Back to the Future: How a 100-Year Old Educational Model Can Help Build a Post-Pandemic Future (Part One)

Mike Chapman Newsletter, Pedagogy Of Leadership®, Student Leadership

By Mike Chapman, Director of Outdoor Education, Teacher of US History, Dunn School (CA)

Although most educators aren’t familiar with his name, many are familiar with his legacy. Institutions such as Outward Bound, the International Baccalaureate, and United World Colleges are just some of his contributions to modern society. A devoted pragmatist, he was less concerned with putting his thoughts and theories down in writing than with actively pursuing them in practice. He knew what he was doing was working – he just wasn’t interested in proving it academically, though his limited writings and speeches are full of colorful anecdotal evidence.

As we enter the 2021-2022 school year, perhaps it is time to revisit Kurt Hahn. Not only was this past year the centennial of his inaugural foray into secondary school education at the Salem School in Baden Wurttemberg, Germany in 1920, but we may find an uncanny connection between his original observations on the six “declines of modern youth” following World War I and the challenges our youth now face emerging from the pandemic. Furthermore, educators will find great inspiration in reexamining his proposed ‘preventive cures,’ what he eventually titled Erlebnistherapie, or experience therapy, as we work to build a post-pandemic future in the independent school world.

The scientific and technical progress we have witnessed […] has been immense. But it has been accompanied by deterioration in human worth. Something indefinable has been lost. I can only hint at it. (1)

Born on June 5, 1886, in Berlin, Hahn’s educational philosophy was primarily grounded in a critical view of Western European society, and particularly Western European educational models. In Hahn’s opinion, these educational approaches failed to provide opportunities and activities through which a student could discover “his powers as a man of action”. (2) Instead, education tamed them until, in the words of William Butler Yeats, “the stir has gone out of them.” 

Hahn committed his life to youth education in response to what he saw as the “six declines” in European youth following WWI. Modern transportation resulted in a decline in fitness and “physical illiteracy.” The epidemic of “spectatoritis,” or the growing prevalence of passive indulgence rather than active participation and living, resulted in a decline of initiative and enterprise. Increases in restlessness coupled with a lack of reflection resulted in declines in memory and imagination. A loss of traditional craftsmanship resulted in declines in skill and care. The availability of stimulants and depressants reduced self-discipline. And, finally, the “haste of modern life” led to a loss of compassion and “spiritual death” in modern society.

Though Hahn couldn’t have possibly predicted nor wished it to be so, his pointed observations remain relevant a full century later, and arguably with worsening symptoms due to the unprecedented prevalence of smartphones, Wi-Fi, and unlimited data compounded by a year-plus of stay-at-home orders and virtual/hybrid learning environments. Before learning about his proposed solutions, it is worth illustrating how relevant, if not essential, his observations remain in the modern context. 

Physical Fitness, Spectatoritis, and “Restlessness” 

According to a recent Nielsen company study, the average American spends a stunning 11 hours, 54 minutes each day connected to some form of media — TV, streaming, smartphones, games — although that number may be somewhat inflated because usage can often be simultaneous. In other studies, researchers concluded that our society as a whole now processes five times as much information on a daily basis as in 1986. (3) And this doesn’t even include data since the start of the pandemic. One recent survey of nearly 3,000 parents found that youth screen time increased nearly 500% after March 2020.(4)

These statistics, among many others, indicate an alarming societal trend in which we now live in a steady state of passive indulgence, restlessness, and distraction, a situation far worse than the “spectatoritis” Hahn described a century ago. While this trend certainly impacts physical fitness – childhood obesity in the United States has tripled since 1970 as a result of inactivity and worsening diets – an additional downfall is a reduction of our collective ability to focus, which in turn directly impacts our ability to remember, imagine, or create things, much like Hahn described in his second and third “declines.“

Solitude and Reflection

Hahn also noted how this restlessness was compounded by a secondary, but equally powerful trend – a declining ability to seek and practice reflection. According to Ray Kethledge and Mike Erwin, authors of the book Lead Yourself First, reflection is most often a product of solitude, and true solitude can be defined as a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other humans. 

Unfortunately, we now live in an era in which terms such as “solitude deprivation” exist to describe the societal decline Hahn warned us about one full century ago. Today, when we experience the slightest hint of boredom or “in-between time,” we can fill the void with input from other humans nearly instantaneously, and in multiple forms of media, from the convenience of a handheld device fueled by public Wi-Fi or unlimited data. In other words, it is now possible to completely banish true reflection and solitude from our lives. This was already happening before the pandemic, which in many cases only made things worse.

Manual Competence and Craftsmanship

Hahn also described a decline of “skill and care” as a result of a weakening tradition of craftsmanship. In Hahn’s era, craftsmanship was just beginning to vanish as influential management theorists began to deliberately remove craft knowledge from the working class. These autonomous, self-reliant, and manually competent craftsmen were replaced with laborers equipped with the minute instructions needed to perform their robotic part of what was becoming a highly controlled industrial process. 

