Kurt Matthias Robert Martin Hahn (5 June 1886, Berlin – 14 December 1974, Salem) was a German educator whose philosophies are considered internationally influential. He founded the United World Colleges, an alliance of international schools.
Born in Berlin to Jewish parents, Hahn studied in Oxford, Berlin, Heidelberg, Freiburg and Göttingen. During World War I, Hahn worked in the German Department for Foreign Affairs, analyzing English newspapers and advising the Foreign Office. He had been private secretary to Prince Max von Baden, the last Imperial Chancellor of Germany. From 1920 to 1933 Hahn was the first headmaster of Schule Schloss Salem, a private boarding school in Germany, founded by Hahn in cooperation with Prince Max. Hahn was raised as a Jew and served as the Salem School's headmaster during Hitler's rise to power. Hahn began his fierce criticism of the Nazi regime after a young communist was killed in the presence of his mother by Hitler's storm troopers. When he spoke out against the storm troopers, who had received no punishment, Hahn spoke against Hitler publicly. He asked the students, faculty, and alumni of the Salem school to choose between Salem and Hitler. As a result he was imprisoned for five days (from 11 to 16 March 1933). After an appeal by British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, Hahn was released and in July 1933 he was forced to leave Germany and moved to Britain.
Hahn settled in Scotland, where he founded Gordonstoun on similar principles to the school in Salem. Later, Hahn converted to Christianity and became a communicant member of the Church of England in 1945 and preached in the Church of Scotland. He also started an international organisation of schools, now called Round Square. Hahn was also involved in the foundation of the Outward Bound Organisation, Atlantic College in Wales and the wider United World College movement, and the Duke of Edinburgh Award.
Return to Germany
Hahn divided his time between Britain and Germany after the war. He founded several new boarding schools based on the principles of Salem and Gordonstoun: Anavryta, Greece (1949); Louisenlund, Germany (1949); Battisborough, England (1955); Rannoch School, Scotland (1959); Box Hill, England (1959); The Athenian School, USA (1965). He resigned from the headship of Gordonstoun on health grounds and returned to Hermannsberg near Salem in 1953. He died in Ravensburg on 14 December 1974 and was buried in Salem.
Hahn's educational philosophy was based on respect for adolescents, whom he believed to possess an innate decency and moral sense, but who were, he believed, corrupted by society as they aged. He believed that education could prevent this corruption, if students were given opportunities for personal leadership and to see the results of their own actions. This is one reason for the focus on outdoor adventure in his philosophy. Hahn relied here on Dr. Bernhard Zimmermann, the former Director of the Göttingen University Physical Education Department, who had had to leave Germany in 1938 as he did not want to divorce his Jewish wife. Hahn's educational thinking was crystallized by World War I, which he viewed as proof of the corruption of society and a promise of later doom if people (Europeans particularly) could not be taught differently. At the Schule Schloss Salem, in addition to acting as headmaster, he taught history, politics, ancient Greek, Shakespeare and Schiller. He was deeply influenced by Plato's thought. Gordonstoun is based less on Eton than on Salem. Hahn's prefects are called Colour Bearers, and traditionally they are promoted according to Hahn's values: concern and compassion for others, the willingness to accept responsibility, and concern and tenacity in pursuit of the truth. Punishment of any kind is viewed as a last resort.
In 1934, through his lectures in London to the New Education Fellowship, Hahn met the educationalist T. C. Worsley and persuaded him to spend a summer term at the newly founded Gordonstoun in the capacity of consultant. In his memoir Flannelled Fool: A Slice of a Life in the Thirties, Worsley records his impressions of Hahn's penetrating character analysis, and his energy and commitment in the cause of human development, but as time went on he became critical of Hahn's "despotic, overpowering personality":
He revealed himself as having a fierce temper, a strong hand with the cane, and a temperament which hated being crossed. Especially damaging to my very English view, was his dislike of being defeated at any game. Hahn was an avid tennis player. But was it an easily forgiveable weakness that his opponents had to be chosen for being his inferiors or else, if their form was unknown, instructed not to let themselves win?
Hahn's behaviour came to seem to Worsley "so ineffably, so Germanically silly" that he was unable to share the clear adulation of the teaching staff:
We were going through the classrooms when, in one, he suddenly stopped, gripped my arm, raised his nostrils in the air, and then, in his marked German accent, he solemnly pronounced:
'Somevon has been talking dirt in this room. I can smell it.'
Hahn's views on Shakespeare led to an open disagreement:
He had what I have since learned to be a common German belief that Shakespeare was better in German than in English. I refused to allow this. I argued that the German translation might indeed be very good, but that the English original must be better. No, he assured me, the German was better; and as I didn't know German and he did know English, he must be right. We grew absurdly heated.
