There’s a school of thought that says the best way to get good at a language is to concentrate on the words that can’t be translated. In so doing, you really get into the mindset of the speakers of that language – and so can speak like them, too.
So when learning German, you should definitely take some time to look at the word Bildung. Don’t worry: it’s not completely and utterly untranslatable like Fahrvergnügenserfassungsbogen (lit. “driving enjoyment questionnaire form”); no, Bildung can in fact frequently be translated with one word – education. This is especially the case in politically charged slogans such as “Bildung ist der Gesellschaft höchstes Gut”, or “Society’s most important asset is education”.
Nevertheless, something always gets lost when you try to translate Bildung, because it doesn’t just mean education in the sense of schools and universities, but also that higher kind of education that comes from doing new things and getting to know new people, from travelling, reading, just living. It’s headed towards what we might call in English “life experience” or even “wisdom”. Bildung is an ideal, a part of what it is that makes human society rich. You can, in German, quite quickly do an Ausbildung (i.e. a course of studies or training), or have a good Allgemeinbildung (general knowledge), but you can’t just get Bildung. It’s something that requires time, effort, and a lively mind to acquire.
Unless, of course, you are clever enough to write to your local member of parliament and ask him or her to let you on a Bildungreise, which can be offered by every directly-elected member of the Bundestag. They all have a budgetary allowance every year for bringing people from their constituencies to Berlin in order to show them the instruments of government. We’re not talking about small allowances here, either: after all, they’ve got to get their constituents to Berlin, put them up in hotels, feed them, and chauffeur them around for several days. But of course, it’s tax-payers’ money well spent, because Bildung ist das höchste Gut.
Nevertheless, I was sceptical when a Bavarian friend of mine managed to swing me a place on the “educational journey” she was on. How serious could they be about the whole concept if they we’re willing to let me – a British fellow from Hamburg – jump in last minute, also for free? I could see it all in my mind’s eye: a bunch of Bavarians in a bus laden with beer bouncing around Berlin – some Bildung!
Then again, I suppose that Bildung is partly a matter of “experience”, and this sounded like an experience not to be missed. So off I trundled to Berlin for three days, and found my worst fears instantly confirmed. There it was at the back of the station, the hired bus, filled to over 50% with pensioners – many with beer bellies – and headed straight to the hotel for the evening. The tour guide spent much of the journey time telling us about how to get back into town just in case we fancied “a quick drink”.
Which I did, because the hotel food was disgusting; the hotel itself was also directly under the flightpath of Berlin Tegel Airport. Looking around, I realised we were the only guests. “I’ll bet you love us ”, I joked to the receptionist. “Yes, if it weren’t for these Bildungsreisen, we’d probably have to close the place”, she replied, without a trace of irony. I did the math: 300 or so members of parliament with constituencies, three trips a year each with about 50 people – that’s almost 50,000 tourist guests a year for Berlin, and a godsend for hotels that are otherwise too cruddy to survive. You sucker, I thought to myself.
Things only got worse: the following morning, on our way to see the Kanzleramt, or Angela Merkel’s chancellery, a pensioner grabbed the microphone from the tour guide and started organising an evening trip to the cabaret. Meanwhile, I checked my travel documents: at each restaurant meal, the first drink was already paid for and could, it was expressly stated, be taken in the form of a beer. I hoped against hope that people hadn’t noticed that paragraph.
Then several of us weren’t allowed in to see Angie’s den, because we had only been added to the list at too short notice . So we had a rainy morning to kill in Berlin; I spent it smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. Some Bildung.
My faith in this idealistic term thus hanging by a thread, the tour continued; and one thing became clear. Despite the fact that these trips are clearly a hidden subsidy for Germany’s indebted capital city, despite the fact that many people go on them simply to get a free trip to Berlin, and despite the fact that I was required to spend a part of this time making myself a future burden to the German health authorities – despite all this, they really do take their Bildung seriously.
“How so?” say you. One word: guides. In every institution, in every museum, in every governmental building I was actually allowed into, we had only the very best. People who really knew their stuff and who talked at us, to us and/or with us until every question they could answer had been answered.
Furthermore, if the aim of a Bildungsreise is to get its participants to reflect about what Bildung means in Germany, then this certainly worked. I think I understand almost every facet of the word Bildung and can use it like a true German now.