The Bildung we need in Europ

Conference paper European Bildung Network, 2020

In Belgium we don’t have the concept of Bildung or the equivalent in our vocabulary. There are two sides to this Dutch language fact. The advantage is that we are not affected by historical misuses of the idea to invest in becoming a complete human being. The disadvantage is that the work of our leading figures in the area of adult education is not recognized as such, both on a national and international level. In this blog I would like to witness the evolution in my networks and how our idea of multi-layered development aligns with a 21st century concept of Bildung. Our experiences and findings contribute to the demarcation of the kind of Bildung we need in this era.

The psychologization of personal development

In the seventies of the previous century, when I studied psychology, Maslow with his self-actualizing individual and Rogers with his client-centered therapy were our heroes. It was when the individual was emancipated from the norms imposed by his family and village. Ever since then, we’ve seen a growing interest of the individual in his personal development. Anybody who, in the nineties, wanted to invest in personal development came across emotional intelligence or a form of new age spirituality. In companies, adult learning was rather focused on the upcoming competence management. There was no holistic approach and personal development was completely absent. This contrasted with the sector of psychotherapy. Many of us didn’t want to be involved in a diagnostic or deficit approach and opted for a holistic developmental framework. We had a rather existential and even Buddhist view on life situations. In the nineties the ‘single’ entered society with his desire to design his own life.

When people needed help with their lives, they turned to the upcoming coaching profession. The goal of coaching was to help people to take their lives in their own hands. In the first decade of this century there was very little interest in politics or economics, neither from our clients, nor from the coaches themselves. Coaches were not involved in reading literature or in historical, philosophical or societal studies. Even today we see that most coaches are involved in the psychosocial dimension of their clients. Coaches are not raising awareness about societal and ecological issues. In general they focus on a client’s emotional well-being, not on his moral responsibility. In the best scenario coaches themselves are trained in pragmatic psychosocial skills. It all boils down to assisting a client in his individual bubble and helping to maximize his happiness and success.

If you compare the idea of Bildung with what personal development means for most people and coaches, then you can only be amazed at the high reduction of our human potential in the last two decades.

Societal awakening

The counter-movement to this evolution started gradually some five years ago. We now have many people who find their way back to community involvement and nature. There is a revival of handcraft, volunteering work, local food production, transition initiatives and social activism, often mediated through digital platforms. We have famous psychiatrists (Paul Verhaeghe, 2014) who tackle the consumer society, explaining that citizens are trapped in ideas about happiness that are economically designed. In organizations the dissatisfaction grows about being used by a capitalist system. People are looking for meaningfulness which has become the number one issue in self-evaluation about work. Another remarkable phenomenon is the success of climate strikes by the young. There is really something moving here in Belgium. I guess it parallels the evolution in other European countries.

In contrast with the positive trend, most citizens are existentially shaken by all global challenges. The complexity of society is such that nobody seems to know what to do. Systems in which people are working seem to be dragons they can’t overcome. It is like an existential impasse: Shall I live according to a new story of humanity, or shall I take a plane and eat a big chunk of meat? Shall I earn money in this firm and build my house, or do I have to leave and follow a lonely track which is guided by my ecological conscience?

It is clear that the societal awakening and the existential impasse are two sides of the same coin. We are all moving towards more consciousness. We live indeed in a time of big transition. Will we find this constructive path or will the few rich and the revolt of the masses, like Ortega y Gasset already explained in 1930, destroy civilization?

Response from adult educators

Are adult educators, coaches, teachers, leaders, and healthcare professionals aligned with this awakening? Do they take the lead in societal and planetary awakening? In my opinion the answer is, up until now, no. Professionals don’t take their societal responsibility to heart. Teachers, practitioners, social workers, and therapists do try to help their fellow citizens, but they are working in a bubble. Like all citizens, professionals feel the same existential impasse. Moreover, many of them are trapped in a neo-liberal ambition to have a good life for their family and be financially successful.

