Jonathan Rowson

Bombs and Bildung: Ukraine as the Educational Centre of the World

The critical question today is what 21st-century Bildung looks like in a world of war, ecocide and disinformation. Democracy depends on solidarity and both depend on good collective sense-making and decision-making, which in turn depend on a free press and ultimately on a healthy education system.



In October I was stopped at security in Brandenburg airport in Berlin and it quickly became clear it was not about a forgotten shampoo bottle. The x-ray had alarmed security and armed policemen approached me. After failing to convey the gravity of the situation to me in German one of them asked me: “What time is your flight?”. 

The bag had been with me since I packed it, and I knew it contained nothing that I hadn’t taken from the UK, apart from a rosehip tea bag snatched from my hotel, and a book I received as a gift. I felt confident the teabag was not illicit, but what would I say if they asked me about the book?
The Nordic Secret: A European Story of Beauty and Freedom

Більдунґ: Нордичний секрет краси і свободи is a Ukrainian-language book that translates literally as Bildung: A Nordic Secret of Beauty of Freedom, and is written by Danish Philosopher Lene Rachel Andersen and Swedish social theorist and entrepreneur Tomas Bjorkman. The Germanic term Bildung roughly translates as transformative civic, aesthetic and moral education. Though it has many sources and interpretations, the practice of Bildung is connected both to the success and wellbeing of the Nordic countries and to the forging of democratic and European cultural norms in Ukraine.

I had Більдунґ: Нордичний секрет краси і свободи in my bag because Tomas handed me a copy with pride at the Emerge 2021 gathering in Berlin, without need for any explanation since we share the context of the prior Emerge gathering in Kyiv in 2019. The book has been translated into Ukrainian because Ukraine has a growing Bildung movement (connected but not limited to Prosvita) that is about the educational process involved in establishing itself as a democratic European nation; not merely through its political institutions but also in the norms and values of its civil society. In the end, Berlin airport security barely glanced at the book, and apologised for the false alarm, caused no doubt by an errant algorithm. Yet that co-incidence of being in the heart of Europe, causing a security concern, and briefly imagining it might have something to do with Ukrainian Bildung, felt somehow evocative, portentous and meaningful.

Jonathan Rowson and Pippa Evans in Kyiv for the Emerge gathering in 2019

“Something has changed”, tweeted the American journalist Anne Appelbaum, referring to pictures of mass gatherings throughout European cities in support of Ukraine. The Portuguese author and politician Bruno Maçães explained: “Europe as a whole has fallen in love with Ukraine and sees the country as our brother. History is made of these moments too.” 

Something else has changed. The weapons of war. Is WWIII already here? Are we sure we would know if it was? We tend to assume WWIII is like WWII but worse, but perhaps it will be a different kind of phenomenon altogether. Just as alien experts say that extra-terrestrial life will not manifest on earth as little green men but more likely in forms of energy or information that are not perceptible by human senses; war has more than one way of appearing. 

Veteran national security expert Fiona Hill suggests the main weapon of WWIII is disinformation, and that has already spread throughout the globe with real world effects, starting with Russia’s unjustified invasion of Crimea in 2014, but also including attacks on democracy like the storming of the US Capitol building in January 6th 2021, and perhaps even Brexit. Now disinformation threatens to permeate international relations and escalate into nuclear war. Many would say invoking WWIII is loose talk, disrespectful of those who actually fought in WWII, or that it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If WWWIII is even incipiently underway however, we need to mobilise antidotes to disinformation as if we were on a war footing, and that means education, which is the nemesis and antithesis of propaganda

What connects Більдунґ: Нордичний секрет краси і свободи to events of the present day then is not just the deep historical connection between Vikings and Ukraine based on the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks that came down from Scandinavia and through Ukraine. The deeper issue is that 90.32% of Ukrainians voted to be independent in 1991, and polls before the war suggest over 60% of the population seeks to join the EU. Geopolitics are complicated, but in so far as there was any perceived threat to Russia from Ukraine, it was primarily the presence of a self-confident democracy on Russia’s doorstep, calling into question the legitimacy of their increasingly authoritarian regime.