Six Declines of Modern Youth
- Decline of Fitness due to modern methods of locomotion [moving about];
- Decline of Initiative and Enterprise due to the widespread disease of spectatoritis;
- Decline of Memory and Imagination due to the confused restlessness of modern life;
- Decline of Skill and Care due to the weakened tradition of craftsmanship;
- Decline of Self-discipline due to the ever-present availability of stimulants and tranquilizers;
- Decline of Compassion due to the unseemly haste with which modern life is conducted or as William Temple called "spiritual death".
Hahn not only pointed out the decline of modern youth, he also came up with four antidotes to fix the problem.
- Fitness Training (e.g., to compete with one's self in physical fitness; in so doing, train the discipline and determination of the mind through the body)
- Expeditions (e.g., via sea or land, to engage in long, challenging endurance tasks)
- Projects (e.g., involving crafts and manual skills)
- Rescue Service (e.g., surf lifesaving, fire fighting, first aid)
Ten Expeditionary Learning Principles
These 10 principles, which seek to describe a caring, adventurous school culture and approach to learning, were drawn from the ideas of Kurt Hahn and other education leaders for use in Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound (ELOB) schools.
1. The primacy of self-discovery
- Learning happens best with emotion, challenge and the requisite support. People discover their abilities, values, passions, and responsibilities in situations that offer adventure and the unexpected. In Expeditionary Learning schools, students undertake tasks that require perseverance, fitness, craftsmanship, imagination, self-discipline, and significant achievement. A teacher’s primary task is to help students overcome their fears and discover they can do more than they think they can.
2. The having of wonderful ideas
- Teaching in Expeditionary Learning schools fosters curiosity about the world by creating learning situations that provide something important to think about, time to experiment, and time to make sense of what is observed.
3. The responsibility for learning
- Learning is both a personal process of discovery and a social activity. Everyone learns both individually and as part of a group. Every aspect of an Expeditionary Learning school encourages both children and adults to become increasingly responsible for directing their own personal and collective learning.
4. Empathy and caring
- Learning is fostered best in communities where students’ and teachers’ ideas are respected and where there is mutual trust. Learning groups are small in Expeditionary Learning schools, with a caring adult looking after the progress and acting as an advocate for each child. Older students mentor younger ones, and students feel physically and emotionally safe.
5. Success and failure
- All students need to be successful if they are to build the confidence and capacity to take risks and meet increasingly difficult challenges. But it is also important for students to learn from their failures, to persevere when things are hard, and to learn to turn disabilities into opportunities.
6. Collaboration and competition
- Individual development and group development are integrated so that the value of friendship, trust, and group action is clear. Students are encouraged to compete not against each other but with their own personal best and with rigorous standards of excellence.
7. Diversity and inclusion
- Both diversity and inclusion increase the richness of ideas, creative power, problem-solving ability, respect for others. In Expeditionary Learning schools, students investigate value their different histories talents as well as those of other communities cultures. Schools learning groups heterogeneous.
8. The natural world
- direct respectful relationship with the natural world refreshes the human spirit teaches the important ideas of recurring cycles and cause and effect. Students learn to become stewards of the earth and of future generations.
9. Solitude and reflection
- Students and teachers need time alone to explore their own thoughts, make their own connections, and create their own ideas. They also need time to exchange their reflections with others.
10. Service and compassion
- We are crew, not passengers. Students and teachers are strengthened by acts of consequential service to others, and one of an Expeditionary Learning school’s primary functions is to prepare students with the attitudes and skills to learn from and be of service to others.
The Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School
In the fall of 2007, the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School opened in Brooklyn, New York. The school's mission is to prepare informed, skilled, courageous civic leaders and is named after Kurt Hahn because he embodied these values.
- Brereton, H.L. (1950). Gordonstoun. Aberdeen: The University Press Aberdeen.
- Röhrs, Hermann (1970). Kurt Hahn. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 0-7100-6885-9.
- Arnold-Brown, Adam (1962). Unfolding Character: The Impact of Gordonstoun. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Knoll, Michael (2011). School reform through experiential therapy: Kurt Hahn - an efficious educator.
- Knoll, Michael, ed. (1998). Kurt Hahn: Reform mit Augenmaß. Ausgewählte Schriften eines Politikers und Pädagogen. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.
- Veevers, Nick; Pete, Allison (2011). Kurt Hahn: Inspirational, Visionary, Outdoor and Experiential Educator. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
- Wilhelm Henze, ed (1991): Bernhard Zimmermann - Hermann Nohl - Kurt Hahn. Ein Beitrag zur Reformpädagogik. 1991.
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