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Outward Bound – Our History and our Relevance

– contributed by Aaron Funnell, OB Vietnam

Outward Bound’s 80th anniversary in 2021 presents the global network with an opportunity; an opportunity to both celebrate 80 years of heritage and also to look forward. Outward Bound exists to address the issues of today and tomorrow and thus while Kurt Hahn’s solutions can inform our current practice, we must not lose sight of the ever constant need to maintain our relevancy.

My grandfather ran off to sea when he was 14, in the depths of the Great Depression in 1932. He spent eight glorious years as a seafarer through the Far East. In 1939, along with all the country’s merchant fleet, his vessel was nationalised and used by the Australian government as part of the war efforts, becoming part of the Merchant Navy. The vessel was bombed twice during the war by Japanese planes. Then in 1944, while en route from Melbourne to Bombay, she was sunk by a German U-boat that was operating in the Indian Ocean, with the loss of eighteen crew and one passenger, and many of his closest friends. The loss of friends was so severe he never returned to sea. It was no surprise he gave me an Outward Bound course for a Christmas present in 1990, in the mountains and rivers around Canberra. The gift of an Outward Bound course remains one of the most pivotal of all my Christmas presents.

The life raft story is a great allegory, and Kurt Hahn was fortunate to connect with Lawrence Holt to help finance and guide early Outward Bound programs. Kurt Hahn’s ideas emerged from the ashes of the Great War, the depression and the rise of fascism in Europe, and they were piloted through several ‘experimental courses’ even before WW2.[1] Innovative educational programs were appealing to financiers such as Lawrence Holt as they were solutions to the immediate needs of the era. Eighty years is a tremendous milestone as a company, and it’s certainly important to celebrate the legacy these two men created.  But as it passes out of living memory, the life raft story risks fading from relevance to the next generation. Young people don’t really get nostalgic about ideas from a century ago, and Outward Bound schools need to keep scanning society to ensure we can evolve and design programs that remain relevant to contemporary needs.

Today’s world has continued to evolve, and instead of physical fitness, health and wellness and even mental health, are now emerging as a central issue for many countries. And there are far more immediate and pressing needs for youth today such as the digital advance, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (which are now articulated in secondary schools around the world) and Climate Change. Kurt Hahn’s values and the liferaft story remains a great allegory for building a strong internal organisational culture with staff, but on course, they may alienate us from contemporary youth, particularly those from cultures not directly involved with WW2. Youth in many of these non-Western countries that now have Outward Bound schools have their own socially and culturally unique histories far removed from the freezing oceans of the North Sea.

Indeed, businesses rise and fall, and holding on to values from a century ago may not always address today’s customer needs. This pandemic has created unprecedented headwinds for Outward Bound. We all hoped for a quick rebound, but this has now become a marathon with no roadmap. Planned growth and strategic targets have been overrun by the need to chase any opportunities to stay afloat. There is nothing easier about 2021 than 2020. This will be with us for several more years. Competitors with new offerings will emerge to capitalise on disruptions, from agile outdoor providers doing day trips to the emergence of massively open online courses (MOOC) that deliver various life-skills programs. Some of the most popular MOOC’s of all are in the very topics that Outward Bound seeks to develop.

We are fortunate as Outward Bound has great staff, passionately contributing our best efforts as a contemporary global network. However, innovation is hard work, and it often makes sense to fall back on what we know. But such challenges also present opportunities, and just as Kurt Hahn began with his experimental programs before 1941, we need to keep experimenting even though we are in a state of flux. Outward Bound’s mission is all about change and continuous improvement in individuals. This is a time to reconsider the value of our programs, in the participant and clients’ eyes. In order to endure, Outward Bound must ensure that our programs offer solutions to immediate and future needs with the best still yet to come.

[1] Nick Veevers & Pete Allison (2011) Kurt Hahn. Sense Publishers.