Can we have some Bildung, please?

The Germanic languages are filled with several words packed with historical context and culture that makes them virtually untranslatable (schadenfreude, angst, blitzkrieg, doppelgänger, ersatz).

So while the British are boastfully proud of their bad weather they don’t have a word like the Swedish “Uppehållsväder” which describes a surprising lull between rainstorms. It’s a word for the absence of falling rain.

Among the more interesting words is “bildning” which comes from the German word “bildung” and is described by Wikipedia as:

…refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation, (as related to the German for: creation, image, shape), wherein philosophy and education are linked in manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation.  This maturation is described as a harmonization of the individual’s mind and heart and in a unification of selfhood and identity within the broader society…

On one level there is an element of education so a person of bildung is a person who is educated but it cannot be confused with education as that would be too simplistic. So how on earth should I translate this term?

There are several terms that seem to be used almost as synonyms liberal education, liberal arts, lifelong learning, adult or civic education, folk education (which stems from another Germanic term Folkbildning). The problem is that all these terms have odd connotations which drag the term in “wrong” directions:

The prefix Liberal brings to mind studies of classics and while this naturally can play a part it is hardly necessary today to have read Homer to be considered a person of bildung.

Lifelong learning may have the unfortunate associations with some form of refresher course necessary to enable people to remain relevant in some context.

Adult education feels like its all about getting people back into the job market after being made redundant. It smacks of re-education.

And any use of the prefix Folk raises pictures of some form of arts and crafts movement or carries the unnecessary connections with folk art or folk singing.

So the problem remains: Can we really discuss that of which we have no name? Is the mind controlled by the word? (sapir whorf hypothesis) or it may be that the word we use is not be so important – just the fact that we point towards the concept shows the importance of bildung.

No matter what I am still stuck attempting to explain bildung briefly and elegantly in a text. And without the word the concept is clumsy: Any tips?

Killing humanites: A rage against the machine

Its painful to admit, but it seems that my own University of Göteborg (GU) is anti-humanities. Last year GU axed nine languages (Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Hebrew, Dutch, Polish, Slovenian and Czech). This year they added Italian, Russian, Greek and Old Church Slavonic.

Surely this is no real big thing you may argue – many universities are killing the humanities and besides what’s the loss of dropping Old Church Slavonic? Well first off I would like to begin with an emotional argument by Heinrich Heine: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.” When we begin to cut, we will cut to the bone and bleed to death.

But more importantly the thoughts that the humanities are unnecessary, or even more stupidly, unprofitable is so obviously foolish that it pains me to see when it is used as an argument.

What are universities for? Most seem to think that they are there to get people jobs. A strange illusion but quite prevalent, the problem is that we have no idea what will be needed in the future so designing universities for this purpose is obviously silly.

But don’t take my ineloquent word for it. Listen to the humorous and thoughtful Ken Robinson (author of The Element: How finding your passion changes everything)

There is an additional problem by streamline, focusing on core competencies and cutting the fat – it’s that we create armies of reasonably identical people who have the same backgrounds and thoughts. And from this we expect them to be innovative and new-thinking. Seriously, could you believe that??

The philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum develops these arguments in her wonderful and thoughtful book: Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

But please don’t get the impression that all of Sweden is a wasteland of real thought and culture. There are several deep and interesting researchers and thinkers. Specifically, I would like to point to the shining example of Ola Wikander, a fantastic example of a young scholar he has eight books (his own and translations) ranging from Canaanite myths to popularizing theories and developments of language. His focus is the epitome of “useless” humanities research (seriously its even called  dead languages). But in reality his works affects more people than a whole pile of average MBAs… Yet, he is the odd one.

The problem is that the MBA’s – with their incredible lack of knowledge – believe that they can create more by eliminating that which is not attractive to everyone. Popularity is the order of the day. Unfortunately the MBA’s are the ones who are running the universities right now. Hopefully, this will change before we have pushed our mental gene pool to the point of extinction. In the meantime my university just became a tad more irrelevant, less competitive and more redundant. Thanks guys! How efficiently you create our demise.

In the meantime, while the mental gene pool at my university shrinks, all we can do is rage against the machine.

Challenging the YouTube Copyright School

Last week YouTube announced that it had launched an animated film entitled the YouTube Copyright School. The problematic thing is that YouTube begins by recognizing that copyright is complex and that education is needed

Because copyright law can be complicated, education is critical to ensure that our users understand the rules and continue to play by them. That’s why today we’re releasing a new tutorial on copyright and a redesigned copyright help center. We’re also making two changes to our copyright process to be sure that our users understand the rules, and that users who abide by those rules can remain active on the site.

They then release a film portraying a simplistic view of copyright – the complex needs to be explained not simplified or banalized. They also have disabled the comments section – this is their view, enough said, no discussion.

But that does not prevent discussion (as they should well know) criticism was swift – for example Leonhard over at Governance across borders writes

The background for this crazy/disturbing/awkward “Copyright School” is a change in YouTube’s copyright infringement policies. As repeatedly discussed on this blog (e.g. “This Post is Available in Your Country“) and described by fellow workshop participant Domen Bajde (see “Private Negotiation of Public Goods: Collateral Damage(s)“), users who posted three videos containing (seemingly) infringing content to YouTube have not only lost those videos but all of their videos: their account was deleted.

The problem is not only the one-sided view they present, or even their attempts to suppress discussion but also the control of content YouTube exerts is only loosely based on copyright. Their system of removal and criticism of content is highly biased against “amateurs”.

Yesterday Public Knowledge announced the Public Knowledge “Copyright School” Video Challenge!

