Kurt Hahn – by DB

A personal view of Kurt Hahn by David Byatt (1932-2012), Founder of Atlantic Challenge Moray Gig.

David Byatt

Educated by Hahn in the late 1940s and later working at his school, Gordonstoun, for over twenty years, I gained long experience of the man whom my family had known since he started his school in Scotland in 1934. As a result, I came to know Hahn in a unique way and have acquired an admiration for his insight into human nature and the methods that he devised to bring the best out of people and to allow them to develop their natural talents. His great boast was that he invented nothing new in his schools. He drew instead from the great educators down the ages.

Although Hahn never sailed as a recreation, he none the less had an unerring insight into what the sea could do for those who venture forth upon its surface. As a young man he walked in the hills, spending many of his university vacations in the Scottish Highlands or in the Alps. Thus he knew at first hand what the elements could throw at those who venture forth into wild places.

In this sheltered age when we in the Western world live life shielded from the challenges of nature, we do not develop our talents for dealing with situations to the degree that our fore fathers did. Most of the western population lives in towns and cities and all the basic needs of life are provided without effort, thus removing the challenge of living. Young people seek a challenge in life and if it is not at hand they go out and seek it, often with damaging consequences to themselves or to others.

Kurt Hahn
Kurt Hahn

Hahn felt that the way to satisfy this desire for a challenge and to meet it in a harmless and formative way was to send young people out into the hills and onto the sea so that they might be challenged by the forces of nature. In so doing they would learn about themselves and their fellows at the same time. He used to describe the Moray Firth, where he sent boys sailing from Gordonstoun, as his ‘sternest schoolmaster’, because it was unforgiving of mistakes.

As an educator of exceptional intellect, Kurt Hahn felt that in order to promote the learning process it was necessary that every one of his pupils had an interest to which he could devote himself in an all-absorbing way and so through single-minded application experience the joy of achievement of an objective and the intense satisfaction of a task well done. This form of occupation he called ‘The Project’ and it covered almost any and every sphere of endeavour. One such project at Gordonstoun was boat building because he believed that the Master Craftsman was more intolerant of an unfinished task than a schoolmaster was.

Imagine then my joy when, after thirty years of sailing those very dipping-lug cutters in which I had been taught at Gordonstoun, I learned within a year of my retirement of Atlantic Challenge, an organisation that promoted the art of traditional wooden boat building and believed in teaching young people the art and skill of sailing open dipping lug boats! My joy was even greater when I discovered that the whole concept had arisen from Hahn’s belief in education through the sea.

The traditional boat enthusiast, Lance Lee, had heard that Hahn was in New York some time in the fifties and asked to see him to satisfy his curiosity about this man who believed in ‘education through the sea’. Hahn started the interview by asking his classic question ” What are you doing? ” Lance explained at some length that he was writing a novel. After half an hour of talk on the novel Hahn looked Lance Lee straight in the eye and said with the penetrating gaze of his blue eyes, “Yes, but what are you doing?” This gave Lance Lee the cue for action and he went off to become an Instructor with Outward Bound and worked at Aberdovey in Wales where Hahn, with the aid of Lawrence Holt of the Blue Funnel Shipping Line, had started his first Sea School during the war to prepare young seamen for hardships at sea.

With such a long experience of building and sailing traditional small craft it is little wonder that the concept of Atlantic Challenge arose in Lance Lee’s mind and we should all be grateful for that penetrating gaze and enlightening question “What are you doing?” from the man who once said “It is a sin of the soul to coerce the young into opinions, nonetheless I consider it culpable neglect not to impel the young into life-giving experiences”. It is directly due to Hahn that Atlantic Challenge is international and that one of the by-products of the contest is that crew members are encouraged to give what Hahn called ‘Samaritan service’ to others. Those in many nations who devote themselves to the ideals of Atlantic Challenge are doing just that, as are those who visit other nations and help with their programmes, and I am sure that Hahn would be pleased to think that his one remark has started a movement that is developing a World-class Youth Training Vessel.

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