Kurt Hahn

A Pioneer In Adventure Education


"I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion."- Kurt Hahn

Kurt Hahn was born in Berlin in 1866. During his early years, he developed a passion for education. Hahn would often read adventure stories to young children or lead them on challenging hikes. He later attended several universities including Gottingen and Oxford.

During World War I, Hahn held several minor Foreign Office posts. Through these positions, Hahn became acquainted with Germany's last imperial chancellor, Prince Max of Baden. With a shared belief in Plato's educational ideas, the two men founded the Salem Schule ("Peace School") in 1920 (57). Hahn assumed the headmaster position and hoped to protect the German youth from a deteriorating society through training in personal responsibility, kindness, and justice (57). He sought to help young people "to effect what they have recognized to be right, despite hardships, despite dangers, despite inner skepticism, despite boredom, despite mockery from the world, despite emotion of the moment" (57).

In February 1933, Hahn spoke out against the Fascist state and it's educational ideals. He was imprisoned soon after and later exiled to England in July 1933. Living out his common saying, "Your disability is your opportunity," Hahn took advantage of his new location and opened a school for boys at Gordonstoun in April 1934 (58). However, during World War II the British Army commandeered Gordonstoun, forcing Hahn to move the school to Wales.

Around the same time, Hahn had been working on the "County Badge Scheme," a national plan to help British youth develop fitness, enterprise, tenacity, and compassion (59). The County Badge Scheme had little success in the wartime climate, but Hahn was soon able to implement similar ideas in a different program. When he learned that Gordonstoun father Lawrence Holt was concerned about the inadequate training seamen were receiving, Hahn proposed they found a new school that would implement the ideas of the County Badge Scheme to improve training. This school, called Outward Bound, opened in Aberdovey, Wales in 1941.

Students at Aberdovey attended one-month courses composed of small-boat training, athletics, map and compass navigation, rescue training, a sea expedition, a mountain expedition, and local service projects. Hahn believed this training was "less a training for the sea than through the sea, and so benefited all walks of life" (59). The idea of training through, rather than for became a key component of the Outward Bound philosophy.

While attending Outward Bound, students were often placed in challenging and uncomfortable situations. Hahn believed "it is culpable neglect not to guide and even plunge the young into experiences which are likely to present opportunities for self-discovery" (73). Students were encouraged to rise to these challenges and "defeat their defeatism," often giving them a new confidence that carried into their academic and personal lives (60). In addition to this belief in personal challenge, Hahn was also deeply committed to the Samaritan Ethic. Hahn believed that "he who drills and labors, accepts hardships, boredom, and dangers, all for the sake of helping his brother in peril and distress, discovers God's purpose in his inner life" (62). Accordingly, Hahn required students to join in service projects, such as mountain rescue.

As Outward Bound expanded beyond Britain, Hahn made frequent visits to schools in other locations. During the 1960's Hahn often traveled to the United States to learn about the development and progress of U.S. Outward Bound. On these visits, Hahn was also concerned about advancing the Atlantic College project, a pre-college program of students from many nations.

Concern about the worldwide youth rebellion and racial conflict brought Hahn to the United States for a final visit in 1968. He traveled the country, hoping to better understand student and racial tensions. By the end of his travels, Hahn still believed "the passion of rescue releases the highest dynamic of the human soul," and he began to develop a new institution to aid the problems he had witnessed in the States (64). Hahn wanted to create a "Service by Youth Commission" that would help young people focus on productive volunteer work instead of rebellion and violence (65).

Before Hahn could implement the Service by Youth Commission, he was hit by a car and never able to fully recover. He died on December 25, 1974 at the age of 88.

Throughout his life, Kurt Hahn worked to develop active citizens. He believed that all children are born with innate "spiritual powers" and morality, but that they lose these abilities during adolescence when they become involved in a "diseased society" (69). To solve this problem, Hahn identified six social declines (or diseases) and proposed educative solutions for each:

1.The Decline of Fitness

2.The Decline of Initiative and Enterprise

3.The Decline of Memory and Imagination

4.The Decline of Skill and Care

5.The Decline of Self-Discipline

6.The Decline of Compassion

Hahn's worked to counteract these six declines in all of his educational enterprises: Salem School, Gordonstoun School, the County Badge Scheme, Outward Bound, and the Atlantic Collages. The ideas he proposed and the institutions he established helped to develop a form of education that continues to enhance the lives of young people today.

Miles, J., Priest, S. (1990). Adventure Education. Venture Publishing, State College, PA.

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