In a comment on a blog post on my university blog at the University of Esinburgh, where I study Digital Education on a MSc course, I was asked:

What is the purpose of schooling? How is that different to learning?
What about equality of opportunity? Consistency? Social justice? Access?

Coming from a German schooling background and having studied education at university at three different German universities, these questions are not only part of an ongoing debate in this country, a debate that reaches back to times long gone and names such as Humboldt, Kant, Gruen, Goethe Nietzsche. It is also a debate very present in my own thinking and doing and it all evolves around one term, unique to the German language: Bildung.


What is “Bildung”?

Linguistically, “Bildung” is a close relative of the English word “building”, as in “building something, creating something”. It is a noun describing an action, an active process. “Bildung” describes the ongoing process of an individual building themselves in terms of character, knowledge, wisdom, ideals, personality etc. So “Bildung” is an intellectual process, a psychological process and not a process of building a body or physique.

“Bildung” is a process unique to every individual. Understanding that every individual is unique, “building”, the process of the individual developing themselves is a unique process.

“’Bildung’ is bringing out something which is already in you, it is a process of forming yourself, of being in charge of yourself, developing your own powers and traits, in short: ‘Bildung’ in a modern sense means establishing subjectivity.” (Pongratz & Bünger, 2008, p. 111)


The term “Bildung” was used and gained public if not worldwide attention through the works of Wilhelm von Humboldt.

“The true purpose of man – not the one which is dictated to him by changing interests, but the one which is dictated by the eternal unchangeable nature – is to build his potentials to a whole in a highest and proportional manner.” W.v.Humboldt in: (Koller, 2010, p. 74)

Hence “Bildung” is an individual process of a person, it is a development inside a person, driven and managed by this person. It is not an action of others towards the individual. Therefor school (as well as university) must not try to form the individual, but help himself to form himself. Nevertheless, an individual cannot develop all by himself, but needs the interaction with others and the world.

“Bildung” is the construction of the individual by the individual. “Bildung”

“Bildung” is an ongoing process, which never stops.


“The aim of “Bildung” for every single person is to build their potentials and traits in such a manner, that an alien, who would see them as the first and only example of mankind would gain the highest possible opinion of mankind.” (Koller, 2010, p. 78)

German philosopher Immanuel Kant was understandably concerned about education and “Bildung”. As to what character building should aspire to, what an ideal outcome of the process of “Bildung” should be, his views mirror those of Humboldt’s.

Kant: „Character means that the person derives his rules of conduct from himself and from the dignity of humanity. Character is the common ruling principle in man in the use of his talents and attributes. Thus it is the nature of his will, and is good or bad. A man who acts without settled principles, with no uniformity, has no character. A man may have a good heart and yet no character, because he is dependent upon impulses and does not act according to maxims. Firmness and unity of principle are essential to character. “ (Buchner, 2010)

So although “Bildung” is an individual autonomous process, it aims at the whole of mankind, helping us to live together according to the ideals put forward by e.g. Immanuel Kant, the period of Enlightment as a whole or even religious and spiritual believes of togetherness, peacefulness and cooperation.


What is the purpose of schooling?

The primary purpose of schooling is to provide the necessary environment for every individual to undergo a process called “Bildung”. This means that school should provide the needed space and time as well as the necessary support of teachers, to support the individual on his journey to himself.

Unfortunately, schools not only in Germany but worldwide fall short of this purpose.


“Due to higher powers respectively factors originating in society, school remains in a motion of futility. […] These higher powers are:

  • the structures of society, as an unequal (capitalist), in which there is no interest to reach the declared goals of school;
  • the irrational structures of relationships between the young and the old, who constantly undermine the declared goals of improvement of the next generation.”

(Leschinsky, 2003)


“The curriculum is lead by the social status of school, its set goals and expectations, but not by an pedagogical logic or a logic based on the theory of “Bildung” [development of the individual to become what they are], but instead by the struggle between the forces of society, political expectations and professional traditions. […] Hence there is a great continuity of curriluli in history and in the world.” (Diederich & Tenorth, 1997, p. 83)


Schools today and throughout history put their major emphasis on the acquisition of reproducible knowledge. Schools (and universities) are institutions preparing the individual for the job market. They are training camps, which reshape the individual so it fits the necessities of the world we have built for us. The result is a world, which benefits a view and harms the most. It is a logic result, if education and schooling see morality, tolerance and responsibility only as a side issue, not worthy of their own taught school subject.


What about equal opportunity and social justice and access?

In today’s schools and universities, there is no equal opportunity, no social justice, no access to education for everyone. Individuals with assumed disabilities are discriminated. Girls and boys are actively made believe that there are fundamental differences in their abilities based on their sexuality. Pupils from lower income households have far lower chances of accessing elite universities and landing elite jobs than their rich counterparts.

But school is not only unjust in our own society. Our schools lead to the conservation of a world and a world order, which is on a global level a place of unequal opportunities, a place without social justice and limited access or no access to education.


And this is precisely where Digital Education comes in place.

All our idealistic goals and wishes for school and university are limited, yes made impossible by obstacles Digital Education can help overcome.

A fair school system for everyone needs more funds than we have or are willing to spend. Digital Education can help us save money.

A fair school system for everyone needs more time for the individual student. Digital Education can help us here, using time more efficiently.

A fair school system for everyone would need to help us realize, that we are one species on one planet, no matter what part of the city and what family background we were born in, no matter what the colour of our skin, our language, our culture. Digital Education can help us realize this and bridge the gaps we have created ourselves.

Digital Education is not a miracle- remedy. It is not the one and only saviour for mankind. But it can play a crucial role to create the best school possible for everyone. For the first time in the history of mankind, we have the technology at hand that might enable us to make come true our dreams of a better world. This is what I hope. This is what I believe. This is why I chose this course, this degree. I want to know about the possibilities, the challenges, the opportunities of Digital Education to help me pursue my goal: The perfect school for everyone.


A metaphor for “Bildung”

Look at the picture above. This is “Bildung”. The little plant you see is an oak tree. Still small and weak, like a child. A child going to school. The watering can and the sun, that’s the school, the parents, society. They all help the little plan to hrow to be what it is is. They help the plant develop. They do not change the plant but merely provide the necessary resources for it to grow by itself.

We all can be an impressive forrest.



Buchner, E. F. (2010). The Educational Theory of Immanuel Kant (1904). Kessinger Publishing.

Diederich, J., & Tenorth, H.-E. (1997). Theorie der Schule. Berlin: Cornelsen.

Kant, I. (1983). Über Pädagogik, in: Werke in sechs Bänden, Band VI. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Koller, H.-C. (2010). Grundbegrife, Theorien und Methode der Erziehungswissenschaft, 5. Auflage. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

Leschinsky, A. (2003). Einführung in die Begriffe von Bildung, Erziehung und Schule. Vorlesungsmanuskript.

Pongratz, L., & Bünger, C. (2008). Bildung. In H. Faulstich-Wieland, & P. Faulstich, Erziehungswissenschaft. Ein Grundkurs. Hamburg: Rowohlt.


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