Brexit Irony 1: The bureaucrats and neo-liberals who have ignored culture and starved education and Bildung have now had their economic project screwed up by nationalism.
Brexit Irony 2: The sense of peoplehood that the English want to defend is a continental European “invention,” first explored and brought into public awareness by the German Idealists and Romanticism.
Brexit could be the beginning of a meaningful conversation across Europe about the importance of local, national and European culture and how we develop a robust European economy based on Bildung, human rights and cultural heritage. It could be the beginning of a transition into a much better Europe.
This would take quite the effort, of course, but count us in!
Let it be no secret: my colleague, Tomas, and I are very excited about President Obama’s toast to the Nordic leaders visiting the White House on May 13th when, in effect, he connected his own presidency to the work of Danish pastor, politician and education activist Grundtvig. Apparently, there is a somewhat straight line from Denmark to Washington and one of the brightest leaders of our time.
That line does not begin in Denmark, though, but in the city state of Geneva:
Rousseau, education and nation state
The French/Genevan thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau changed teaching, influenced the French revolution and invented the modern version of national identity.
The Enlightenment was peaking and reason was the name of the game. Enter Rousseau with his book Emile in 1762, telling the world that education must be rooted in the pupil’s emotions and his own desire for learning, not in the teacher’s desire for beating reason and knowledge into him.
In The Social Contract, Rousseau wrote about political freedom and the need for the people to rule over themselves. The opening line of the book reads “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”
In Considerations on the Government of Poland, he suggested that the burghers (and eventually even the peasants) should be armed, so that the Poles themselves could defend their country. In the 1770s, no sane ruler would arm his peasants and, anyway, by the time Rousseau was done writing the essay that suggested the heretic idea, Poland had been conquered by Prussia, Russia and Austria.
From a modern perspective, though, his Considerations are very interesting: he suggested that in order to create loyal subjects, they had to identify with being Polish. One of the tools he suggested was majestic displays that could excite people and tie them emotionally together as a nation. – Soccer hadn’t been invented yet.
Be sure not to neglect the need for a certain amount of public display; let it be noble, imposing, with a magnificence which resides rather in men than in things. It is hard to believe to what an extent the heart of the people follows its eyes, and how much it is impressed by majestic ceremonial.
Rousseau inspired the German Idealists such as Kant, Schiller, Goethe, and Humboldt and sparked their Romantic ideas about emotions and spirit in people, peoples and nature – what we would call personal development, cultural heritage, narrative, and, perhaps, evolution. Kant talked about enlightenment, Schiller, Goethe and Wilhelm von Humboldt talked about Bildung, and based on this Humboldt reformed the Prussian educational system from 1809 and onwards and turned schools and universities into institutions of Bildung.
Grundtvig, Denmark and folk high schools
In Denmark, the Romantic ideas inspired pastor Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig to translate old Norse mythology into contemporary Danish in the 1820s in order to teach the Danes about their Danishness. His search for the earliest written versions of the mythology brought him to England, where he encountered the British high-schools, pragmatism and political freedom. He was sold on the spot!
Returning to Denmark, he combined the German Idealism and the English pragmatism and figured he could make a new kind of Danish high-schools for the people: folk high schools. The schools were boarding schools for young, Danish farmers, women as well as men, though not co-ed. The students were 17-20 years old and stayed for 3-5 months, learning history, being introduced to new farming techniques, singing hymns and national songs, listening to readings of the Bible, hearing inspiring lectures, and discussing with their teachers and one another in order to develop their inner spirit or personality. In 1844, the first folk high school started in Denmark, in 1860 there were around 20 of them and in 1918 there were 63. This may not sound like much, but the young people who went to a folk high school gained street cred among their peers back in the village, and what they learned at the schools went viral!
A very important part of the folk high schools was the students’ emotional connection to the content; without crediting Rousseau, the folk high schools became in many respects his heirs and inspired a popular enlightenment throughout the country.