In an attempt to educate its users about copyright law, YouTube has debuted “Copyright School,” a video that explains why videos are removed from YouTube. While “Copyright School” does a great job of telling you what you can’t do with copyrighted content, it does a very poor job of telling you what you can do with copyrighted content–namely, remix, reuse and repurpose it without permission from the rightsholder as allowed under the doctirine of fair use. So here’s our challenge to you: can you make a better video than YouTube that explains both what you can and can’t do with copyrighted content? Watch the video above (and read the official rules) to find out how you can win $1000 and have your video featured on the Public Knowledge website!*

 

My top 20 non-fiction

OK, so I should be writing but I needs a break and this seems like a worthwhile attempt at procrastination…

Every time someone dares to create a canon they are naturally shot down. But at the same time I really want to list the 20  non-fiction books a well rounded person should read. A list like this can never be complete and I would really appreciate any and all tips on books which should be included:

Richard DawkinsThe Greatest Show on Earth: The evidence for evolution

Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion

Bill BrysonA Short History of Nearly Everything

Rainer Maria RilkeLetters to a Young Poet

Karen ArmstrongA History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

David BollierSilent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth

George MonbiotBring on the Apocalypse: Six Arguments for Global Justice

George MonbiotThe Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order

John PilgerFreedom Next Time

Fredrick SchauerFree Speech: A philosophical inquiry

Rupert SmithThe Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World

John GribbinScience: A History 1543-2001

Vandana ShivaWater Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit

Vandana ShivaProtect or Plunder?: Understanding Intellectual Property Rights

Ronald DworkinTaking Rights Seriously

Neil PostmanTechnopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

Okakura KakuzoThe Book of Tea

Amartya SenThe Idea of Justice

Peter SingerAnimal Liberation

John Stuart MillOn Liberty

Free Knowledge

Let me begin by admitting that I really cannot stand working out to music. It bores me to no end. Particularly if I am running, if the wrong song shows up I just lose the will to jog.

Sad as I am I really enjoy listening to lectures while working out. Sad I know. That’s why I really become happy when I find more free courses online. This happiness increased when I came across 250 new course online (via PhilosophyBytes)  after browsing a few minutes I was already downloading:

Fixing leaky legal systems

Too much of the Swedish legal education system is all about learning the law as it is. Attempting to develop a social consciousness about the way in which the law should be is almost frowned upon. This is important if the goal of law school is to produce skilled legal workers (in Swedish I would have used the word hantverkare). This however degrades the ability and importance of the law professional to the level of plumber, electrician or doctor. This last sentence is not meant in any way to degrade the knowledge necessary in these professions but refers to the way in which they approach and resolve problems.

The doctor, plumber, electrician and lawyer see a problem and apply the tools of the trade to fix it. And this is an important task in society. When your boiler is leaking it is important that you can call a plumber who arrives and resolves the issue without re-interpreting the way in which your house is built. But, (you knew that there would be at least one but…) between leaks the plumbers education should have encouraged him or her to think about how and why pipes, houses and people interact.

The ability to fix direct problems should not mean that these professions cannot evolve and challenge the established set of knowledge. The plumber, doctor and electrician all have the ability to change the way in which their professions understand their own work situation. The Swedish legal education system does not promote this kind of critical thinking.

For critical legal thought we must leave the cold Norse climate and look to the Anglo-American legal system. Sure, there are legal systems which promote critical thinking but not as much as the Anglo-American system. And sure, not all Anglo-American lawyers think critically – which is good since sometimes you need a lawyer to be, just a lawyer.

There are a multitude of examples, courses, books, scholars and whole schools of thought to promote critical legal thought or social legal theory. But one of the more enjoyable must be cross between law and literature which provides a mix of deep thought, social criticism and comic relief all in the academic format (not an easy task).

Take for example this article I just came across by Kimberlianne Podlas of the University of North Carolina: Homerus Lex: Investigating American Legal Culture Through the Lens of The Simpsons. (Seton Hall Journal of Sports & Entertainment Law 93, 2007). From the abstract:

The Simpsons is not merely the most successful cartoon in history (and seen in more than 70 countries), but a pop culture chronicle that uses satire to explore a variety of social issues. No subject is immune from its scrutiny, and the law is no different. Though not traditional law programming, The Simpsons includes some of television’s most profound depictions of the legal system, regularly referencing statutes, private settlements, and trials. Accordingly, it is important to understand what its legally-tinged themes communicate about the value of the legal system.
Embracing a socio-anthropological perspective, this paper studies the function, role, and ideology of law in Springfield, the hometown of the Simpson family. Rather than critiquing a few memorable episodes, it employs ethnographic analysis. Hence, it considers every episode of the first eight seasons, systematically recording each “instance” of law, organizing these into themes, and analyzing them with an eye toward understanding the values and operation of law.
Though politicians and media often present a pessimistic view of the legal system, where litigation is out of control and law impedes common sense justice, The Simpsons depicts a system that is just and beneficial to society. The Simpsons may satirize situations prompting legal action, it upholds the value of law in maintaining a civil society and being a tool that citizens use to right wrongs and make them whole.

This is not legal plumbing, this teaching in such a way as to encourge legal criticism and independent thought. No matter what the conclusions of the article, its very existance shows that law schools are capable of producing more than competent hantverkare who can be called to fix leaks.

The importance of failure

Via Boing Boing I came across J.K. Rowling’s Commencement Address at the Annual Meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association. Her address was entitled The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination (online with video here).

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

We focus much too often on success, believing that it will teach us something we study success. Unfortunately we are too quick to ignore failure, despite the fact that failure would probably teach us more. Even on a personal level failure teaches us more than success. We learn more from unpleasantness.

Photo: band – failure is not an option by Leo Reynolds (CC by-nc-sa)