Ullswater-1960-9Outward Bound is an innovative educational idea put forth by Kurt Hahn, a celebrated and progressive German educator, which has survived and flourished for more than seventy years.

The birth of today’s Outward Bound began somewhat humbly with the opening of Gordonstoun school in Scotland in the 1930’s with only two students. Here, Hahn refined his philosophies into a practical curriculum that rewarded development of physical skills such as running, jumping and throwing, as well as learning to live in the outdoors through an expedition, and embarking upon a hobby or project, in addition to achievements in the classroom.

After relocating the school to Wales, the next step of Outward Bound’s evolution came via a joint effort with British shipping baron Sir Lawrence Holt to teach young British sailors the vital survival skills necessary during World War II. With a curriculum based mainly on Hahn’s belief that character development was just as important as academic achievement, the new school became the wellspring of experiential learning in the post-war period. Hahn found that people who were put in challenging, adventurous outdoor situations gained confidence, redefined their own perceptions of their personal possibilities, demonstrated compassion, and developed a spirit of camaraderie with their peers.

It took only a few years for this ground-breaking educational program called “Outward Bound” – the nautical term to describe a ship leaving the safety of its harbor to head for the open seas—to begin its international expansion. As Outward Bound grew, there was considerable adaptation of programs and venues. Programs became available for corporate teambuilding, for inner-city youth and for special populations such as recovering alcoholics, families or adjudicated youth. Programs moved from being solely wilderness based, to also being offered in settings like classrooms and urban centers.

Now, more than seventy years later and with schools in over 30 countries on six continents and with a wide-variety of programs catering to the particular populations of those countries, it continues to evolve and the future of Outward Bound looks very promising.

Outward Bound International is indebted to Dr. Tony Richards, a scholar on the work of Kurt Hahn, for his contribution to this section.

K_Hahn-150x150Kurt Hahn

Kurt Hahn was born in Germany in 1896, the son of a wealthy Jewish industrialist, but he lived much of his life in England as an Englishman. He had developed his progressive ideas, first as founder of the Salem School in Germany, and later at Gordonstoun, a boarding school in Scotland, that soon became one of Britain’s most distinguished and innovative schools.

While still a young man, Hahn suffered severe sunstroke that left him with a permanent disability over which he triumphed with the greatest courage. It was partly the long recovery periods associated with the sunstroke that provided him with the opportunity to study educational philosophies in greater depth and formulate the system of education that he promoted throughout his life. He exemplified one of his favorite aphorisms, “your disability is your opportunity”, by turning ill fortune to good purpose.

It was Hahn’s belief that every child is born with innate spiritual powers and ability to make correct judgments about moral issues. In the progression through adolescence, the child loses these spiritual powers and the ability to make moral judgments because of, what Hahn calls, the diseased society and the impulses of adolescence.

As part of his concern for physical well-being he believed that every child has both a natural physical aptitude and a natural physical inaptitude. Both provide opportunities: one to develop strength and the other to overcome weakness. This was the source of another of Hahn’s aphorisms, “There is more in you than you think.” Hahn’s goal was to provide an “ideal pasture” for these innate powers and abilities to manifest themselves. One of the pastures he created was Outward Bound. Further reading on Hahn.

Holt-150x150Lawrence Holt

Lawrence Holt, co-founder of Outward Bound, was senior partner in the Liverpool-based Blue Funnel Shipping Line. In the summer of 1941, he was approached by Kurt Hahn to provide support for the short residential courses that Hahn had developed at Gordonstoun as an introduction to his County Badge scheme (now The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award). Holt, a Gordonstoun parent, agreed to lend his company’s assistance to Hahn’s project, but with the condition that the school be ready to enroll students in one month’s time.

The school, later named Outward Bound, was ready in time and would serve the needs of merchant marine cadets and be open to the youth of a nation at war. Holt clearly saw the value of character training and its utility to his untested young merchant mariners. He knew that the small boat handling skills these young men would acquire could one day mean the difference between life and death in survival situations at sea. He also understood that Britain was at a crossroads, and that her youth needed to be better prepared for an uncertain future.

Kurt Hahn credited Holt with choosing “Outward Bound” as the name of the new school. The phrase “Outward Bound” derives from the nautical term that described a ship that was soon to depart the comfort of home port, bound for the uncertainty of the open sea. It was a signal to the sailors that it was time to return to ship.

Each of Outward Bound International’s member countries has had its own remarkable and dedicated founders who have refined and adapted the philosophy of Outward Bound to their own culture.

