Kurt Hahn: A Man of Iron Qualities

Men with the Iron Qualities are a little bit like a woman with both outstanding beauty and intelligence – they are out there and they exist, but coming across one is a rare and unexpected moment. It’s a little scary but also intriguing.

With that in mind, I want to highlight men – real or fictional – who have demonstrated some of the principles that define the Iron Qualities. Think of it like a slightly less sexy Playboy Playmate of the Month.

Kurt Hahn - The Iron Qualities

Kurt Hahn – An unexpected start

I had several men in mind to kick this off with – but there are lots of little coincidences in the world. I was thinking about this the other day, I read an excellent article about a man who ticked a lot of the Iron Qualities boxes – Kurt Hahn.

Hahn was born to Jewish parents in Germany in 1886 and suffered severe sunstroke as an 18 year old which resulted in the removal of the occipital bone at the back of his skull and required him to wear a wide-brimmed hat when outdoors for the rest of his life.

He worked several jobs before founding the Schule Schloss in Salem in 1920, a private boarding school where he also served as headmaster.

He became a fierce critic of the Nazi regime during Hitler’s rise to power – this was heightened by an incident where a young communist was killed by Nazi troops in front of his mother. Hahn spoke out against the murder, and then against Hitler and his regime itself.

This led to him spending several days in prison before an appeal by the British Prime Minister saw him released. He then moved to Scotland where he converted to Christianity and founded Gordonstoun – a boarding school in Scotland that shared similar principles to the school in Salem. Alumni include Prince Philip and Prince Charles.

He went on to found several other boarding schools around the world before returning to Germany, where he died in 1974.

 

Forming schools based on a philosophy

Ok, so what? A German school teacher who had an overdose of sunbathing as a child. Pretty bland. Where are the Iron Qualities??

Well much like our Autobot brothers from Cybertron, there is more than meets the eye here.

“There is more in you than you think” is an inscription found on Hahn’s family home – it became the motto of his life’s philosophy and also served as the motto for one of the educational institutions he went on to form. It sums the man up pretty well.

Hahn was all about “experiential learning” – putting kids in situations that were mentally and physically challenging. He believed children were inherently decent and had a strong moral sense but that these traits became corrupted by society as they got older.

His educational principles were designed to provide opportunities for personal leadership and for students to see the results of their own actions – the goal being to halt this corruption. And the principles were refined and crystalised into what became known as the ‘Seven Laws of Salem’ around 1930:

  1. Give the children opportunities for self-discovery
  2. Make the children meet with triumph and defeat
  3. Give the children the opportunity of self-effacement in the common cause
  4. Provide periods of silence
  5. Train the imagination
  6. Make games important but not predominant
  7. Free the sons of the wealthy and powerful from the enervating sense of privilege

I love it. I mean, an educational philosophy with these principles at its core is much better and more practical than the learning by numbers approach we enjoy today to enable schools to meet government exam pass targets.

Hahn expanded on this and offered some more explanation on his educational principles:

“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.”

Everything about this stinks of the Iron Qualities. These qualities should be central to a boy’s journey to becoming a man and with a huge chunk of a boy’s life spent educational institutions, weaving these principles into that routine is exactly what is needed.

 

Six Declines, four antidotes

Hahn also created a list of points that he felt summed up exactly how society fails and corrupts the young – the ‘Six Declines of Modern Youth’.

Decline of Fitness due to modern methods of locomotion (moving about)

Decline of Initiative and Enterprise due to the widespread disease of spectatoritis (a passive spectator rather than an active participant)

Decline of Memory and Imagination due to the confused restlessness of modern life

Decline of Skill and Care due to the weakened tradition of craftsmanship

Decline of Self-discipline  due to the ever-present availability of stimulants and tranquilizers

Decline of Compassion due to the unseemly haste with which modern life is conducted

 

Bingo. This guy absolutely nailed it. This is why men of the Iron Qualities are so few and far between. Too many of us think:

