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Kurt Hahn and activities

The pedagogy of Kurt Hahn, famous founder and headmaster of Gordonstoun School, was first put to effect at Salem School in Southern Germany, in 1919. The school began with four boarders and grew to 420 by 1933. Hahn went on to found the popular Outward Bound movement which still embodies much of his early thinking. In this extract from Robert Skidelsky’s book* we hear something of his philosophy on activities a century ago.

Hahn followed Plato in defining virtue in the individual as a harmony or balance between the various faculties of the psyche, more simply expressed in public-school jargon as the ideal of the ‘all-rounder’. ‘What do you do with the extrovert?’ Hahn was asked. ‘I turn him outside in,’ was the reply.

‘And with the introvert?’ ‘I turn him inside out.’ ‘Bookworms’ should be encouraged into practical activities; practical children introduced to the joys of the intellect (though this side was less prominent). ‘Success in the sphere of one’s weakness,’ Hahn observed, ‘is often as great a source of satisfaction as triumph in the sphere of one’s talents.’ Here was one way in which the ‘gap’ between thought and action could be eliminated. For the extrovert too Hahn provided ‘periods of aloneness’ to enable the child ‘to glean the harvest from his manifold experiences’. Thus Colour-Bearers were required to walk by themselves for two hours every Sunday ‘to engender a protective habit against the exhausting and distracting civilization of today’.

Unfortunately both bookworms and athletes suffered from a lack of physical fitness, resulting from the ‘easy means of locomotion’ and sedentary habits. Physical fitness ranked very high in Hahn’s order of priorities, not only because a healthy body denoted a healthy mind, but also because physical exercises provided opportunities for ‘overcoming’, for ‘defeating defeatism’. In this model of challenge and response, the hurdle in athletics equalled the hurdle in life: its conquest strengthened the will by giving the boy confidence and by providing him with an experience of success. ‘We have cured a stammerer by the high jump,’ Hahn declared in 1934. Public school games which attracted only the ‘gifted athlete’ were therefore dethroned and limited to two afternoons a week; and in their stead each boy was made to run round the garden before breakfast; the school mornings were interrupted by a forty-minute break for sprinting, jumping and throwing. Expeditions, too, were encouraged to build up physical endurance: in 1925 eighteen boys went to Finland, bought their own boat, hunted and fished for their food, and no doubt returned with a ‘gleam’ in their eye. But boys’ experiences, Hahn argued, should not be exclusively triumphant, for that puffed up pride. They should also be confronted with defeat in order to encourage humility and a proper sense of the limitation of human powers.

The enervating sense of privilege was to be attacked in two ways.

First, Hahn advocated that 30 per cent of the pupils at Salem should come from poorer homes, ‘bringing with them a definitely critical attitude’ to counter self-deception and complacency. He was a great believer in the stimulating effects of ‘creative tension’, and an attractive characteristic was his tendency to appoint staff whose views differed violently, if not too violently, from his own, in a praiseworthy, if largely unsuccessful, attempt to provide opposition to his own dominating personality. (Here he differed from Cecil Reddie, who could brook no opposition.) Erich Meissner, to whom we shall refer later, is perhaps the best example of a permanent member of Hahn’s entourage who fulfilled this function; the fact that Hahn failed more often than he succeeded is illustrated by the comment of an early visitor to Gordonstoun who noted that Hahn’s staff ‘worshipped him, followed him around obsequiously, and delighted to fill one up with tales of the Great Man’s sayings and doings’.

The second way in which Hahn tried to break down privilege was by plunging his boys into the activities of the neighbourhood. Goethe saw the staff of his Pedagogic Province as no less than the ‘population’ of the surrounding countryside, and similarly Hahn attempted to make the local artisans a part of school life. ‘We sent our boys,’ he recalled, ‘to their workshops in the villages: to the bookbinder, the builder, the joiner, the locksmith, the smith and the woodcarver. These artisans proved often real educators; they showed a greater horror of half-finished work than the schoolmaster.’ Reciprocally, he and Prince Max saw the school as the centre of ‘healing’ forces in the neighbourhood. Here Hahn was greatly influenced by the ideals of the Cistercian monks who lived at Salem up to 1804. They believed in serving the community, not just spiritually, but by offering active help wherever it was needed. The Cistercians, Max told Hahn, ‘were the road-builders, the farmers, the foresters, the doctors, the consolers and the teachers of this district.’

In Salem, then, we have the development of the ‘ideal of service’ which was later to become the greatest of Hahn’s grandes passions.

*This feature: Excerpt from Skidelsky, R. (1969). English Progressive Schools. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, pp.193-195