Aberdovey-LifeBoat2The creation of Outward Bound, as with many of Kurt Hahn’s other accomplishments, was to some extent serendipitous. The vagaries of war forced Hahn to return to Germany in 1914 where he first met and worked with Prince Max von Baden. Together they were able to start a school, Schloss Salem. The rise of Hitler in the early 1930s and Hahn’s outrage over Hitler’s behavior resulted in imprisonment and a subsequent exile to Britain. It was here that he was asked to put on a compelling demonstration of the Salem system. He refused to do this in an established English Public school because it would be too difficult to overcome the inertia of tradition. He was strongly attracted to the northeast of Scotland, where he had convalesced while recovering from his sunstroke related episodes. During these recovery periods Hahn became friendly with the Cumming family who later made available the Gordonstoun Estate for Hahn to open a school. In April 1934, Gordonstoun School was opened with two pupils. A third pupil, Prince Philip of Greece (who later became His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh) joined them in September.

By 1937 there was a full complement of about 150 students and already Hahn was looking for ways to make his system more accessible to the youth of the village. He created a tripartite scheme whereby young people could work at developing physical skills such as running, jumping and throwing, as well as learning to live in the outdoors through an expedition, and embarking upon a hobby or project, which he referred to as the “grande passion.” Completion of these activities to a prescribed standard resulted in the awarding of the Moray Badge (named after the school’s home county of Morayshire). It was the Moray Badge program that made Hahn’s principles of education come alive and the “taste of boarding school life” more accessible.

It was not long before Hahn had dreams of expanding the Moray Badge scheme to include more than a million young people. He recruited James Hogan to further develop the County Badge that was an iteration of the Moray Badge adapted to the needs and culture of each county in England. The four key elements to achieving the County Badge have been embraced by Outward Bound and are referred to as the “Four Pillars”. These Pillars are physical fitness; an expedition that provides challenge and adventure; a project that develops self-reliance and self-discipline; and finally a sense of compassion through service.

Between 1937 and 1940 there were several short residential courses offered to promote the County Badge. One of these was a 28-day introduction to the scheme that was the inspiration for the future Outward Bound courses.

The Blue Funnel Line and Outward Bound

GaribaldiDuring this time James Hogan’s tenure with the County Badge program was coming to an end and Hahn wanted to keep him on. Hahn also had the idea of further developing the short residential courses into an ongoing training course. Lawrence Holt, part owner of the Blue Funnel Shipping Company, was looking for a training program for young sailors who seemed to have lost the tenacity and fortitude needed to survive the rigors of war and shipwreck, unlike older sailors who, because of their formative experiences on sailing ships, were more likely to survive.

During a meeting with Holt in Liverpool, Hogan was able to convince him that Hahn’s idea was worth funding. After lengthy consideration, Holt agreed:

“The Blue Funnel Shipping Company will support you. We’ll give you one thousand pounds outright. We’ll buy the house and put it at your disposal and we’ll lend you, without charge, the trained men you need for the nautical side of your training. How will that do you?”

This was the birth of Outward Bound. Unfortunately one of Holt’s conditions was that the first course should commence on October 14, 1941, only five weeks after the offer was made! Once again James Hogan came through and the Outward Bound School was established on the Welsh coast at Aberdovey where it could be conducted on and around the sea.

Even though it was Hahn who had the original idea for the 28-day residential course, he was first to disclaim credit for Outward Bound. He often said that Laurence Holt was the founder. Hahn will, and should, be better remembered as the “moving spirit”. The name “Outward Bound” was one offered by Holt because of the nautical connection. Hahn did not like the name and wanted to maintain the notion of the County Badge. But since Holt held the monetary trump cards Hahn acquiesced. It was not until much later that Hahn admitted that one of Outward Bound’s greatest assets was its name.

Outward Bound International is indebted to Dr. Tony Richards, a scholar on the work of Kurt Hahn, for his contribution to this section.


IMG_5435The future of Outward Bound internationally looks very promising. New schools opening in developing countries create new challenges for fulfilling the mission of Outward Bound in different cultures. Each country is learning how to adapt the practices and philosophy of Outward Bound to their local needs. The result is a larger tapestry of ideas and course types that seek to fulfill the core values of Outward Bound and adapt for the times. Art, theater, contemporary adventure activities, language skills courses, and courses for young children are just some of the adaptations that Outward Bound has been developing internationally.

The social issues of today are similar in some respects, especially with respect to the needs of young people, and it is certainly possible to identify with Hahn’s original six declines. The reasons for these declines may be different and the ways in which the remedies are delivered at Outward Bound are certainly different. In the end, the words of Kurt Hahn still ring true for today and perhaps tomorrow at Outward Bound:

“…you and I would agree that indoctrination is of the devil and that it is a crime to force anybody into opinions but I, unlike you, consider it culpable neglect not to guide and even plunge the young into experiences which are likely to present opportunities for self-discovery. If you spare the young such experiences, in deference to their wishes, you stunt their natural growth of basic human qualities which they will need for their own happiness and for the service to their fellow men.” – Kurt Hahn, 1967

Outward Bound International is indebted to Dr. Tony Richards, a scholar on the work of Kurt Hahn, for his contribution to this section.