Horton, Highlander, Parks, and King
When the Great Depression was crippling the United States in 1930, two political activists and socialists, Myles Horton and Don West, went to Denmark to study the folk high schools (or folk schools as they called them). Upon return to the US, they founded Highlander Folk School in 1932.
Among the students at Highlander some 20-30 years later, were Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., who became two of the most courageous, wise and inspiring people of the 20th century.
Apparently, they got much of their courage to stand up to oppression from their stay at Highlander. Or, as we would put it in the Nordic Secret: they got Bildung, the moral courage to become self-authoring and develop their true self, which allowed them to step out of line and not conform. They developed their own self-authority, which made them dare live their dream and insist on dignity, they developed, as Robert Kegan would express it, the fourth order of cognitive complexity, what we call the fourth layer of human potential.
Obama and Bildung
Bildung has not become a household word in English, but we are working on it. The same goes for Allgemeinbildung, which is one of the crucial paths to Bildung.
Obama does not use the words Bildung and Allgemeinbildung, but it doesn’t get much more “Bildungy” than this:
We see in President Obama something that goes beyond education and politics. We see a complexity of mind that embraces not just personal dignity and the moral courage to stand up to conformity and the crowd; we see a president who is bringing people together. At a global scale. Not just the people who think alike, but people who see themselves as adversaries. This is true leadership. Even when the results may from time to time seem disappointing. Even when lesser souls have tried to obstruct what could have been progress and substantial change. True leadership is what gives people hope. As did King and Grundtvig.
We find that the past eight years of American presidency has spoken to us in the noblest voice of the 21st century. A voice that resonates with human dignity, increasing complexity and global cooperation. And we are convinced that could we send a message back to Grundtvig and Rousseau about Parks, King and Obama, they would jump up and say something like “Yes, we can!”
“A painting has many functions. It’s a cultural artifact, an aesthetic object, an insight into a time and a place, and a piece of commerce.” as this New York Times article Off the Beat and Into a Museum correctly states.
But it is so much more. It is an invitation to sharpen our senses, to wonder, to challenge our perspectives, to broaden our mind, to grow a little bit, and to get to know our friends and colleagues much better.
The “sharpen our senses” part is what the NYT article is about: police officers, medics and other professionals who have to find answers in visual data, are learning to be more perceptive by looking at art. A side effect of this very pragmatic use of art as a tool seems to be that the colleagues get to know each other in new ways.
One wonders if, as perceptions differ, they also get to know themselves better too, which is what Bildung is about. (No, I did not misspell the headline; “bilding” must be the English present participle of the verb bild derived from the noun Bildung.)
Luckily, one does not have to wait for one’s employer to send one to the art museum in order to become a better visual analyst, one can go there out of one’s own initiative, alone or bringing a friend.
This kind of social activity has a number of advantages over going out for drinks or meals together: it is usually cheaper, it sparks new and other kinds of conversations, and one doesn’t gain weight. It even beats shopping: two hours in a museum is WAY cheaper than two hours in a department store or mall (especially if one can bring one’s own lunch), but if one does choose to eat there or to have coffee, the ambiance is generally peaceful and most museums have now figured out that museum foods should be as aesthetically pleasing as the content of the exhibitions.
The really great advantage, though, is that visits to museums with a friend, generally stay with us longer than any shopping spree or even the physical products we might buy. There are visits to museums 20 years ago and insights from them that I remember to this day, not a single visit to a department store or a mall can come to mind.
The sculpture featured at the top is from the Gardermoen Airport in Oslo. I have no idea what the artist (or the airport authorities) were thinking!
The enculturation, self-cultivation, personal development, and cognitive complexity that we explore as Bildung, is universal. It may express itself differently and be called different things in different cultures, and not all regimes may appreciate individuality and personas who go against the norms, but in all cultures is there a difference between being 10 years old, 25 years old or a grandmother.
