Kurt Hahn, John Muir: yin, yang

To mark #JohnMuirDay, 21st April 2016, we welcome Rob Bushby of the John Muir Trust as our guest blogger.

John MuirTwo pioneers: Education, conservation.

Kurt Hahn: “There is more to us than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.

John Muir: “Do something for wildness, and make the mountains glad.”

Looking at their key messages, there’s a certain Hahn yin to Muir’s yang, isn’t there? Complementary.  The inward- and the outward-looking, interconnected.

Hahn’s educational philosophy is rooted in outdoor experience, and realised today through Outward Bound, Gordonstoun school, and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

My first exposure to Hahn, as an impressionable young instructor at Outward Bound Australia in the 1980s, left a lasting imprint. He spoke of a ‘culpable neglect not to impel young people into experiences’, and a breadth of character traits essential to education: curiosity, spirit, tenacity, ‘sensible self-denial’, and - the element that set his approach apart from Hitler Youth in the 1930s - compassion.

Hahn’s solution in response to “poisonous effects inherent in present-day civilization” has resonated over 75 years. Five social diseases surrounded young people, he reckoned: a decline in fitness; a decline in initiative “due to the widespread disease of spectatoritis”; a decline in care and skill, or craftsmanship; a decline in self-discipline; and a decline in compassion. You can provide your own 21st century interpretation of these. Using the outdoors, adventure, and challenge to equip young people with valuable skills for education, work and life is still fundamental to the Outward Bound approach.

Hahn recognises that “there exists within everyone a grand passion, an outlandish thirst for adventure”, but it’s the person and the personal - “the dynamic of the human soul” - that’s at the heart of his philosophy.

Similarly, Muir’s conservation ethos was shaped by immersion in experience.  It continues to gain prominence in the UK through the work of the John Muir Trust and its John Muir Award, the John Muir Way, and National Parks.

A thirst for adventure was obvious at an early age. As a boy in Scotland, Muir would play games of dangerous dares with brother Davie - ‘scootchers’ – on the cliffs and rooftops. “Dunbar was my best teacher of all…I’d climb the castle like a mountain and spend hours exploring the rocky shore and fields. There, we were as free as the wild creatures.”

Kurt Hahn

Later in life he’d find fame in the USA as a writer, scientist and campaigner. And today, over 100 years since his death, Muir is hailed as the founding father of the modern conservation movement, the inspiration behind the establishment of national parks and other protected wilderness areas.

His learning was in ‘the University of the Wilderness’.  From his reflections and adventures in nature – tied to the top of a Douglas Spruce “like a bobo-link on a reed” to experience a hurricane first-hand; being avalanched in “a milky way of snow-stars…the most exhilarating of all the modes of motion I have ever experienced”; a one thousand mile walk by the "wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find" – his own spiritual awakening became a catalyst for social change on a global scale.

It’s an inclusive philosophy. Muir valued all nature: 'All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild.’ And he valued experience over academia: “One day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books”.

Neither Hahn’s nor Muir’s is a binary approach. Both have shaped education and conservation profoundly. Each explores the same thing – our interrelationship with the natural world – from complementary viewpoints. Two sides of the same coin.

The partnership between Outward Bound and the John Muir Trust continues to bring this dynamic to life. The John Muir Award, as the Trust’s main engagement initiative, encourages people of all ages and backgrounds to connect with, enjoy, and care for wild places. The fit is obvious, and the John Muir Award is increasingly used on Outward Bound courses as a tool to help keep ‘Place’ front and centre.

Curiosity, spirit, tenacity, compassion for fellow creatures and the wider natural environment…there’s much common ground in the messages of Hahn and Muir. Likewise Outward Bound and the John Muir Trust: a metaphorical handshake and a continuing journey.

Find out more about: The Outward Bound Trust and the John Muir Trust

Learn more about: The John Muir Award

Learn more aobout: John Muir