The term Bildung (German for "education" and "formation") 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, as evidenced with the literary tradition of bildungsroman.
In this sense, the process of harmonization of mind, heart, selfhood and identity is achieved through personal transformation, which presents a challenge to the individual’s accepted beliefs. In Hegel’s writings, the challenge of personal growth often involves an agonizing alienation from one’s “natural consciousness” that leads to a reunification and development of the self. Similarly, although social unity requires well-formed institutions, it also requires a diversity of individuals with the freedom (in the positive sense of the term) to develop a wide-variety of talents and abilities and this requires personal agency. However, rather than an end state, both individual and social unification is a process that is driven by unrelenting negations.
In this sense, education involves the shaping of the human being with regard to his/her own humanity as well as his/her innate intellectual skills. So, the term refers a process of becoming that can be related to a process of becoming within Existentialism.
The term Bildung also corresponds to the ideal of education in the work of Wilhelm von Humbolt's sense. Thus, in this context, the concept of education becomes a lifelong process of human development, rather than mere training in gaining certain external knowledge or skills. Such training in skills is known by the German words Erziehung, and Ausbildung. Bildung in contrast is seen as a process wherein an individual's spiritual and cultural sensibilities as well as life, personal and social skills are in process of continual expansion and growth. Bildung is seen as a way to become more free due to higher self reflection.
Most explicitly in Hegel’s writings, the Bildung tradition rejects the pre-Kantian metaphysics of being for a post-Kantian metaphysics of experience that rejects universal narratives.
In this way, fulfillment is achieved through practical activity that promotes the development of one’s own individual talents and abilities which in turn lead to the development of one’s society. In this way, Bildung does not simply accept the socio-political status quo, but rather it includes the ability to engage in a critique of one’s society, and to ultimately challenge the society to actualize its own highest ideals.
Bruford, W.H. (1975). The German Tradition of Self-Cultivation: Bildung from Humboldt to Thomas Mann, London: Cambridge University Press.
Essay about Bildung by Tony Waters at Ethnograpy.com