If you’ve been around Outward Bound for any amount of time you’ve probably heard a story or two about Kurt Hahn. As an educational reformer, Hahn is known for his fundamental developments in experiential education. He founded Outward Bound in Aberdovey, Wales in 1941. As well as several other colleges and schools that focused on the holistic development of young people. Thomas James wrote in Kurt Hahn and the Aims of Education that Hahn’s hope for his education model was to “seek out the natural qualities of leadership, skill, and responsibility possessed by all in different ways when they see that they are truly needed.” Outward Bound became a model of this hope—one we still practice on expeditions today.
One part of Kurt Hahn’s history you might not know is that he is no shy stranger to quarantine. In the early 1900s, Hahn spent time quarantined in a darkened room treating sunstroke. During that time, he developed a saying that has remained relevant.
“Your disability is your opportunity.”
Hahn was 18 at the time. His life went on to include many additional challenges, and it became even more evident that he lived by this saying. It was not just youthful optimism, but a tenet he structured his life by.
Where We Are Today
This bit of Kurt Hahn’s history has become more relevant than ever. Quarantine and limited movement have become commonplace for most of us, as have the opportunities and challenges of quarantine. Hahn, as an educator and mentor, inspires us to look beyond the obvious to what these experiences have to teach us.
Those who first welcomed quarantine as an opportunity were criticized for ignoring the social and economic realities of many, for whom quarantine and decreased mobility would be great stressors and negatively impact mental health. Without discounting those realities, it’s clear now that quarantine was not something we did for two weeks or a month and then returned to “normal.” Our day-to-day lives have been altered, and a new degree of physical isolation is as present for many as the outdoors is on an expedition. We have to learn to thrive in it.
Kurt Hahn’s Take on Quarantine Today
Outward Bound courses prepare us to deal with difficult times. They build resilience in us and teach us there is more in us than we know. However, Outward Bound courses have a beginning and an end. In terms of a global pandemic—we don’t know what will come next, in our own state or school district. We don’t know when we will close this chapter or when we will try to sum it up in a pithy statement of what we’ve learned about ourselves.
But that’s okay. If Kurt Hahn were here, he wouldn’t judge us based on the final product or what we have to show for our time in quarantine. He would grade us, as he did his students at Gordonstoun (one of Kurt Hahn’s schools founded in the United Kingdom during the 1930s.) On esprit de corps. Imagination. The ability to deal with the unexpected and to follow what one believes to be the right course of action in the face of “discomforts, hardships, dangers, mockery, boredom, skepticism, impulses of the moment.”
Turning Your Disability Into an Opportunity
How do we continue to grow these skills and do better amidst a quarantined world? During Solo, a time of solitude and reflection on an Outward Bound course, we advise students to take advantage of the time to rest, journal and write letters. It’s an enforced slowing-down that helps you re-focus on what’s truly important. For many, it’s time to focus on the little tasks we never otherwise get around to. On an expedition, that may be cleaning out the bottom of your pack where tiny bits of trash, socks and pinecones have been accumulating. Some students build amazing shelters and settle into Solo, and others, like me, simply hope it doesn’t rain.
Not surprisingly, my work-from-home situation is still a pile on the couch, six months in. We’re somewhere in the middle of this, not at the end. There’s still plenty of time in my quarantine to build a better space, to settle in and turn a disability into an opportunity.
Those of us fortunate enough to be alumni of Hahn’s schools may have entered the pandemic having had some training in these matters. For those who are planning to go on an Outward Bound course, you may find that the pandemic has in turn prepared you for some of the challenges of an expedition—the weather, the unexpected, the moments when you need to dig deep and keep going.
For all of us, to live out the optimism of “Your disability is your opportunity,” is an ongoing practice and striving, not a problem that once solved, is complete and behind us.
How does this reframe your perspective moving forward?
About the Author
Renee Igo was an Outward Bound student at age 15, and has been instructing wilderness expeditions for the Voyageur Outward Bound School for the past eight years. When not instructing, she holds a variety of other teaching positions and raises sheep in Maine.
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