  • It’s easier to lie on the sofa all weekend for a big sporting marathon of football, boxing, rugby and tennis rather than going to the gym and pumping some iron
  • It’s easier to watch and read about other people trying and failing something challenging (and then passing judgment on them) rather than trying ourselves
  • It’s easy to fall into the routine of ‘eat, sleep, work, repeat’ rather than stopping to smell the roses now and then
  • It’s easier to buy disposable items and trash them rather than getting quality expensive pieces that last a lifetime
  • It’s easier to get wired on caffeine or something stronger to get you through the work week and then get wasted on a bottle of Buckfast at the weekend to forget how much you hate your job rather than having the discipline to take control of your life and take it where YOU want it to go
  • It’s easier to keep running to catch that train to get you to work rather than stopping to help that little old man who just tripped and fell over

 

Iron Qualities – old school style

It’s strange and sad that something written about boys almost 100 years ago still resonates today – and not just with boys but with men too. Hahn was industrious however and didn’t just stop with identifying these declines – he also proposed four remedies:

Fitness Training (e.g., to compete with one’s self in physical fitness; in so doing, train the discipline and determination of the mind through the body)

Expeditions (e.g., via sea or land, to engage in long, challenging endurance tasks)

Projects (e.g., involving crafts and manual skills)

Rescue Service (e.g., surf lifesaving, fire fighting, first aid)

These ‘remedies’ were built into the curriculum at Hahn’s schools and went on to form the basis of the Duke of Edinburgh Award –  designed to recognise young people’s achievements in a series of self-improvement exercises.

Old Bo here participated in the scheme when he was in high school. That particular adventure was short lived however – one of my teachers took a dislike to my expedition group and made our time in the scheme hell. On top of this, I was the only one of us who could even remotely read a map and knew what a compass a) was and b) looked like. All this meant that my Duke of Edinburgh adventure was like a fart in the wind – lingering briefly in my life before disappearing forever and becoming no more than a distant memory.

 

Start the day in the right way

At Gordonstoun, the boys rose at 06:30am for a cold shower and a run, the timetable for the day much like that in the German schools Hahn had earlier formed. At 21:15 there was a quarter of an hour of silence to enable the pupil to “glean the harvest from his manifold experiences” before lights out.

This is a tough way to start the day – but a fantastic way. There is plenty of material online and elsewhere about the many benefits of cold showers and a little 5km run in the morning does wonders. This is a routine I started trying to implement a several months ago. Waking up 45 minutes earlier than normal; do a little stretching; get some air in your lungs by banging out a 20-25 min run; then hop into a quick 2-3 minute cold shower to get the blood flowing.

It might sound crazy, but you feel like king of the world after this routine. Granted, it’s not always easy to motivate yourself to get up at 6am if it’s sub-zero temperatures pissing rain and darker than a black steer’s tookus. But creating a habit of positive action and doing it more often than not is a battle everyone can win.

And while you are up and about working to improve yourself and become the best you can be, 90% of the population are still in bed snoring.

 

Hahn was the man

While Hahn may not have physically resembled what we typically think an Alpha Male looks like, he dedicated his life to a philosophy that all men should pay serious attention to. The emphasis on practical physical activities rather than over-reliance on theoretical learning provided a fantastic foundation for children at his schools to go on and live a life of Iron Qualities.

The principles that he engrained in his schools showed that Hahn understood how men should live their lives and realise their potential – and he created and refined a curriculum and learning methods to facilitate this.

Ask yourself the question: Would you rather finish school with the skills to:

  • Prepare you for an exciting career in banking or
  • Become a self-reliant and driven man (who also has some quality numeracy skills as and when required)?

 

Self-reliance, compassion, discipline, drive/determination – these are the qualities Hahn wanted us to cultivate and these qualities are central to a life well-lived for men. For the majority of us, our schooldays are over, but it’s never too late to learn.

I’m glad I discovered Kurt Hahn and his philosophy on education. As I was reading about his life, a thought kept going through my head:

“It’s like this guy had an internal magnet that pointed him in the direction of the Iron Qualities”

And it’s for that reason he absolutely deserves his place as a Mon of the Month.

Remember the Hahn family motto – “There is more in you than you think”

This is true for all of us. Don’t settle for an easy auto-pilot life of mediocrity – take control and make yourself the best person your can be. You might surprise yourself.

Now…I’m off to dust off the De Lorean, travel back in time and give that Duke of Edinburgh Award another shot.

1.21 gigawatts!!

 

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