The soul speaks: my response

In 2002 I followed an in-depth course at Schumacher College and in 2009 one at the Findhorn Foundation. Educators inspired me to adopt a deep ecological worldview. When I am working in education, business or health care I don’t use the word ecology though. Like the word spirituality, these words make people’s minds shut down. Language is really a pain in the ass if you invite people into new ways of thinking. I describe my work broadly as a multi-layered developmental approach. In my books, articles and training sessions I explain life as a holarchic system of intertwined parts and wholes (Koestler, 1967, Wilber, 2000). The basic tenet of a holarchic worldview resonates very well with an experience most participants recognize: ‘my personal conscience doesn’t fit with how systems in society operate’. Participants, clients, students, employees, and citizens, talk about their pain of the world. Conversations veer between cynicism, despair and active hope (Macy, 2012).

I am not keen on the use of the word holistic. Although it emphasizes that we take all human dimensions into account (physical, emotional, social, cognitive, historical, political, artistic, moral, economic, spiritual) it doesn’t describe the fact that we as individuals are a deep ecological part of all layers of existence. To underscore this layeredness, I define a holarchic mindset with the adagio ‘You are the whole’. Of course, that is literally not true. You are not God. You are only part of the whole. But from a deep ecological point of view we are the whole. We are stardust, we act worldviews, and we do the non-sustainable patterns. Our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are expressions of larger systems. It is the premise of social constructionism (Gergen, 2015). It is a deep systemic insight and spiritual understanding of life. It is a lifelong spiritual search to understand the implication of our inclusiveness of humanity and Earth in evolution. This quest is formulated by Atlee (2009) as evolutionary awareness.

The Bildung we need

As Andersen & Bjorkman (2017) explained in their book The Nordic Secret, the Nordic conception of Bildung has been related to societal development. Bildung becomes once again intertwined with the story of humanity and Earth. It is an ambitious project to put forward a definition of Bildung that could play a pivotal role in how we all move into another stage of planetary consciousness. I follow the authors’ dream that an adult education on a societal level is what we need now to move forward in the most desirable direction. We need to help an extremely wide range of citizens to be part of a global scale development.

What I would like to add to the exploration of an updated concept of Bildung is the importance of deep inner transformation. I cannot agree more with Vesa-Matti Lahti that societal change is not only about footprint reduction, nor only about system change, but also about paradigm development. The paradigm development is moving from a Newtonian, individualistic, exploitative posture to a holarchic, deep ecological connection. Put in everyday language: we need to reconnect with all larger wholes, our natural locality, our communities, the organization in which we are working, society, and the world of all living and non-living beings. We need a paradigm shift in how we think about ourselves and the place of humanity on the earth sphere. We need an inclusive worldview that embraces all beings.

What adjective can we use for the Bildung that includes this paradigm shift? Candidates are: holarchic Bildung, systemic Bildung, and referring to the blog of Vesa-Matti Lahti eco-social Bildung, ecological Bildung or post-material values-based Bildung.

Bildung practices

If on a European level the conceptual discussion is settled, we can move forward to the work itself. Shifting paradigms and mindset is not a philosophical exercise. For many of my clients (change professionals, managers, teachers, health care professionals) becoming aware of basic assumptions and worldviews, is woolly. They are frustrated with their clients, students and employees. They are frustrated in relation to systems, structures and rules. They are not able to cope with the complex and paradoxical nature of present developments. With this in mind they are not asking me to explain the holarchic worldview. They ask me to solve their problems. With Kegan & Lahey (2016) I can see that they would cope better with themselves and their situation with a self-transforming mindset. But how to bring them to the point that they are open to new ways of thinking? That is the core challenge of any Bildung practice applied to professionals.

The biggest challenge lies in the everyday details of influencing each other in a formal or informal setting. There are marketing challenges: how to sell the idea that our work is about mindset and paradigms? There is also a personal inner transition to do. How to relate with people who oppose change? How to leverage sensitivity towards ecological issues with my neighbors and colleagues? Bridging differences and opening the dialogue are perhaps at the core of any Bildung practice. Putting love into the system, is maybe the only way to tackle wicked problems.

With sensitivity to present historical challenges, our research and training institute has translated the holarchic worldview into practical dialogical practices (Vandamme, 2015, 2018). When teaching these, professionals get acquainted with the specifics of what we mean by worldview, multi-layeredness, and Bildung.

Rudy Vandamme, Ph.D. social psychology


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