, that the corresponding structure of learning becomes purely instrumental. It is therefore, in my view, of utmost important, that the students experience processes of Bildung that establishes both a suspended area of truth-seeking and a social conscience, enabling them – on the basis of processes of Bildung – to say “no” or at least “wait”, in a kind of democratic solidarity with a free citizenship.

When I graduated from this department in 1993, I was surely familiar with suspended truth-seeking – nobody talked about careers etc. and no one ever asked the question of usefulness, learning-outcome or labor markets. I am grateful for this.

But no one taught me about the civil and political traditions that I was supposed to manage. We were mainly taught American traditions of social sciences and british poststructuralism, based on the philosophy of Easton, Hobbes and Machiavelli. These ways of thought all tend to turn politics in to matters of function, contract and strategy, leaving Bildung in the dark. Maybe this discrepancy is also part of the “DJØF”-problem, a gulf between the Bildung of our societies and our scientific treatment of it,  gulf that turn science into research and research into technocracy.

An, just to make sure, need I say, that this approach is in complete opposition to the highly influential theory of Constructive Alignment/SOLO-taxonomy of John Biggs? Bildung is dis-alignment, hearing the sound of things.


Link to Connie Hedegaard’s speech:

Skriv en kommentar

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.