I have a picture of Kurt Hahn on my desk. It’s not a pretty image like the other pictures in my office; he’s an old man, rather gaunt. He’s not a famous man. He didn’t write books, he rarely bothered with speeches. He is my hero.
I am sure that he had flaws, and he never married which leads to debate about his personal life (that doesn’t interest me one bit.) All he did was have an idea, believe in it, and take it into the world and try it.
He is listed on Wikipedea as ‘an educator’. He was the founder of Gordonstoune school, the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, the Outward Bounds movement, and the inspiration for educational movements such as United World Colleges, Round Square and Expeditionary Learning schools.
He believed that young people, when challenged, find something in themselves to become better people. He said, You can say to young people, “you must volunteer.” That is the devil. And you can tell them, “you are needed” that hardly ever fails.
He believed, more than fifty years ago, “As affluence has increased, the young person’s environment has become impoverished for responsible and productive action, or any action that tests and develops him.”
He found a mad solution with a school where teenagers had to operate the town’s fire station!
I could tell you so much more about Kurt Hahn, but the bit that got me, was that he believed in experience as a teacher. Sitting in a classroom learning stuff is important; but I know that all the most important things in life I’ve learned by trying stuff that scares me.
I got a promotion, ‘I can’t manage people’ I thought, then I had to do it and I coped. I set up a writing group, ‘No one will come.’ They came, I dealt with it. ‘This will be a disaster.’ It was, I coped.’I should try again.’ I did, it was a good decision. ‘I can do this.’ I could, and it worked and I went on to bigger things.
I learned none of this at school. Could I lead and organise and create things at fifteen? I don’t know, no one ever tested me.
I could bore you with Kurt Hahn quotes all day. Here’s another one, ‘A schoolmaster made the remark, ‘I have no faith in this boy.’ He said, ‘Then you have no right to educate him.’
Schools are nothing like the schools Kurt Hahn wanted. And instead of just theorising or dreaming he tried things in the schools he created, and he achieved things with the lives he influenced.
I feel strongly that if someone had asked me aged fifteen, “What do you want to do?” I’d have said, “Write.” And just maybe they’d have helped me to set up a writing group… That would have been better in so many ways than anything I learned in geography.
And instead a few years ago I set up my writing group, and it was awful. I had no confidence to lead it at all, I messed up, I made a bad writing group. Somehow I got through that and I learned, and I now organise an amazing group that is fun, it works, and it’s so big it meets twice a month, and we’re publishing a book next May. Imagine if I’d learned I could do all this aged fifteen? Maybe now I’d have a worldwide writing group organisation, and we would have published dozens of writing group books!
This is, of course, a flippant point. But still. I learned that I could manage people, and organise things, and make stuff happen in my thirties and forties. Is this because I needed to be this old to learn to do all this stuff? Or did I have this ability, but school only taught me geography and never tested if I could create things, and manage people, and be responsible?
When people care they push themselves, and when people push themselves they learn.
So here I am, with a love for a long dead german educator. I’m pleased that his ideals are there in practise in schools in America. Expeditionary Schools sound like amazing places, it’s not only exams on the agenda, it’s self discovery, curiosity, responsibility, learning from failure, competition, reflection and service…I’ve thought of trying to set up a free school in this model in Canterbury. I may yet. I’m pleased the Duke of Edinburgh and Outward bounds stuff exists in this country, although I think challenge doesn’t need to only translate to the physical things…
So I have a hero, and I know the lesson he would teach is to keep on trying the difficult stuff. Experience and challenge is always the best teacher. I tell my kids there is a bravery muscle, it gets stronger if you use it. And my next step with the difficult stuff is deciding how to translate my enthusiasm for this long dead german educator into something that makes an impact in the world in some way.