Can we please stop talking about 'Bildung'—and for that matter, too, 'the Humboldtian university'?


  • Ronald Barnett University College London



Bildung, Humboldt, ideology, university, higher education


Two terms to be seen especially in the philosophy of higher education, but also more broadly, are those of Bildung and the ‘Humboldtian university’. They have taken on a sacred aura, and have become a form of bewitchment, generating a large intellectual industry. Their sacredness is secured much in the way the two terms have been positioned as markers of educational purity, in response to phenomena such as entrepreneurialism, instrumentalism, learning outcomes, and a separation of research and teaching—phenomena that in turn are positioned as profane. Resort to these two terms has appeared successively over the past one hundred years, in the wake of world wars, the emergence of mass higher education, strong state steering, and the intellectual movements of postmodernism and posthumanism. We may understand such intellectual ploys, in returning to ideas of northern Europe with a two-hundred-year history, as defensive gestures possessing a conservative function. The sacredness of Bildung and ‘the Humboldtian university’ constitutes an ideology that protects certain academic interests. In turn, this sacred aura forecloses on efforts to understand seriously the character of the twenty-first century and to create imaginative educational concepts that are adequate to the complexities that the present century presents. As an example of a more contemporary conceptualisation of higher education, an ecological imaginary is suggested.




How to Cite

Barnett, R. (2024). Can we please stop talking about ’Bildung’—and for that matter, too, ’the Humboldtian university’?. Journal of Praxis in Higher Education, 6(3), 45–66.



Special Issue: Critiquing the Sacred and the Profane in Higher Education