History Part I: Early Life, Activism, Formation of a New Kind of School

History Part I: Early Life, Activism, Formation of a New Kind of School

November 15, 2013–

kurt hahnThe inspiration behind Outward Bound as an educational movement came from the German-born educator, Kurt Hahn. Born in 1886 in Germany, Hahn was raised in the Jewish tradition and attended a traditional German school until graduation in 1904. During this same year, Hahn suffered severe sunstroke while rowing bareheaded on a hot day, an event that proved to be a formative experience in his life. The ensuing disabilities relative to heat and light (which remained with him throughout his life) forced him to spend a year in a darkened room to ease his suffering. To make his confinement in darkness productive, he devised regimens of physical activity (including practicing the standing high jump, in which he later broke records) and disciplined thought (developing the idea of a new kind of school, which we would come to call “experiential education”). It was during this period of time that Hahn worked out the life principle that would become his trademark: “Your disability is your opportunity.”

Hahn later went on to study at several German universities and at Christchurch in Oxford, England. However, at the onset of World War I, Hahn returned to Germany where he accepted a position with the German Foreign Office. Through his advocacy for negotiated peace in Western Europe, he won the respect and attention of persons in high places. Hahn was made advisor to several Colonels, and by the end of the war, Hahn was working as a personal secretary for Prince Max von Baden, the last of Germany’s Imperial Chancellors.

Through his life experiences Hahn had developed strong educational concepts, believing that education should be more about producing good people than about academic accomplishment. In Prince von Baden, Hahn found a strong supporter of these concepts. When Prince von Baden moved to Zurich to retire in his family castle, he invited Hahn to open a school there. In the shadow of the German Alps, Hahn and Prince von Baden opened the Salem School, which still operates today. Students at the Salem School were challenged in four areas: physical fitness, craftsmanship, cooperation and endurance through an expedition on land or water. Hahn and Prince von Baden “sought to nurture within their students convictions rooted in personal responsibility, kindness, and justice” (Miner and Boldt, 2002).

photo by Steve Bing, 1969 Alum