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Kurt Hahn and the Humanist tradition: As relevant today as 50 years ago

Ian Tymms, Middle School Head of English, East Campus
8 June 2017

Something interesting happens each year when my Grade 6 class are studying the history of Kurt Hahn and the United World College movement. Part of the learning intention is for the students to have a broad understanding of the key events that shaped this history: WWI, The Holocaust, WWII and the dropping of the two atomic bombs. And each year, somewhere in the middle of this learning, some version of this conversation happens:

First student: “I think Japan needed more materials to make their army strong.”
Second student: “But they shouldn’t have been invading other countries to get what they needed.”
First student: “Well it’s kind of the same as what the European countries were doing through colonisation.”
Second student: “True, and maybe that’s one of the things we need to know about war—that one group shouldn’t be taking things from another.”

The conversation is interesting and relevant, but there is another detail that makes it even more so: one of the students has relatives who were in Japan during the war and another has relatives who were in China. In other versions of the conversation the relatives might have been in Germany and England or Indonesia and Holland or the US and Japan or Italy or Poland or Singapore or Malaysia or any number of combinations that reflect the conflicts between nations in the past 100 years.

Often the students know little about these histories and are exploring them for the first time and there is a moment of realisation—usually prompted by me—that their grandparents or great-grandparents were on opposite sides of this history.

The response from the students is, in my view, one of the greatest possible endorsements of Hahn’s vision. They are fascinated and engaged, but their cultural differences, without exception, come second to their shared humanity. Their differing histories become a resource to tap as they explore and understand more about who they are and where they come from. I have never seen this realisation create animosity—in fact quite the opposite—and there is something profoundly hopeful about watching two students talk through the conflicts of their great-grandparents and then head out to eat lunch together.

Kurt Hahn and Humanism

Whilst this humanist educational tradition is very evident in Kurt Hahn’s actions, it isn’t so clearly articulated in his writing. As Stuart MacAlpine, Director of Teaching and Learning at UWCSEA's East Campus pointed out to me recently, the writings of John Dewey have been very influential in education and yet the one school Dewey founded folded in a few short years. Hahn, by contrast, wrote little and is comparatively little known, but he founded three highly influential schools in Salem, Gordonstoun and Atlantic College, the first UWC. Additionally, he built the Outward Bound organisation, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, and supported the foundation of the Round Square movement, as well as encouraging or actively supporting the establishment of dozens of other schools and organisations based on his humanist principles.

Hahn’s influence can now be found in hundreds of schools and organisations: 17 United World Colleges with national committees in 155 countries (1), Outward Bound Schools operating in 33 countries and 250 locations (2), 180 Round Square schools located in 50 countries (3) and, over the last 60 years, millions of participants in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award delivered across 140 countries(4). And this is to name only the most salient of the organisations Hahn has influenced.

What all these organisations have in common is a set of values based on challenge, the environment and a humanist concern for respecting others. Apart from a number of useful aphorisms, anecdotes and speeches, however, there is little that Hahn wrote that clearly articulates his wider educational vision. It’s instructive instead to look to Hahn’s life (5) for a clearer understanding of his vision. Whilst this article is far too short for anything but the most cursory summary, here’s an attempt to describe the broad facts.

Founder of the UWC movement, and many other impactful educational initiatives, Kurt Hahn

Founder of the UWC movement, and many other impactful educational initiatives, Kurt Hahn

As a German Jew born in 1889 into a wealthy and influential family, Hahn’s access to power was guaranteed. He attended Oxford University and several universities in Germany and gained a firm grounding in Classics as well as literature of the Romantic period in both English and German. When WWI broke out, he was conscripted into the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs where, being fluent in English, his role was to read the British press and ‘provide summaries and interpretations (6). By the end of WWI, Hahn had been appointed Personal Secretary to the German Imperial Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden. Hahn was a skilled negotiator and he had a key role in behind-the-scenes negotiations for peace both before and during the Treaty of Versailles.

After the war, and with Prince Max’s active patronage, Hahn built his first school, Salem, in Germany. Hahn’s approach to educational philosophy was that of the magpie (7), taking the best ideas from those educators he most admired. Salem, like all his schools, was designed very much within the liberal-humanist tradition. In the following years Hitler rose to power and Hahn spoke publicly on several occasions against the actions of Nazi thugs. In 1933 he was imprisoned. Many of Hahn’s friends agitated for his release and the British Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald sent a letter to the German authorities pleading Hahn’s case.

Hahn spent five days in jail for speaking out against Hitler. After his release he moved to Scotland where he set up his next school, Gordonstoun, in 1934. Once WWII had been declared, Outward Bound was Hahn’s next venture designed to train young people for the mental as well as physical hardships of life in the Merchant Navy.

And after WWII, with the horrors of war and Hiroshima and Nagasaki as backdrops, Hahn built Atlantic College, the first UWC. His intention was to create a two-year pre-university education which would bring together students from many of the countries that had previously been at war and do exactly what I describe as happening in my Grade 6 classroom.

In this brief summary of some of Hahn’s public achievements can be seen the signs of a man who was principled and determined. A skilled and connected negotiator who was pragmatic and driven. But this is only one side of the coin.


In July 1904, at age 18, Hahn rowed across the Havel river on the hottest day in 100 years and suffered an injury that was to shape the rest of his life. David Sutcliffe argues that “no appreciation of Hahn’s personality, life or work is complete without an awareness of the implications of these early experiences.”(8) Hahn suffered a sunstroke that would cause him to require intermittent bed-rest and dark rooms for the rest of his life. His parents sent him to a long list of experts trying to get to the bottom of the illness but nothing seemed to work and they questioned whether his condition may have been psychosomatic (9). Hahn wrote: “I owe the stronger part of my nature not only to the compelling circumstances of illness and misfortune, but to the misunderstandings I encountered from people I loved.” (10)

Humanism is as much about accepting human failings as it is about understanding human strengths. Hahn began and ended every term at Salem and Gordonstoun with a reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan—the New Testament story in which a man demonstrates compassion for his fellow man despite the barriers of culture and belief that separate them. Understanding Hahn, his legacy and the strengths of a UWC education, requires more than just assembling a list of Hahn’s achievements, it also requires an understanding of something essential about compassion and humanism; about the way adversity and failure can be a foundation for finding inner strength to do good. Hahn had a profound faith in the goodness of the young and in the ability of us all to find reserves of strength to allow us to build a better world.


In the classrooms of UWCSEA, students are far more likely to see each other through the lens of a common humanity than through the filter of cultural difference. Cultural identity is very important and it is celebrated through events like CultuRama and our Uniting Nations days—it remains a rich resource to tap when looking to understand the world—but one of Hahn’s enduring legacies is a desire to see our common humanity as foundational and the key to making education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.






5 In describing this history, I’m particularly indebted to David Sutcliffe’s superb book Kurt Hahn and the United World Colleges with Other Founding Figures. 2013, published by David Sutcliff. 

6 Sutcliffe p. 59 

7 Sutcliffe p. 120 

8 Sutcliffe. p. 52 

9 Sutcliffe, p. 52 

10 Sutcliffe, p. 52