Kurt Hahn: what can we learn from him today?
Back to our blog

Kurt Hahn: what can we learn from him today?

Nick Rhys, senior instructor at Outward Bound

Kurt Hahn was an educationalist who co-founded Outward Bound during World War II. I'd not seen this quote until recently, when I asked a colleague if he’d made up the word ‘spectatoritis’...

Kurt Hahn wrote:
'There can be no doubt that the young of today have to be protected against certain poisonous effects inherent in present-day civilization. Five social diseases surround them, even in early childhood. There is the decline in fitness due to modern methods of locomotion; the decline in initiative due to the widespread disease of spectatoritis; the decline in care and skill due to the weakened tradition of craftsmanship; the decline in self-discipline due to the ever-present availability of tranquilizers and stimulants, and the decline in compassion.'

When we commemorated the 75th anniversary of VE Day last month, lots of comparison was made between life now and how it was when Hahn set up Outward Bound. Hahn's description of ‘social diseases’ sounds old fashioned, but we had a lively discussion about their relevance today, if young people still face these challenges and how we can help them to defy their limitations.

Decline in fitness

Would you believe me if I told you it’s not unusual at Outward Bound for young people to panic that they’re having a heart attack when their breathing speeds up? We have to tell them it’s because they’re exercising!

A decline in fitness today isn’t just the fault of ‘modern methods of locomotion’. Increased screen time and less green time are both obvious reasons. And for some, (as it was for many of our instructors), finding an activity they want to do is another.

Young people who like mainstream sports are pretty well catered for. But (whilst it is slowly changing) there’s not much other choice. If team sports don’t connect it can lead to a feeling that sport and fitness isn’t for them. At Outward Bound, young people try activities from climbing and mountaineering to kayaking and wild swimming. Crucially these aren’t based on winning or losing, but are helping young people learn about themselves in a fun way. Trying new activities opens the eyes of many young people who don't like competitive team sports, or who didn’t realise this type of fitness was available to them.

Decline in initative

It feels like Hahn knew the world of 24/7 media was coming when he wrote about the ‘widespread disease of spectatoritis’. We’re all so connected it’s easy to feel involved whist watching from behind our screens, informed yet detached from everything going on around us.

If this is something we can all find ourselves guilty of, we definitely want to help young people avoid 'spectatoritis'. Our experiential approach means they must use their imagination (and effort) to complete a task at Outward Bound. It might be climbing a waterfall or packing a rucksack, but there’s always a lightbulb moment when they realise the nearest adult or expert is not going to tell them how to do it. That they might fail. And we'll let them (safely!). They use what they learnt the next time, and will likely succeed. By exploring how it feels to take the initiative and make their own decisions they can apply that proactively back at home, school and work.

Weakened tradition of craftmanship

Hahn talked about ‘the decline in care and skill due to the weakened tradition of craftsmanship’. In today's context the Education Endowment Foundation are already reporting that school closures are likely to reverse progress made to narrow the attainment gap in the last decade. And just this week Boris Johnson promised a 'guaranteed' apprenticeship for young people whose job prospects have been damaged by COVID-19 as he acknowledged the UK is heading for recession.

The responsibility for helping young people to discover their potential does not rest solely with schools or employers. Charities like ours will be critical to provide that broad educational support to help them realise just what they're capable of.

Here's an example... lots of academically able students struggle with tasks like tying a knot or adjusting a rucksack at Outward Bound. During their course they’re supported to achieve physical tasks they didn’t think possible. This builds a sense of self-belief and they’re often surprised by how much they’ve enjoyed it. Conversely, participants who excel at ‘craftsmanship’ often feel their skills are undervalued in a school setting. Being applauded for such skills boosts their self-esteem, and leads to valuable discussions about how teams, workplaces and society need a mixture of all skills, not just what is measured in an exam. One of the most rewarding things I see is when students who struggle in school re-engage and look for alternative careers because they realise there are many forms of learning they're great at. In a post lockdown world this is going to be more important than ever.

Decline in self-discipline

Hands up, this applies to most of us. Consumerism and technology have come together to make immediate self-gratification a continuous expectation.

We try to challenge this way of thinking through our activities. Climbing a mountain, paddling across a loch or scrambling up a mountain waterfall can only be completed with prolonged effort. We talk to young people about ‘type one, two and three fun’. Type one fun is great at the time but quickly forgotten (watching YouTube, laughing with friends etc). It’s really important, but you don’t need to be at Outward Bound to achieve it! Type three fun is certainly not fun at the time. Forcing someone to go far beyond their limits means people stop learning, they’re just glad to have survived and want to forget about the experience as soon as possible! Type two fun is what we’re aiming for at Outward Bound. It might not be fun at the time (eg walking in the rain up a massive mountain to set up camp), but succeeding leads to a sense of pride, self-esteem and memories which last a lifetime. Powerful, positive feelings come when you recognise and value self-discipline and deferred gratification.

Decline in compassion

For Hahn, compassion was the most important of his Five Pillars. And in recent weeks, as a nation we have approached the response to COVID-19 (on the whole) with compassion. But will this last and how will we approach the next political, economic or social challenge?

We’re not saying Outward Bound can fix this! But just like the sense of community has grown for many during COVID-19, the residential aspect of our programmes mean young people live, eat, socialise and adventure together. Seeing the impact of their actions makes people less quick to judge and more willing to take responsibility for what they do and say. Empathy often leads to compassion and I’ve found that our huge variety of challenges means that there is at least one thing that every person will find tough or scary. As an instructor it’s great to see the person who loves water and led the canoe session, being supported on the mountain scramble because they’re afraid of heights. And it's really interesting when someone who struggled with leading the group starts to empathise with what it’s like to be a teacher or manager! This can have profound consequences for future behaviour. It’s much easier to ‘place yourself in someone else’s shoes’ if you’ve recently experienced those same emotions.

Our conclusion

Kurt Hahn had no doubt when he set up Outward Bound in 1941 that young people needed to be protected against these five social diseases. But he didn't want to protect them by keeping them away from risk. He used his teaching and approach to educate young people and crucially give them the awareness and skills so that they could protect themselves.

If Hahn was alive today I'm sure he'd be passionately advocating the continued need for Outward Bound. In the post lockdown world our young people will need resilience, initiative, determination and compassion more than ever. This quote has not only made me think about how Outward Bound can help more young people in the future, but also how I can apply it to myself.

Support our charity

There’s no doubt, as a charity COVID-19 will have a significant impact on Outward Bound. Many of you have asked how to help, and on this occasion it’s to make a donation to support young people attend Outward Bound in the future.

Donate now

More from Kurt Hahn

Our work is based on the philosophy of one of our founders, Kurt Hahn. As an educationalist, he created Outward Bound during the chaos of the Second World War in 1941. We think his 'Five Pillars' are as relevant today as they were back then.

Read more about the Five Pillars