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PY Core Course 2011/12

ECLA's core course for 4th year BA and Project Year students is dedicated to the ideals that guide, or perhaps should guide, the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.


In term 1 the focus will be on Bildung, a concept that has played a key role in German thought from (at least) the 18th century until today. The word 'Bildung' is commonly considered untranslatable and in class we will discuss advantages and disadvantages of some of the possible translations: 'formation', 'self-cultivation', 'education', just to mention some of the most obvious candidates. Most of our shared readings will be from the period in which the concept of Bildung rose to prominence in German philosophy, literature and educational theory, i.e. the late 18th and early19th centuries. In this period it became possible to identify "the true end of man" (Humboldt, 1791-2) or "the highest good" (Schlegel, 1799) as Bildung, to institute a journal dedicated to its pursuit (The Athenäum, 1798-1800) and to write a novel that would later be considered the beginning of a new genre best defined as the Bildungsroman (Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship from1795). The aim of the class is to build up an understanding of the ideal (or ideals) of Bildung by studying some of the key texts that helped articulate and establish it. An appreciation of the classical ideal of Bildung should help us engage with some of the current discussions about knowledge and education. Cultural critics have long complained that we live in a period of Halbbildung (half-cultivation) or even Unbildung (non-cultivation). Is this true? And if true, is it really a problem? Is the ideal of Bildung obsolete in our so-called "knowledge society"? Or have we lost something of great value that we should attempt to bring back to life?



In the twentieth century, the long tradition of German philosophical thought and literary experiment regarding the question of Bildung (education, or more broadly, formation) underwent surprising new and even disturbing developments. In addition to emerging concerns about Halbbildung, or incomplete and superficial cultivation, we find a deepening of investigation into the paradoxes of the concept (its tension between external standard and internal journey) in response to the problems of modernity.  Some contributions lament the disappearance of a heritage of cultural knowledge and identity-conferral through the destruction wrought by the First World War and urbanization, while others propose a disciplinary process that will inure and conform the individual to these phenomena. Following the Second World War, reflections on Bildung diversify into considerations of how bureaucratic mechanisms can erase the individual's capacity for moral judgment, and into a more intense focus on the decisive importance, for political and social life, of the earliest phase of formation, the child's adaptation to its environment. We end with recent accounts of the function of Bildung in society, including the claim that belief in its character-building power has disappeared.

Syllabus (will be available shortly)