“Bildung means the ability to apply knowledge for good”

Long-term humanities research produces understanding of who we are and why we act as we do. Education founded on research-based knowledge is the backbone of society, says Professor Tuomas Heikkilä.

Being educated does not mean knowing how to use the appropriate cutlery, let alone the orthodox use of words of foreign derivation. According to Professor of Church History Tuomas Heikkilä at the University of Helsinki, education, or more precisely Bildung, is about getting along with others and the ability to use knowledge for good. 

“Bildung is part of universities and universities are part of Bildung. Knowledge rests always at the core of education; without knowledge, you won’t know how to act in the right way.” 

When Heikkilä himself began investigating the legendary antics of Lalli and Bishop Henry in 12th century Finland, he expected only to go through the details to be found in mediaeval sources. He ended up all the way in the 2020s, sounding out a book’s worth of the history on the Finnish identity. 

The more Heikkilä delved into Lalli and Henry, the clearer it became that the pair were linked to Finnishness throughout the ages. According to Heikkilä, this study is an example of the building blocks you can uncover by exploring the past. Historical research no longer assumes that the course of past events can be accurately traced. Rather, history is studied through themes considered important today. 

Everything is based on an interpretation of the past, be it daily politics or identity. Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the resistance in Ukraine, Finland’s EU policy – all are justified by history. 

“We cannot understand the present if we don’t know the past. The study of history is a way of looking into the future.” 

For historians, Finnish mediaeval history is a treasure trove 

The common denominators of Heikkilä’s research include literary culture and manuscripts in the Middle Ages, the multidisciplinary methods designed to study them, and saints. His research focuses specifically on Finland, as our country has plenty of unexplored mediaeval history. 

A little over a decade ago, Heikkilä and his research group discovered Finnish literature spanning five centuries. While studying mediaeval manuscripts, he found himself yearning for tools to assess the interrelations of hand-copied versions of individual texts.

“I suddenly noticed I was designing an algorithm with a professor of computer science to solve the problem. That algorithm remains in use around the world.”

Heikkilä’s broad-based approach stems from enthusiasm to discover new, previously unknown things. He believes that a positive interest in things is also one of the prerequisites of learning.

Long-term humanities research is in a bind globally 

According to Heikkilä, education is the backbone of society, as it maintains cohesion. The role of universities as educators is evident in both history and the present. 

A poor country, Finland was fortunate enough to be able to offer its people, even from its modest beginnings, access to learning and education. Today, the most important products of universities are learned people who, as holders of a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree, step into the service of society. 

“As a historian, I cannot emphasise enough how miraculous the heroic legend of education in Finland is. A hundred years ago, after breaking away from a tumultuous Russia and being torn apart by civil war, Finland succeeded in finding a common tune.” 

In spite of the traumas of the civil war and external threats, citizens chose democracy. Heikkilä points out that, even then, education was about getting along with others and taking their opinions into consideration. 

The significance of education is highlighted in solemn speeches, and politicians often purport to swear in the name of research-based knowledge. When the time for making decisions comes, short-term political interests easily override research, which operates on time scales longer than individual terms of office. 

Heikkilä is worried about the trend seen around the world, where budgets for research in the humanities are cut narrow-mindedly. After all, long-term basic research produces understanding of who we are and why we act as we do. 

“Humanities research is in a bind in, for example, Australia and Japan. There are too many signs of a mindset according to which the only effective research is the kind generating direct economic benefits.” 

Funding and freedom as prerequisites for promoting education 

Universities naturally need money to maintain the conditions necessary to produce research-based knowledge and promote education. Heikkilä finds it wonderful that decision-makers consider increasing the student intake of Finnish universities a solution to the country’s problems. However, the resources allocated to universities must grow in proportion. Heikkilä also points out that money alone is not enough. 

“We also need freedom. Universities cannot become state-regulated research institutions. Instead, most research must be autonomously directed.”

Heikkilä does not mean that all of society’s money should be invested in research in the humanities. There is a need for both research that advances understanding and research that provides applications and rapid benefits. A need for the search for and discovery of knowledge, for the promotion of education. 

“If there’s something we need more in this world it’s empathy. We already have all the scholarly knowledge needed to solve, for example, climate change and biodiversity loss, but problem-solving also requires consensus.” 


Science, research and education are the building blocks of our wellbeing. Investing in them is crucial for our future. Read more about how research and education affect society and get to know our vision for the next Finnish government term 2023–2027.