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Kurt Hahn (1886–1974)

Progressive educator Kurt Hahn established a system of international schools and programs that even after his death are alive and expanding.

Hahn, a German of Jewish origin who subsequently became a Christian and naturalized English citizen, was born in Berlin as son of a wealthy industrialist. After graduation from the Royal Wilhelm gymnasium in Berlin (1904), he studied philosophy and the classics at Christ Church College, Oxford, and at the universities of Berlin, Heidelberg, Freiburg, and Göttingen with the firm intention of becoming an educator and school reformer in the tradition of Cecil Reddie and Hermann Lietz. In 1910, Hahn published a novel Frau Elses Verheissung (Mrs. Else's promise) in which he pondered his experiences as a schoolboy. Another book Gedanken über Erziehung (Ideas on education) drew heavily on Plato, Kant, and William James, but was never finished.

Unfit for military service, Hahn served during World War I as specialist for English affairs in the German foreign office and in the political office of the German High Command under General Ludendorff. He wrote commentaries, held lectures, attended international conferences to strive for the democratization of the German political system and for the termination of the unnecessary war at acceptable conditions for all. When Prince Max of Baden was appointed the first parliamentarian German prime minister, Hahn became his private secretary and closest political advisor. After the war, he initiated the "Heidelberger Vereinigung," an association of influential politicians, scientists, industrialists (among them Max Weber), to promote a "peace of justice and agreement." At the Peace Conference in Paris, Hahn served as secretary and ghost writer for the German minister of foreign affairs, Graf Brockdorff-Rantzau.

In 1919 Hahn moved to Salem castle near Lake Constance in order to realize his educational dream. Together with Prince Max, he founded a landerziehungsheim (boarding school), which soon became the largest and most prominent boarding school in Germany. Still politically active, Hahn supported the foundation of the German Institute of International Affairs (1923), wrote the main parts of the Memoirs of Prince Max of Baden (1927), and voiced his opposition to Hitler and the rising national socialism. When Hitler came to power, Hahn was imprisoned, but released through the intervention of influential British friends–among them Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald. Nevertheless Hahn was dismissed as principal of Salem, banned from the state of Baden, and forced to emigrate to the United Kingdom. In 1934 he founded a new public school called British Salem Schools at Gordonstoun, near Elgin in Scotland, which flourished as quickly as its sister school had done. As political refugee Hahn wrote articles, memoranda, and letters to oppose the appeasement policy of the British government, publicize the horrors of the concentration camps, and organize support for the resistance movement in Germany. During World War II he served as translator and advisor for the British foreign office.

Hahn believed that young people are exposed to six declines: (1) the decline in fitness due to modern methods of locomotion; (2) the decline in initiative and enterprise due to the widespread disease of "spectatoritis"; (3) the decline in memory and imagination due to the confused restlessness of Western civilization; (4) the decline in skill and care due to the weakened tradition of craftsmanship; (5) the decline in self-discipline due to the ever present availability of stimulants and tranquilizers; and (6) the decline in compassion due to the unseemly speed with which modern life is conducted. To counter these social diseases, Hahn conceived a preventive cure called Erlebnistherapie (experience therapy) which offered listless and lawless adolescence the opportunity to discover healthy passions, like the zest for exploration and the love for art and music, that would absorb the child completely. Hahn's experiential education program consisted of four elements:(1) physical fitness–exercising the body and keeping free from cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs; (2) expedition–exploring the world by sea and land under difficult conditions, alone or in groups; (3) project work–planning and executing an enterprise in research, art, or construction; and, most important, and (4) social service–helping the injured, sick, old, and handicapped in hospitals, homes, and rescue stations.

Hahn wanted his educational program to develop active citizenship, social responsibility, and international understanding, and he wanted his experience therapy to be available for every boy and girl, whatever their age, social background, and national origin. Thus he provided for scholarships, initiated courses for short-term and long-term education, and founded institutions which are operating on all five continents. The schools and schemes Hahn originated can be arranged into four categories: (1) boarding schools (since 1920, united in the Round Square Conference, about twenty worldwide by 2002); (2) Outward Bound Schools (since 1941, short-term schools of three to four weeks for students and young workers; about thirty by 2002, many of them in the United States); (3) International Award for Young People (since 1956, the most well known is the Duke of Edinburgh Award, about 100,000 boys and girls of 14 to 25 years of age participate in more than 100 countries each year experiencing the fourfold program in their spare time); (4) United World Colleges (since 1962, international two-year colleges in England, Canada, the United States, Italy, Germany, Venezuela, Swaziland, Singapore, Hong Kong).

Hahn received many honors for his political and educational activities. After his death several prizes were instituted to his memory: the Kurt Hahn Award of the American Association for Experiential Education (since 1983); the Kurt Hahn Scholarships of the University of Cambridge (since 1986); and the Outward Bound Award of the University of Lüneburg (since 1990).


HAHN, KURT. 1934. "A German Public School." The Listener January 17.

HAHN, KURT. 1934. "The Practical Child and the Bookworm." The Listener November 28.

HAHN, KURT. 1957. "Outward Bound." In Year Book of Education, ed. George Z. F. Bereday and Joseph A. Lauwerys. London: Evans Brothers.

HAHN, KURT. 1965. The Young and the Outcome of the War. London: Lindsay.

KNOLL, MICHAEL, ed. 1998. Kurt Hahn: Reform mit Augenmass. Ausgewählte Schriften eines Politikers und Pädagogen. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

Röhrs, HERMANN, and TUNSTALL-BEHRENS, HILARY, ed. 1970. Kurt Hahn: A Life Span in Education and Politics. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

SKIDELSKY, ROBERT. 1969. English Progressive Schools. Middlesex, Eng.: Penguin.

STEWART, W. A. C. 1968. The Educational Innovators. Progressive Schools, 1881–1967. London: Macmillan.


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