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  • Sandra Ericson

It is Time for American Bildung

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

The Scandinavians were once very poor, with high rates of child poverty and child labor. Most people lived under a 3-part feudal rule of royalty, merchants, and peasants. The fate of poor peasants was determined at birth and had been so for centuries. Then, writers and thinkers in Europe began the Reformation, planting new ideas of personal autonomy and self-determination. But it took until the mid-1800s for poverty reformers to make these ideas a reality for the poor. They started in Denmark by introducing ‘folk schools,’ teaching Nordic Bildung, adopting the German word for education. Its ideas empowered independence, better living conditions, and social mobility.

In 1862, Congress mirrored Nordic Bildung education and passed the Morrill Act for US farms and families. The legislation created land-grant colleges by trading federal land to teach agricultural science and Home Economics, recognizing that all living decisions have an economic impact. Sadly, in the 1980s, most school systems discontinued these programs.

Today, the discipline is called Human Ecology; it now includes climate adaptation and seems to be formally taught in only one high school, Syosset, in New York.

Just as the Bildung concept did and still does in Scandinavia, Human Ecology begins with teaching people about their human selves and their social interactions, paralleling Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. Students develop informed, realistic views of universally shared human needs and graduate knowing how to live independently, with the interpersonal skills to build societies, businesses, governments and sustain the environment. It is a proven discipline of life-sustaining education from kindergarten to community college. The universal premise is: National wellbeing is not possible without empowering all people with the knowledge, understanding, and control of their living conditions and social interactions. It is the fundamental basis for self-determination, personal wellbeing, and building human capital.

What is Human Ecology?

Human Ecology education begins with the concept that our physical bodies shape our minds and includes the daily decisions that determine the character and security of home life, health, home environments, finance, social interaction, and safety. It is tough to think long-term or big picture when you’re physically or psychologically in pain. It lowers threat levels by teaching finance, foods, medical care, housing, personal environments, child development, aging, climate adaptation, and social presentation. Each area is now more complex and directly affects personal dignity and self-respect. The content balances physical and social risks because “a hungry man is an angry man.” Result: Greater self-worth along with individual and community stability.

What Does it Mean for Each of Us?

As twenty-first-century challenges dent our confidence and increase cognitive loads, Human Ecology offers formulas for assigning priorities, thinking long-term, and evaluating options that boost confidence and become life habits. As personalities mature, students learn to handle more complexity. They can process risk-aversion and future orientation and are more conscientious and resilient within the larger society. There is a saying, “you can’t step in the same river twice,” meaning that people change continually, and so does the river. Therefore, everyone must learn to be resilient, adapt to change through the phases of life, and acquire the needed psychological strength. As we see schools dealing with student chaos and anger, it’s easy to forecast that, without resilience, childrens’ anger will drive the quality of their lives—and eventually everyone’s. We see it now in our civic life.

How does Human Ecology Benefit Others?

Human Ecology also teaches cultural competency by studying deportment, protocol, lifestyles, and traditions, developing self-awareness and cultural intelligence. This knowledge enables more global inclusiveness, diversity skills, and cultural and racial pliancy, in addition to understanding personal cultural biases and stereotypes. According to Child Care Aware of America, by age 9, children’s cultural attitudes are set and tend to stay constant unless there is a life-changing event. More complex interactions, like professionalism, are introduced as students mature. These skills are essential for international relations, workplace productivity, and family relations. They prevent misplaced anger or perceived disrespect, increasing trust and the confidence to participate in larger social contexts.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen some hard truths revealed about human loneliness, tribal behavior, and other conditions of stress and suffering. Human Ecology mitigates by teaching the interconnectedness of our social systems and our shared lives. It opens students to the benefits and practice of cooperation and counteracts destructive self-interest. A recent report advanced that opioid use imparts the feeling of being loved. But the question is, how to be loved or liked without trying all the wrong ways? It happens through positive life experiences, good role models, and educating the whole person, not only a future worker. If the first two are missing, as they more often are, education becomes even more critical for nurturing a personality that attracts others and returns kindness.

It is time for American education to develop a more humanistic vision and strategy. As each generation of Human Ecology students raises the next, the knowledge prevents social division, fear, and poverty before they happen, averting devastating social and financial costs. Human Ecology, mandated for K-14, is the pathway to national wellbeing, just as the concept of Bildung transformed the Scandinavian countries. It served us once, from the 1860s to the 1980s; we need it again now, as we face and fear a new generation of angry, scared young people. Human Ecology education instills care for themselves and others as they age into power. It is every nation’s first educational task and should be at the top of American political and school board agendas.


  • Line Andersen and Tomas Bjorkman, The Nordic Secret, 2017

  • College of Human Ecology, Cornell University,

  • Georgetown University, UNXD-050-02: Mastering the Hidden Curriculum, spring 2021.

  • Cody R. DeHaan, Tadashi Hirai, Richard M. Ryan, Nussbaum’s Capabilities and Self-Determination

  • Theory’s Basic Psychological Needs: Relating Some Fundamentals of Human Wellness, 2015.

  • Elinor Ostrom, A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems, Science magazine, July, 2005.

  • Samuel Bowles, The Moral Economy, Why Good Incentives are No Substitute for Good Citizens, 2016.

Originally posted on the Wellbeing Economy Alliance.

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