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Kurt Hahn: a life

 “Confidence in effort, modesty in success, grace in defeat, fairness in anger, clear judgement even in the bitterness of wounded pride and readiness for service at all times.” Kurt Hahn Founder of the UWC movement

Born in 1886, the son of a wealthy German industrialist, Kurt Hahn was educated in Germany and then in Oxford, before World War I brought him back to Germany. His early interest in education as a force for good was crystallised by the destruction he witnessed during the war, and with the support of Prince Max von Baden, the last imperial chancellor in Germany, in 1920 founded Salem School in Germany, based on respect for the individual, responsibility to the community and an awareness of the importance of the democratic process in sustaining both. In 1933, Hahn was exiled to the UK after speaking out against the Nazis, and founded Gordonstoun School in Scotland, based on the four pillars of internationalism, challenge, responsibility and service. Hahn believed that school should be a preparation for life, not just for university, and that education should help students to develop resilience and the ability to experience failure as well as success.

The ideals of Gordonstoun were partly manifested in an enormous emphasis on outdoor activities, particularly seamanship and mountaineering. In 1941, more and more convinced of the importance of learning outside the classroom, Hahn established Outward Bound, with a founding mission to give young people the ability to survive harsh conditions at sea by teaching confidence, tenacity and perseverance—some of the many skills and qualities we develop at UWCSEA through our Outdoor Education programme today. Fifteen years later, in 1956, Hahn founded the Duke of Edinburgh’s award, which for more than 50 years has encouraged young people to challenge themselves through service, physical recreation and adventure. Since 2008, more than 300 of the College’s students have achieved the Duke of Edinburgh’s award, known internationally as the National Youth Achievement Award.

The founding of the UWC movement in 1962 was the culmination of Hahn’s thinking about education. While attending the 1958 NATO Staff Conference, he was inspired by the cooperation he witnessed between former adversaries from World War II. He thought that if we could educate young people from around the world together, we could prevent future conflicts. From this belief in the power of education to change the world, the UWC movement was born, with a mission to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. In 1962, the first UWC, Atlantic College, was opened in Wales. UWC South East Asia, the second UWC College, was opened in 1971 as the Singapore International School, and so the story of UWCSEA began.

While Atlantic College and the UWC movement worked with the Geneva International School and the United Nations School in New York to develop the International Baccalaureate curriculum, Kurt Hahn went on to found the Round Square organisation in 1967.

Hahn died in Germany in 1974. The entry in Britain’s Dictionary of National Biography calls him “headmaster and citizen of humanity.”

There is no doubt that Hahn had an enormous impact on the world of education.

He championed the importance of developing the whole person, and based his thinking on the ideals of a holistic, experiential, values-based education.

“I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure 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

The world is a very different place since Hahn founded the UWC movement over 50 years ago. But his educational philosophy, with a focus on academic achievement, leadership, experiential learning and service to others has remained, and will continue to provide our students with a unique learning experience for many more years to come.

A timeline of Kurt Hahn’s life