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Kurt Hahn & The Pursuit of Peace Through Education

James Neill


"The experience of helping a fellow man in danger, or even of training in a realistic manner to be ready to give this help, tends to change the balance of power in a youth's inner life with the result that compassion can become the master motive."
- Dr. Kurt Hahn (...more Kurt Hahn quotes)

Kurt Hahn (1886-1974) is most famed in experiential education circles for being behind the creation of Outward Bound in 1941, itself a response to a war dilemma (low survival rate of British merchant seaman in the Battle of the Atlantic). (...more about Outward Bound)

Hahn, however, should also be better known as a passionate and dedicated campaigner, an educational activist for world peace. 

Amongst the major philosophical influences on Hahn was the parable of the Good Samaritan, which he often used in speeches and it guided the design of all his educational projects, particular the service learning components which he saw as the most important.  Squadron leader Lester Davies described a conversation with Kurt Hahn on his education philosophy (quoted in Stetson):

The Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the need to inculcate in every human being, particularly the young, an instinctive desire to "do unto others as one would done unto oneself," was the foundation on which Mr. Hahn's whole philosophy was based..

There were two key periods of Hahn's life which stand as testament to his dedicated passion and inspired action towards peace-creating education -- the 1930s and the 1960s.

1930's - Hahn Resists the Hitler Regimen, is Arrested, and then Exiled to England

As Hitler and the Nazi party rose to power in the 1930s, Hahn found himself increasingly philosophically opposed to the regimen, particular after five storm troopers trampled a young Communist to death with his mother looking on.  Hahn reacted when Hitler came out in support of the storm troopers by sending a letter to all Salem school alumni saying that

This is a crisis that goes beyond politics.  Germany is at stake, her Christian civilization, her good name, her soldiers' honor.  Salem cannot remain neutral.  I ask the members of the Salem Union who are active in S. A. or S. S. to break with Salem or break with Hitler.

"It was," said a Briton who was teaching at Salem at the time, "the bravest deed in cold blood that I have witnessed"." 

Hahn wrote and actively publicly campaigned against the the philosophy and actions of the Hitler regimen, "We need to be able to feel that as a people we are just and kindly.  On this consciousness depends our strength." (Stetson)

Hahn become a marked man.  In the mass arrests following the Reichstag fire in February, 1933, he was jailed.  The shock waves swiftly reached Britain where his friends...took up his cause.  When Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald made official representation, Hahn was released.  In July he left Germany for England. (Stetson)

1960's - Hahn Establishes the United World Colleges & Turns Attention to Race & Violence Issues

In 1962, at the age of 76, Hahn established Atlantic College in Wales, with the help of Sir Lawrence Darvall and many others. Atlantic College was the first of seven United World Colleges and was designed to bridge the international gap between secondary education and university level study by offering a universally recognized degree, the International Baccalaureate.  The students at these colleges come from a number of countries and the educational program stressed the the importance of outdoor activities and of service to the community."

Wrote Rear Admiral D. J. Hoare (quoted in Stetson):

It has always been Hahn's view that education was a means of reducing national barriers and fostering international cooperation.  When two men of action meet and find themselves of common mind, things happen...The United World College has a distinctively Hahnian component, referred to as its "humanitarian curriculum" -rescue and community serves to those in danger and need."

Stetson continues

...Throughout the history of the United World Colleges, notable world leaders have been instrumental in furthering Kurt Hahn's goal of promoting goodwill, understanding and world peace amongst youngsters of an impressionable age.  Today there are ten United World colleges, with students attending from 120 countries.

...Josh Miner, founder of Outward Bound in the United States, remarked that "no other human being, perhaps, responded as avidly did to William James' call to seek the 'moral equivalent of war'.  Hahn's 'moral equivalent of war' was to captivate the young through active Samaritan service, demanding of them care and skill, courage and endurance, discipline and initiative.

In Hahn's final visit to the US in 1968 (aged 82) he was deeply disturbed by the racial issues and violence.  Instead of going to visit any of his beloved Outward Bound schools,

he crisscrossed the continent from Harlem to Watts attempting to find knowledge and new leads to healing forces.  In the Watts section of Los Angeles, he listened eagerly for two and half hours as Ted Watkins, Chairman of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, talked about his work with ghetto youth.

His Royal Highness Prince Philip said of Hahn:

History will probably judge him on his ideas, but as a Headmaster, I believe it was his absolute certainty about right and wrong, his utter conviction on morality and behavior which made him a stabilizing influence in developing community. (Stetson)

Stetson concluded his portrait of Kurt Hahn thus:

Certainly, whatever the challenges of our times, Hahn would have us struggle on, combating them all with the strength and creativity we can muster.  His message is for us to live so that...we can one day say, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."

Note: This text draws heavily from Stetson, C. P. (n. d.) An essay on Kurt Hahn: Founder of Outward Bound (1941): 1886 - 1974. - downloadable pdf file from www.kurthahn.org