The German term "Bildung" has no equivalent in any other of the European languages. Not only is it more comprehensive than "education"; it is, above all, more complex and holistic in meaning. It is difficult to define even in the German language. One definition, taken from an encyclopedia, reads for example:
"Bildung" is a process of spiritual formation; it also refers to the inner shape human beings can attain when developing their aptitudes in touch with and through the agency of the spiritual contents found in their environment. "Bildung" not only implies the dimension of teaching but also that of learning ("sich bilden"), not only knowledge and skills, but also values, ethos, personality, authenticity and humanity.
The verb "bilden" is mostly used in its reflexive form ("sich bilden") and hardly ever as a synonym for "unterrichten" (instruct), "erziehen" (educate) and "lehren" (teach).
The complexity of the term accounts for the fact that "Bildung" is seen as the appropriate expression for the totality of all teaching and learning related activities in Germany and is used in various ways - and in conjunction with other terms - to characterise adult education and learning in Germany. The most important compounds are:
- "Bildungssystem" (education system): This refers to the intire spectrum of institutions concerned with teaching and learning in Germany;
- "Bildungsbereich" (sector of education): this means either the educational sector as dissociated from other "Bereiche" of the society (for example politics, economy); or it refers to a particular segment of the "Bildungsbereich" itself, for example schools, higher education, vocational training or adult education
- "Erwachsenenbildung" (Adult Education): The addition of "Erwachsenen-" confines the term "Bildung" to the teaching and learning of a particular group of the population. Similarly the compounds with "Jugend-" (youth), "Alten-" (adults), "Frauen-" (women) etc.
- "Kulturelle(Erwachsenen)Bildung" (cultural adult education): The adjective defines more precisely the content area concerned with teaching and learning activities.
- "Bildungsverhalten" (educational behaviour): Here as with other compounds such as "Bildungsstatistik" (statistics on education), "Bildungsbeteiligung" (participation in education) etc., the compound defines and indicates a particular feature, in this case primarily participation and educational careers of people.
The compounds with "Bildung" are almost innumerable. It is therefore always necessary to consider the context to be able to decide whether the focus is mainly on learning, on education seen as a system, or on education and teaching.
This is rather simple in the case of "Bildungspolitik" (educational policy): "Bildungspolitik" is dissociated from other policy sectors (for example research, science) and is currently - regretfully - undervalued as a policy sector in Germany.
von Hentig, H. (1996) Bildung. Ein Essay, Muenchen u.a.