Bildung and TL – hmmm

Article by Ed Cunliff, Ph.D., Adult and Higher Education –

I confess that I bought the book titled, Transformative Learning Meets Bildung (Laros, Fuhr, & Taylor, 2017), because I wanted to be supportive of a friend, colleague, and advisory board member for the Journal of Transformative Learning. Annika Lehmann and her colleague Thomas Neubauer had written a chapter entitled “Bildung as Transformation of Self-World-Relations.” I couldn’t read that chapter without first reading “Bildung: An Introduction,” and then I wanted to see what the connection was between Transformative Learning (TL) and systems thinking, and then how parent training in Italy connected to TL in another chapter… etc., etc., and so forth, until I had finished the book, including Annika’s chapter.

Image of book cover for "Transformative Learning Meets Bidung"

Most people with an interest in TL would be likely to identify Jack Mezirow and the US as founding father and flourishing home turf; but TL certainly is an internationally-recognized construct, and is the source for rich practice and research discussions. Transformative Learning Meets Bildung (Laros, et al, 2017) is an excellent example of the European interest in TL and is well worth the read/study for a variety of reasons. Much like listening to news from the BBC provides an alternative to US focused news, so this book offers a uniquely European view.

The opening of the book is an attempt to conceptually link TL to the concept of Bildung. While the argument is made that there is no literal translation of the word Bildung, the following helps: “It refers to processes of interpretation, understanding, or appropriation of knowledge that transforms the learner’s personality.” (Laros, et al, 2017, p. ix). Conceptually it dates back 200 years, and is similar to what we might think of in the US as “liberal education”. A distinction the editors make between TL and Bildung is that Bildung is considered a life-long process, applicable across age groups while TL is usually spoken of in relationship to adult education.

Depending upon one’s introduction to TL, it is possible to see it only as an individual, developmental process, or perhaps solely from a societal perspective. Here you will find multiple perspectives, though the book still leans more towards the individual rather than the societal perspective. One of the more individual oriented chapters is Libby Tisdell’s (one of the very few US authors in the book), describing her TL experience as she travelled the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. Strongly grounded in the theoretical framework, she describes her own journey and learnings from walking this nearly 500-mile pilgrimage. The self-reflection and mindfulness experience may be imagined through her statement,

“I returned home from Santiago de Compostela on August 14, 2012, and worked on integrating the experience, which even now, 18 months later continues to be ongoing. In short, I felt in many ways transformed by my Camino experience: I had indeed walked my way into a new way of being… (9p. 347).”

Having visited northern Spain many years ago, I can see the green and gray hills and the points where land touches the ocean. My feet, however, refuse to imagine the distance.

The type of critical self-reflection that Tisdell describes is characteristic of TL, and is addressed in other chapters in the book as well. Referencing Annika Lehmann and Thomas Neubauer’s contribution, they bring self-reflection as part of the process of connecting self to the external world. TL can, at times, get embedded within the introspective or psychological process. Their argument is that TL can draw from the concept of Bildung to a more holistic view and connect the individual through self-reflection into a relational process, the individual within the environment; “… that self and world are not two entities of different and incompatible categories. … Self and world then are to be conceptualized as two entities being (living) in the same system of logic” (p. 58). While as educators it may appear easier to focus on TL solely as individual transformation or from the view of social change, the connections made by these authors is worthy of, dare we suggest, some critical reflection. Are we not living “in the same system of logic?”

In another thought-provoking chapter titled “A Re-Imagination of the Transition to Adulthood,” Amanda Benjamin and Sarah Crymble suggest “… the process of building adult identities for young people incorporates perspective transformation” (p. 247). Often educators make significant distinction between working with youth and working with adults. The authors challenge the idea that TL is solely for adults or that there is a simple distinction between adults and youth. If you have ever wondered when you became an “official” adult or what it means to be an adult, then you may appreciate this excerpt: “It is our position that there is no stable category of adulthood, and, therefore, it is far too limiting to presume that young people are simply unable to undergo transformative learning based upon the fact that they have yet to meet various arbitrary criteria (p. 249).” Our system of education, both in the US and in Europe, supports a distinction between teaching youth and teaching adults. Benjamin and Crymble challenge the limitations of that perspective, using Bildung as a contrasting model to TL, and provide some research-based findings to further the discussion.

It can be challenging at times to understand TL and Bildung from a theoretical perspective – what exactly are the distinctions and of what significance are they? They are similar and yet different. Both are living models and offer educators and learners opportunities for engagement intellectually and in being. This book offers an opportunity to get multiple perspectives on both theories. Reflect on!


Laros, A., Fuhr, T., and Taylor, E., (Eds.). (2017).

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