History Part II: Salem School and Gordonstoun

History Part II: Salem School and Gordonstoun

December 15, 2013–

students - historyHahn’s innovations at Salem took place not in the classroom, but in the establishment of principles and practices that fostered character development and preparation for life. Hahn’s progressive educational ideas were controversial, even threatening, to traditionalists and the rising Nazi powers. He survived an assassination attempt in 1923. In 1932, a group of Hitler’s storm troopers kicked a young activist to death, drawing praise from Hitler. Hahn spoke out against this incident publicly and urged his Salem School alumni to choose between Salem (which means “peace”) and Hitler. A man who knew Hahn at the time called it “the bravest deed I have ever witnessed.” Once Hitler became chief of state in 1933, Hahn was arrested and imprisoned. Fortunately, Hahn still had powerful friends in England, including the Prime Minister, who arranged for his release and emigration to England in 1933. Within the year he founded Gordonstoun, a progressive school along the lines of Salem.

As at the Salem School, the Gordonstoun School strove to provide an education where “action and thought are not divided into two hostile camps; steps would be taken to build the imagination of the student of decision and the will power of the dreamer so that wise men of action will have the vision to see the consequences of their decision; and that no boy should be compelled in to opinion; but it is criminal negligence not to impel them into experience.” In addition to traditional school subjects, students were assessed in areas such as: “ability to follow out what he believes to be the right course of action”, imagination, ability to deal with the unexpected, manners, ability to plan and organize, conscientiousness in everyday affairs and physical fitness. Hahn tried to create situations that would balance students’ strengths and weaknesses. He said he wanted to turn introverts inside out and extroverts outside in. He wanted the financially poor students to help the rich break their “enervating sense of privilege” and the rich to help the poor build a true “aristocracy of talent.”

Also at Gordonstoun, Hahn introduced seamanship and rescue to the curriculum, using adventure and the presence of risk as a training vehicle through which youth would mature. It was vital to Hahn for adventure to be tied together with the concept of service to the community. Through unselfish action and dramatic rescue, youth would also learn compassion, an element Hahn thought missing in post-war Britain. Gordonstoun quickly became one of Britain’s most distinguished progressive schools and served as a model for similar schools in other countries.

photo by Steve Bing, 1969 Alum