In a recent interview, Ukrainian civil society leader Valerii Pekar elaborated that many Ukrainians believe in the value of things that people living in democracies have become cynical about, including the possibility of individual rights, a good state, and a stable world order. Last but not least, he highlighted the importance of humour to Ukrainians in resisting the earnest instrumental logic of Russian oppression, with a highlight being their fundraising effort for a rocket to send Vladimir Putin to Jupiter
Bildung is deeply and widely European. If the idea has a single intellectual forebear, it is probably Jon Amos Comenius, Czech philosopher and theologian who lived from 1592 to 1670 and is considered to be the father of the idea of universal education. Comenius’ genius lay in grasping that since learning is as natural as breathing or eating or sleeping, education should be seen as an aspect of nature’s formative process; and since nature is often experienced as sacred, and we are part of nature, an organism’s lifelong disposition to learn is the wellspring of meaning and purpose in life. A healthy society that is attuned to nature and other sources of intrinsic value depends upon making this educative process the axis upon which society turns. Comenius was writing, as we are, in a time between worlds; in his case at the beginning of modernity, in ours as we grapple with its end – these ideas are explored in depth in the recent Perspectiva essay “Education must make history again” by Zak Stein.

The Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, was born a year after Comenius died and was the first to emphasise the importance of ‘inner Bildung’, our inner formation, not merely for its own sake, but because the nature and quality of our inner formation is reflected in ‘outer Bildung’ in the systems and structures of society, and their nature and purpose. The active ingredient of Bildung is the inquiry into how we know, a thorough metapsychology concerned perception, emotion, thinking, valuing, meaning-making and embodied skill that Shaftesbury grasped as being generative of the formation of society. At The Realisation Festival, taking place in St Giles House in Dorset from June 9th-12th 2022, we will explore the connections between Bildung, realisation, democracy and Ukraine in more depth. 
A century and a half or so after the Third Earl’s death in 1713, the Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden developed an institutional practice of Bildung which was historically a form of self-organised civic education through the creation of folk schools by ‘schoolmen’, namely pastors, wealthy farmers, professors and wealthy members of the bourgeoisie who wanted to contribute to the education of all sectors of society. By 1900 there were about 100 in Denmark, 75 in Norway and 150 in Sweden, all programs lasting three to six months, and focussed on small-group methodologies for 20 to 40 people, in which conversation, the Socratic method and the relational process between people were as important as any instruction received. The schools entailed practical lessons in farming for peasants in anticipation of technological change, indirectly creating skilled workers in the new industrialised economy, but primarily giving people a sense of identity, political awareness and meaning-making capacity they would not otherwise have had. 

The critical question today is what 21st-century Bildung looks like in a world of ecocide and disinformation. Those who do not want an authoritarian future may need to grasp the preconditions of open societies better than they do today. Democracy depends on solidarity and both depend on good collective sense-making and decision making; which in turn depend on a free press and ultimately on a healthy education system that keeps democratic norms alive, and keeps citizens learning. In a recent interview, Daniel Schmachtenberger gets to the root of this point: 

“If we have broken news and people don’t understand the world, there’s nothing other than to argue over nonsense... This is why George Washington had the statement (paraphrasing) that ‘The number one aim of the federal government should be the comprehensive education of every citizen in the science of government.’ I think that’s so f***ing profound. He didn’t say, ‘The number one aim of the federal government is rule of law.’ He didn’t even say, ‘It’s to protect the borders.’ Because a military dictatorship can protect the borders very well. And a police state can institute rule of law. But if you emphasize anything other than the comprehensive education of the citizens, they won’t stay being a democracy for very long…So, what does the future of an open society look like? What does it have to look like in terms of the shared values of the people that they would invest in education and have the civic virtue to invest in their role in governance? Because if we don’t participate in our own self-governance, we are de facto consenting to be ruled.” 

In his recent speech to the UK Parliament, President Zelensky said that “to be or not to be” is the question. “To be” is the answer, he said, by which he means that Ukraine does not consent to be ruled over. 

We need to keep Ukraine’s European dream alive then, primarily for the sake of Ukrainians fighting for their home on pain of death and exile, but also because there is reason to believe that the outcome of their battle is emblematic of what all of our future is to be, or not to be.

Words by Jonathan Rowson
Jonathan Rowson is Director of Perspectiva and author of The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life.