Confucius’ teachings focused on the right way of the gentleman and his personal development. One of his sayings goes:
At fifteen, I was bent on study;
at thirty, I could stand;
at forty, doubts ceased;
at fifty, I understood the laws of Heaven;
at sixty, my ears obeyed me;
at seventy, I could do as my heart lusted, and never swerve from right.
This development didn’t just happen by itself, though, it was a path through life that took a constant effort.
Apparently, this effort is the new black at Harvard. According to this article in the Atlantic: Why Are Hundreds of Harvard Students Studying Ancient Chinese Philosophy? professor Michael Puett’s course Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory has become the third most popular course at the university; only Intro to Economics and Intro to Computer Science are more popular.
How many of today’s 24-year-old men would think and write like this:
A wonderful serenity has taken possession of my entire soul, like these sweet mornings of spring which I enjoy with my whole heart. I am alone, and feel the charm of existence in this spot, which was created for the bliss of souls like mine. I am so happy, my dear friend, so absorbed in the exquisite sense of mere tranquil existence, that I neglect my talents. I should be incapable of drawing a single stroke at the present moment; and yet I feel that I never was a greater artist than now.
When, while the lovely valley teems with vapour around me, and the meridian sun strikes the uppersurface of the impenetrable foliage of my trees, and but a few stray gleams steal into the inner sanctuary, I throw myself down among the tall grass by the trickling stream; and, as I lie close to the earth, a thousand unknown plants are noticed by me: when I hear the buzz of the little world among the stalks, and grow familiar with the countless indescribable forms of the insects and flies, then I feel the presence of the Almighty, who formed us in his own image, and the breath of that universal love which bears and sustains us, as it floats around us in an eternity of bliss; and then, my friend, when darkness overspreads my eyes, and heaven and earth seem to dwell in my soul and absorb its power, like the form of a beloved mistress, then I often think with longing, Oh, would I could describe these conceptions, could impress upon paper all that is living so full and warm within me, that it might be the mirror of my soul, as my soul is the mirror of the infinite God!
O my friend — but it is too much for my strength — I sink under the weight of the splendour of these visions!
It is a well written, rather short novel in which the main character is 24-year-old Werther. We read his letters to his friend Wilhelm and thus follow how Werther falls in love with Lotte and ends up committing suicide because his love is not returned. What struck me was not so much the story but:
The richness of Werther’s emotional life, which ranges from the above quoted romantic absorption by nature to almost cynical observations about the lack of enculturation in certain other people, to anger and frustration, deep, innocent fondness of playing with Lotte’s young siblings, utter shame when he commits an irreversible social faux pas, and, finally, distress, pain and desperation towards the end.
That Goethe was only 24 when he wrote it (apart from the suicide it is overwhelmingly autobiographical).
That, apparently, an emotional life as rich as the one described in young Werther was so normal 240 years ago that his generation identified with it and the novel became an immediate bestseller and led to a series of suicides in young men.
The first article explores how the only emotion men are allowed to show is anger, and how it cripples them and may even be one of the reasons for the school shootings:
Some cultural critics link such mounting emotional vulnerability to the erosion of male privilege and all that it entails. This perceived threat of diminishing power is exposing ugly, at times menacing fault lines in the male psyche. Experts point to sexual assaults on campus and even mass murders like those at a community college in Oregon and a movie theater in Colorado. These gunmen were believed to share two hypermasculine traits: feelings of profound isolation and a compulsion for viral notoriety.
Considering the kind of emotions men show in the majority of pop-culture consumed by today’s 24-year-old males, have we lost a crucial part of ourselves in Western civilization since Goethe? Did people in general have richer emotional lives some 200 years ago?And if so, how do we get it back?
Could a novel like Werther capture a young audience today? (I bet the average German high-school student could answer that question and that the answer would be eye rolling.)
And if anger and feelings of profound isolation drive the school shooters, is there literature that might connect them to other emotions?