Monday, November 15, 2021

Hegel Bildung and educating for the state

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831), a German philosopher, spent three years as a private tutor, seven years as Headmaster of the Gymnasium at Nuremberg, six years as an unpaid lecturer and was a professor where he taught for many years  at the University of Berlin and Heidelberg. Although he had a speech impediment when lecturing, he was liked as a teacher by his students. Hegel never wrote a specific text on education but saw it as an important feature of his personal and political philosophy.


The state must supervise and determine the education of a child. This role supersedes the various choices and preferences of parents. It is society that must be the prime agent. Schools, unlike family contexts, must mould the learner into civil society, through restraining behaviour to act as a bridge between family and society.

Education as play he sees as childish as it lowers the sights of education. Even children see it as childish. One must get the learner to strive towards maturity. If not, the result is a form of contempt for one’s elders, a vanity and conceit that makes the child feel falsely superior. The child must eventually learn to break his toys.

Discipline, in particular, matters, as it limits the impulsiveness of the young. The child should not be disciplined by appeal to their reason, as that leaves it to their whim. The child has no intrinsic sense of good and evil, only their own impulses. To appeal to these impulses would be wrong as they will use this to avoid obedient behaviour.

Obedience actually frees the learner to move towards the education of their own minds. He has no time for teaching that bends to the will or individuality of the individual learner, on the basis that, firstly, teachers don’t have the time to do this and secondly that schools must apply universal rules and constraints, not for the development of the individual or spurious originality but the development of the learners themselves in society.


He is against the idea of avoiding instruction, as if there is such a thing as critical, philosophical thinking, separate from knowledge of what already exists. One learns to think through understanding what others have thought. Science is a body of hard-won knowledge, that took time and effort to realise. It needs to be learnt and learning is a form of re-thinking this body of knowledge. The idea that the free thinking learner must come up with fully formed knowledge and skills is a foolish idea, as others have done this for that learner. A myth in learning is to think that one must start with the experiences of circles and work towards the general principles of circles. The reverse, he thinks, is preferable, to move from the known and drawn circle and its properties, to the particular instances of circles. Indeed Hegel is particularly critical of the young as being opinion, illusion, half-truth, distortion, and indeterminateness. 


The inward looking child must be educated to realise that those dispositions need to be turned outwards towards society. The external authorities of a social order then become internalised.

The learner should not be seen as a solipsistic entity ‘thinking for themselves’ but rather as thinking in tune with others. Thinking or oneself is fine but with a goal in mind, not for the sake of just being an individual. The constant encouragement of argument and disputation leads to impertinence. The goal should be the formative development (Bildung) towards the universality of self-consciousness. The learning process (Bildung) is dynamic in that what is learnt is particular to the culture of the moment, which pushes previous cultural norms to the past. The learner must strive after education and be given role models and examples to strive towards. This changes over time.

Citizen and state

He unequivocally rejects Rousseau, seeing the methods in Emile as ‘futile’. The child must be encouraged to do the opposite and become a citizen of the state and its laws. True individuality, for Hegel, is to become the good citizen of the good state.


Karl Popper rejected Hegel’s historicism and adulation of the state, blaming his philosophy for the totalitarian ills of the 20th century. He saw Hegel as an intellectual apologist for the absolute rule of Frederick William III. In addition he criticised hegel as the intellectual catalyst for both fascism and communism, his dialectics being used for purposes of genocide. Bertrant Russell was even more scathing, describing almost all of Hegel’s doctrines to be false.

Although Hegel may not have been responsible for the dialectical theory taken up by Marxism, it was responsible for the mudrer of millions in the former Soviet Union, China and Cambodia, including the decimation of the teacher and academic class.


One can see the influence on Dewey and others who see education as the inculcation of larger beliefs of the state. Isaiah Berlin, on the other hand, saw Hegel as an architect of authoritarianism, in opposition to liberal democracy. The state has certainly played an increasing role in education from this time. There is also the tradition of discipline, moving the child out of the realm of parental influence and play into the more serious development that is Bildung. Whatever the talk of Rousseau and the need for progressive education, it is this vision of education that has endured.


Hegel, G.W.F., 2007. Phenomenology of spirit (pp. 28-38). Duke University Press.

Hegel, G.W.F., 1991. Hegel: Elements of the philosophy of right. Cambridge University Press.

Butler, C., Seiler, C. and Hegel, C.B.G., 1984. Hegel: The Letters. 

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