Kurt Hahn – For Dummies

By The Flying Dutchman
May 16th, 2017

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Kurt Hahn founded United World Colleges in 1962. His dream was to use education as a tool for achieving sustainable peace in a world of many conflicts. This is the part of UWC history that most of us know. What most of us are not familiar with is that Hahn himself had laid out a strategy – a game plan on how to approach the immense task he had undertaken.

Kurt Hahn was educated at Wilhelm Gymnasium, Berlin, University of Göttingen and Christ Church, Oxford (where he studied philosophy and classics). Early on he decided to be a schoolmaster. The work of Plato was one of his formative influences and gave some direction to his thinking. He founded his first school at the castle of an imperial German prince, Max von Baden. The school was called “Schule Schloss Salem” and became the centre of controversy when Kurt Hahn spoke out publicly against Adolf Hitler in 1933. Hahn asked his students, alumni and faculty to choose between Salem or the Nazis. As a result, Hahn was imprisoned for five days. After an appeal by the British prime minister R. MacDonald, Hahn was released and forced to leave Germany and move to Great Britain.

In Britain, Kurt Hahn continued educating. Hahn valued the contribution of the English public school education to the development of the “rounded character”. As an educator, Kurt Hahn spent years observing the youth of his day. Not unlike many other adults, Hahn came up with a list of problems, declines, as he called them. These declines outlined the downfalls of modern youth, and it was Hahn’s mission to correct them.

He also decided on remedies, ways to address these declines. Some of these remedies you might recognise from the UWC ethos and your everyday life at UWC, others such as “expeditions” seem to have been swept under the rug somewhere under the way. Nonetheless, Kurt Hahn kept this new and radical educational ideology in the back of his mind, and all he needed was a spark of inspiration.

Atlantic College

As Kurt Hahn had been invited to address the NATO Defence College, where he saw former enemies from several nations working together towards a common goal. Hahn realised how much more could be done to overcome the hostility of the Cold War if young people from different nations could be brought together in a similar way. He envisioned a college for students who were already grounded in their own cultures but impressionable enough to learn from others. Drawn from all nations, the students would be selected purely based on merit and potential, regardless of religion, race, nationality and background. Kurt Hahn set up Atlantic College, the first United World College, in 1962. Back then, Kurt Hahn’s new school was hailed by the times as “the most exciting experiment in education since the Second World War.”



The United World College Movement
As Atlantic College gained fame for its radical, liberal and progressive education, the interest in expanding Kurt Hahn’s project grew. Lester B. Pearson, Nobel Peace Laureate and former Prime Minister of Canada visited Atlantic College in 1969. He recognised Kurt Hahn’s principles as having the potential to become a revolutionary force in international education. Lester B. Pearson spent the next years building what is now known as Pearson College. Hahn, unfortunately, passed away a year before Pearson College opened in 1975. However, Kurt Hahn’s vision had become a reality. Soon more colleges would follow, and his message of peace would reach even further.



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