In America, this trend toward automation was intensified by drastic educational policies. In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford describes how nation-wide educational budget cuts throughout the United States in the 1990s resulted in the removal of courses in “manual competence,” such as shop class, focusing instead on subjects and skills which would prepare students to become effective “knowledge workers” in an increasingly globalized, 21st-century economy. Within a few years, we essentially began creating an entire generation, and some might argue several generations, which lack the skill, care, and appreciation for manual competence, and as a result, are robbed of the sense of individual agency and self-reliance which result from working with one’s hands. Or, in the words of Jim Aschwanden, executive director of the California Agricultural Teachers’ Association, “we have a generation of students that can answer questions on standardized tests, know factoids, but they can’t do anything.” (5)

Discipline and Resilience

Similarly, Hahn described a loss of self-discipline as a result of the availability and use of stimulants and depressants, many of which were lingering addictions from the war. Yet his use of the word ‘discipline’ was not just in the self-regulation meaning of the word, but also in the sense that by relying on external substances to control our thoughts and consciousness, we never fully develop a system of rules, conduct, activities, or interests to drive our daily life through both the good times and the bad. In other words, we never develop a key aspect of resilience, which is the ability to both perceive and seek challenges as hidden opportunities for growth. 

Similar to hours spent on YouTube or social media, substance abuse permits us to keep our minds occupied and distracted just enough to prevent us from having to face the often negative thoughts which are an inevitable component of living. And just as the pandemic caused statistics on screen time to skyrocket, it also resulted in an increase in substance abuse across all age groups – nearly all states reported increases in teenage alcohol and marijuana usage. Even worse, national overdose deaths soared to 93,000 in 2020, a stunning 29% increase from the year before. (6)

Compassion

Lastly, and worst of all to Hahn, was a perceived loss of compassion, and once again the similarities are troubling. According to The Positivity Project (7) and based on studies from San Diego State University (8) and the University of Michigan (9), narcissism in college freshmen increased by 30% and empathy decreased by 40% between the early 1980s and late 2000s. A 2014 study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education reported that when asked to rank the importance of achieving at a high level, happiness, or caring for others, nearly 80% of students prioritized high achievement or happiness. And on the “narcissism test,” a survey used by psychologists with statements such as “somebody should write a biography about me,” the median score has risen thirty percent in the past two decades, with ninety-three percent of young people scoring higher than the middle score just twenty years ago. 

Behind the statistics and data appears to be an overall loss of what Kurt Hahn determined to be human compassion. What Hahn couldn’t possibly predict was how the Information Age and the pandemic might contribute to and even accelerate this worrisome trend. Some researchers, such as Dr. Michele Borba, argue that the prevalence of smartphones and other digital forms of communication have slowly eroded our youth’s abilities to develop emotional intelligence and empathy. As she described on a podcast with Alon Schwartz, founder and CEO of UnGlue, “it’s very hard to be empathetic and feel for another human being if you can’t read another person’s emotions. You don’t learn emotional literacy facing a screen. You don’t learn emotional literacy with emojis.” Other contributing factors she includes are the rapid rise of celebrity culture, competitive parenting, increased emphasis on testing in schools, and an overall rise in materialism, as outlined in her book unSelfie.

Experience Therapy

Fortunately, Hahn was neither the type of man nor educator who simply voiced criticisms without proposing solutions. Rather than sulk and accept these observations as the inevitable result of the Industrial Revolution, WWI, and an eroding society, he instead utilized the immense tragedy of war as an opportunity to reshape education entirely and implement what he viewed as the true goal of learning: “to purify the destructive inclinations of the human personality, to redress the imbalances in modern ways of living, to develop each person’s abilities to their maximum potential, and to place new-found strength in service of those in need.” (10)

To counter these six declines, he proposed several “preventive cures,” or “antidotes,” most notably physical fitness, expeditions, projects, and service. The combination of these activities developed into a process he entitled Erlebnistherapie, or “experience therapy,” a precursor to the experiential, project-based, and service-learning movements formally recognized today. 

As we all hope to harness the opportunities provided by this unprecedented academic year, perhaps it’s worth revisiting Hahn and his Erlebnistherapie. Part Two explores this concept further. 

Mike Chapman steps into a new role this fall as Director of Outdoor Education and Teacher of US History at the Dunn School in California.  Formerly an instructor with the Cadet Corps Leadership Program at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., Mike has worked in a variety of roles, including Crew Chief with the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana/Office of Disaster Response, English Education Volunteer in the United States Peace Corps, infantry officer in the Marine Corps Reserve, and various positions at the Department of State, Department of Defense and non-profit world.  Special thanks to the Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School for their support in the drafting of these essays.

  1. Hahn, K. (1947) Training for and through the sea. Address given to the Honourable Mariners’
    Company in Glasgow, 20 February
  2. Ibid
  3. Alleyne, Richard. Welcome to the Information Age – 174 Newspapers a Day. The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/8316534/Welcome-to-the-information-age-174-newspapers-a-day.html
  4. Survey Shows Parents Alarmed as Kids’ Screen Time Skyrockets During COVID-19 Crisis. Parents Together Foundation. https://parents-together.org/survey-shows-parents-alarmed-as-kids-screen-time-skyrockets-during-covid-19-crisis/
  5. Crawford, Matthew B. (2009). Shop Class as Soulcraft: an inquiry into the value of work.
  6. Chappell, Bill. Drug Overdoses Killed A Record Number Of Americans In 2020, Jumping By Nearly 30%. National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/2021/07/14/1016029270/drug-overdoses-killed-a-record-number-of-americans-in-2020-jumping-by-nearly-30
  7. The Positivity Project. Why Relationships? https://posproject.org/why-relationships/
  8. Twenge, Jean M.; Konrath, Sarah; Foster, Joshua D.; Campbell, W. Keith; Bushman, Brad J. Egos Inflating Over Time: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00507.x
  9. University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Empathy: College students don’t have as much as they used to. https://news.umich.edu/empathy-college-students-don-t-have-as-much-as-they-used-to/
  10. James, T. (1990). Kurt Hahn and the Aims of Education. Journal of Experiential Education, 13(1), 6–13. https://doi.org/10.1177/105382599001300101