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What is ‘dannelse’ (Bildung)?

CHEF Talk by Thomas A. Rømer, Associate Professor, Danish School of Education (DPU), Aarhus University, Denmark.

12.08.2019 | Søren Smedegaard Bengtsen

Dato tor 24 okt
Tid 12:00 13:00
Sted CUDiM, Campus Aarhus, building 1483, room 656. Video-link to Danish School of Education (DPU), Campus Emdrup, room D120.

The term “dannelse” has had a renaissance in recent years. Unfortunately, the meaning of the term is unclear, both in research and in public discourse. In this paper, therefore, I attempt to define the term. I argue that “dannelse” is about the connection between Man and world. That is how simple it is, and complex as well, I should add, because it has proved to be very difficult to maintain all three moments, i.e. Man, world and connection, in a simultaneous analysis. But that is exactly what I will try to do here. Along the way, I extend the definition a bit.

My definition of “dannelse” has five levels, four paradoxes and three forms of decay. Here are the five levels: The first level is about the actual process of truth, i.e. the connection between Man and world in a suspended space from which one returns to empirical society and criticizes/corrects it. The second level is about the consequences of these processes of truth for educational purpose and practice and thus for essence and purpose of the educational institutions. The third level is political and concerns the further consequences for the relationship between state and civil society. The fourth level concerns the theological and cosmological aspects of the Man-world connection. Finally, there is a fifth level that discusses matters of being, that is, the ontological and poetic aspects of “dannelse”. 

Based on this discussion, my elaborated definition of “dannelse” is: “Dannelse” is the process in which Man and world enter into a suspended relationship that subsequently and continuously interrupts society as societal and educational action. Both human beings and the world in their suspended and material existence are connected, enlarged and expanded in processes of knowledge and truth, which are in poetic contact with the tacit conditions of being, pushing society and suspension into proximity without being able to unite them completely. With this definition, I am able to gather existing educational theory in an overall term. I would also like to mention four paradoxes. The first paradox is that “dannelse” is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The second paradox is that the “dannelse” can never become itself. In other words, “dannelse” is a state of tension. The third paradox is that “dannelse” is always both revolutionary and conservative at the same time. And the fourth paradox is that the more specificity that is involved in the process of “dannelse”, the higher the general significance. 

Finally, I want to point out three forms educational decay, the so-called half-“dannelse”. One form of half-“dannelse” is that the person denies or forget the formation process altogether. The other is that he claims “dannelse” officially, but rejects it in reality. The third aspect of half-“dannelse” is that you practice “dannelse”, but it denies it officially. I argue that this concept of “dannelse” can accommodate both theories or enlightenment, neo-humanism, essentialists, progressive education and very modern contributions such as the work of Masschelein and Biesta.