Tuesday, December 6, 2011

There is more in you than you think: Kurt Hahn's legacy

While living in California, I went with a good friend to Yosemite Valley to run up to the top of Half Dome. It was a quick trip - stop at the grocery store for some cheese and bread, throw a sleeping bag and tent into the trunk, hit Starbucks and then go. When we reached the park late that Sunday evening, it was raining and dark. Realizing that we would be starting our 18 mile round trip journey very early in the morning, we decided to leave the tent in the trunk and simply sleep in the car. When we woke up in the morning, the rain had stopped, so we set a brisk pace out of the parking lot near. We made great time off the valley floor, leaving most of the mass of hikers behind. About half way up the trail, I was surprised to see a family of five a few switchbacks up the trail. I reminded myself to look up and say hello as we passed them by and to move with care as we tried to get around them. They were moving quick I thought but I also wondered why the three kids weren’t in school? It was a Wednesday after all, and I just happened to have off for a Jewish holiday.

Actually, they were from another hemisphere and they had taken much more time off than simply Yom Kippur. When Steve and I finally caught them, we found out they were on a month-long break from traditional school in Australia to tour the national parks of the West. The family came from SydneyAustralia to America not simply for a holiday, but also for a grand lesson in experiential education. And their school back Down Under wholeheartedly endorsed the voyage. It wasn't because the kids needed a unique way to learn. In fact, two of the three children had received prestigious scholarships to attend private schools, and were academically high achievers as well as accomplished musicians and athletes. The support came simply from the belief that education should not start or stop at the classroom door.

Believe it or not, the idea of formal learning out of the classroom started in open air sanatoriums that sprung up in Europe in the latter part of the 19th century. During that time, fresh air and sunshine as much as medicine were used to treat tuberculosis. The idea extended to Britain during the first half of the 20th century, with the focus on improving the health of children who were seen as sickly and susceptible to TB. The schools had no walls and purposefully harsh but healthy environmental conditions. By the 1940s, there were 155 open-air schools in Britain and their goal was to improve both health and academics.

These open-air schools shared much with the philosophy of a set of schools now thriving in the U.S. known as Outward Bound Schools. Outward Bound programs are based on a development-by-challenge philosophy, put in place by the school's founder Kurt Hahn, an eccentric and innovative turn of the century educator who believed in the need for real, hands-on, practical challenges for the development of character in adolescent boys. Hahn emphasized that Outward Bound was about training the mind through the body, and he attempted to provide youth with challenging experiences in an educational environment designed to help kids develop inner strength, character and resolve. Hahn also was responsible for being a leader in the creation of the International Baccalaureate, an intense, global academic diploma program now recognized around the world.

I studied Hahn intensely while in grad school and find a lot of merit in his ideals. A quick look around the educational landscape demonstrates that I'm not the only one. For example, there is an interesting movement called Round Square. It is a worldwide association of more than 50 member schools on five continents which share a commitment, beyond academic excellence, to personal development, taking responsibility and serving others. Round Square's website sums up their membership foundation in six pillars known as I.D.E.A.L.S:  International Understanding; Democracy; Environment; Adventure; Leadership; and Service. With these schools, there is a continuous process of self-evaluation which goes on after a school becomes a full member. So who are these schools? Most of the institutions are on other continents. However, the member schools in the United States are better known for their academic excellence than their commitment to adventure and global outreach.

As educators, we need to ask ourselves "are we forward thinkers like Hahn? What do we do to add the important pieces of service, understanding, adventure and challenge?" 

Schools have a greater purpose beyond preparing young people for college. We should allow kids to face life head on and experience it in ways that would demand courage, generosity, imagination and resolution. Kurt Hahn felt this way too. He wrote that these principles help young people become empowered to develop their innate abilities "to be the leaders and guardians of tomorrow's world." For today's students to one day lead in the world, they must first go out and experience it to realize as Hahn did that "there is more in you than you think."

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