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Kurt Hahn Is In My Tribe

"I regard it as the foremost task of education to ensure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion."
– Kurt Hahn

I. The Rules of the Game

How strange and interesting to belong to a tribe consisting primarily of people who I've hardly ever met and who are dead.

I remember where I was when Kurt Hahn died. I was in the faculty lunchroom at my first teaching job. A loud, beer guzzling history teacher slash football coach with a Hitler mustache had stood up and was berating me loudly across the room, and then the PE coach, his friend, whose name was Stanley Kowalski, which I remember since that was the star of a Tennessee Williams play, also stood up and, red faced and thick necked, joined in the berating.

I had little prior experience in being humiliated, betrayed, or "exiled," since I was always the reasonably popular sort in high school and college, but I've had plenty more of all of it since then, which I recommend to anyone who wants to develop more humility and perseverance.

They were just whaling on me, threatening to beat me up. I had eaten lunch with my students the day before to plot out a whole-school assembly on boat people. You did not do that. Later that very same day, the union representative and then later still the senior guidance counselor explained it all to me, though I never accepted their rules. I was already plotting my escape.

Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound, had just died. As a youth, I had failed to seize opportunities like Outward Bound offered, but the growing awareness of my failure made me pine for a bigger life than I ever could have had in that school. The place was the center of nowhere. I was outward bound, for sure.

Kurt Hahn (1886-1974)

Kurt Hahn attracted me as a teacher role-model not only in his love for the out of doors, but in his understanding of what it is like when what we love is discarded and treated as ridiculous. If you read his life story, you will understand. The fact that you, as well as almost every teacher you know, knows Kim Kardashian's life story better than Kurt Hahn's is an epic problem.

II. Embodied Experience

Here is what I take from all my life role models: We can be more than we think.

We can even be exiled. As the headmaster of a successful progressive secondary school in 1930's Germany, Kurt Hahn was jailed and ultimately exiled for writing letters to his school's alumni protesting Hitler and the Nazi's abuses of power. But in America, England and Scotland, and later in Germany, patrons were drawn to him. In America, he was the prime inspiration for the Athenian School in Danville, where I have visited a couple times and where, just like at The Grauer School, every Friday, Middle School students depart from the daily schedule for field trips, hands-on projects, and extended activities. Like Grauer, Athenian is about Hahn's passion for adventure, character education, and an emphasis on non-academic skills like perseverance, leadership, and getting along with others as the means to prepare students to be compassionate citizens and stewards of the planet.

Going to the center of the action, basic to the Grauer School approach to education, is an approach to teaching and learning that Hahn called "embodied experience," which is living out the experiences you study as a path for transformation.

Like Hahn, Grauer is devoted to four principles which I believe all great independent schools must embody:

  1. Live and study the active, outdoor life for all youths, every day we can.
  2. The expedition is fundamental to the worth of an individual (including the ability to be silent and to be alone).
  3. The project, chosen by the student, is an essential expression of creativity and research.
  4. Samaritan service is essential coming of age. [1]
I look to independent schools, young ones and old ones, to make an important contribution to the example of demanding and dedicated service.
- Kurt Hahn

I didn't know anything about Hahn's principles when founding The Grauer School on those very same principles, and I am constantly astonished at how so many of us in education who independently go deep go to the same places. I didn't know much about Socrates, or Rudolf Steiner, or Montessori, or Debbie Meier, or John Taylor Gatto back in the day, they are all like travelers I keep running into along an alluring, often wild trail. In addition to our faculty, they are my "us" – and more so than all but a very small handful of other school leaders I know today.

Grauer Students Hiking at the Grand Canyon - September 2016

None of my educational heroes would "require" all these principles of our students. They would just be looking for these principles in their students, so deeply that they'd almost always find them. Heroes like Hahn have confidence that, given the right conditions for learning, teenagers and teachers can become what the world needs. They know how deeply every one of us needs to find and seek common causes.

Like Hahn I guess, I unexpectedly became a fundraiser, though I rarely asked anybody for anything. Just last month, 120 school families at The Grauer School donated over $100,000. As it turns out, many of the great teachers were great fundraisers, however accidently. As a young school leader, the thought of fundraising never crossed my mind.

But why wouldn't good teachers attract patrons? That, or enemies? In Hahn's address at the founding of Athenian School, he noted, "I was delighted when I heard yesterday that your Trustees have decided to admit twenty five percent of your boys and girls irrespective of the financial position of their parents." Grauer's percentage, growing every year, has now reached 22%. Once again, I am astonished to see how my role models independently stumble upon the same things I stumble upon. They are my tribe. I am now targeting 40-50% financial aid someday, and I believe our trustees will support this in the long run.

III. The Back Country

One student that first year of The Grauer School, John, was at last happy and connected in school. His father had asked me one day, "What do you need?" I said, "I need a 9-passenger Suburban Wagon – then we'll have the biggest campus in San Diego." So, now, there we were together driving up to South Central L.A., me and John and some others, past smoldering fires and smashed out storefronts, heading for riot central. The San Diego Union reporter tagging along with us called our school "an anecdote to tedium ... always going to the center of the action."

Kurt Hahn was a prime developer of "experiential education," outdoor education, and wilderness and adventure education such as made The Grauer School possible. He founded Outward Bound and a handful of enlightened schools (e.g., United World Colleges). He held perseverance as a core value in schools, as I did and still do. He saw education as a form of peacemaking, as I do.

Grauer Students Hiking on Catalina Island - September 2017

I think he would have loved our Suburban Wagon, and maybe dubbed it "Garibaldi" after Outward Bound's first sailing vessel. Visions like Hahn's have freed me from small minded teachers who can't see beyond the lunchroom, and freed me to think that a school is always moving out and up, always developing larger conceptions of what a school can be, always an anecdote to the tedium Hahn called "spectatoritis," and always pushing toward great freedom, greater purpose, greater diversity, greater love, greater joy. So, there is the story of where I was when Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn died, and of our common purposes. He was a real hero, and I never even knew he looked to independent schools just as I would. Back then, I hardly knew what an independent school was.

Back then, I started eating my lunch outside, but eventually resigned that job, even though I was tenured, and moved to a school in the mountains, where we skied with our students every Friday in winter. I remember well creating a student activity called "the off-piste ski group" which was dedicated to skiing in wilderness areas, off the marked and groomed runs, out of bounds. It's only now I realize how much Kurt Hahn meant to me.

[1] Address at the Founding of the Athenian School, November 21, 1965, Danville, California.

Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column


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Grauer’s writing reminds us that
"Great Teaching, singular, rare, unusual, is something that should be sought after and found. Thank you.”
Richard Dreyfuss, Actor, Oxford scholar, founder of The Dreyfuss Initiative

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