92: Paul Geheeb and the School of Humanity

Paul Geheeb was a German school leader who led a progressive school at the advent of the Nazi seizure of power.


18 min read
92: Paul Geheeb and the School of Humanity

Today we’re doing something a bit different. I was checking my email a few months ago, and I have Google Scholar set up to send me articles about progressive education, and this name showed up I had never heard of before: Paul Geheeb. Geheeb was a German school leader who led a progressive school at the advent of the Nazi seizure of power. The story is wildly interesting in terms of historical significance as well as progressive pedagogy, as Geheeb led a self-directed school centered on learning by doing. We’ve gathered information about the relatively unknown life of Paul Geheeb, and we wanted to present this to you.

Paul Geheeb is a relatively unknown progressive education leader. Unlike Maria Montessori or Rudolf Steiner, Geheeb wasn’t focused on writing articles or books, nor inventing new systems of methods. His legacy is solely imbued in Echole d’Humanité, or the School of Humanity. Located in Switzerland, the School of Humanity is an elite international boarding school regarded as one of the best in Europe. Its motto, which Geheeb centered his entire educational philosophy on, is Become who you are.

Geheeb believed that every single child had a unique individual essence that had to be cared for and nurtured, as opposed to being boxed in and standardized. Therefore, there wasn’t a simple program or best environment that a school could be. Instead, students and teachers had to constantly adapt new methods based on their current learning community. There wasn’t ever a focus on particular systems that worked best, instead everything was entirely about the learners in a particular space at a particular time.

In the early 1930s, Geheeb was an well-known pedagogue described as a pacifist, feminist, humanist, and democratic leader who was in discussion for a Nobel Peace Prize, who would soon face opposition from the Nazi regime. Growing up in a wealthy family, he dedicated his free time to emancipating women, improving conditions for the poor, anti-alcoholism, and ending anti-semitism. He believed that schools led to destroying the education of children, while simultaneously believing that schools, led in a different direction, would lead to the humanization of society. He stated,

“Our public schools with their overfilled classes are instructional institutions in which there  is only fleeting contact between the older and the younger generations. Human beings, however, can only develop fully by learning cooperatively and working in communities .

The dissatisfaction with public schools is widely felt, and the countless attempts to reform them have failed. People complain about the overburdening of schools and our educators argue about which parts of the curriculum should be cut and where. But the school cannot be reformed with a pair of scissors. The solution is not to be found in the educational institutions in which passively attentive students sit across from lecturing teachers, and then have to spend the other half of the day torturing themselves at home trying to learn what had been instructed.

The solution is to transform these educational institutions into learning communities in which the students work together with their teachers much in the same way that the workers do with their  supervisors in a construction crew.”

Twenty years prior, Geheeb was co-directing various country boarding schools. Due to various disagreements in pedagogy, and after marrying into a wealthy family, Geheeb opened his dream school: the “pedagogical laboratory” Odenwaldschule in Hesse, Germany.. He had lofty expectations, Odenwald would be entirely self-directed by students, would be a coeducational boarding school - the first time ever in Europe, and everything from the schedule to the classes would be codetermined by the school community. There was never to be anything concrete or the same day-to-day.

Geheeb believed that the role of a teacher was to ultimately be unneeded. Teachers did not assign grades, students evaluated their own progress. Students chose their classes based on interest and self-assessed personal ability, regardless of age. Arts and handiwork were heavily emphasized by Geheeb and educators. Further, Geheeb prioritized hikes in nature, often lasting longer than a month and which started often sporadically when the weather was ideal.

He addressed the school community, saying:

“Whoever has come here with the expectation that the work of learning is going to be made more comfortable will certainly be disappointed. No , we don't want to make it more comfortable, -we want to make it more difficult by setting higher goals and greater demands for your insight, for your initiative, for your energy, for your intellectual desires. Of course, we will make things somewhat easier by not narrowing  down or suppressing the creative power residing in you. Rather, we shall try to bring about the freer development and a more powerful sense of strength with the  hope of making you independent and making us [your teachers] eventually unnecessary.”

To make all this work, the school established a weekly Schulgemeinde, or School Community Meeting, where every student would be able to speak and vote on every decision in the building. Geheeb made a commitment to rarely involve himself in any facet of school operations, only speaking out when he felt student freedom was being violated. Almost all other decisions were left to the teachers and students.

As you might guess, this was a pretty drastic shift for a school and not without its share of issues. Educators realized early on that it was impossible for them to concretely tackle meaningful classrooms when the schedule and courses could organically change day-to-day. Oftentimes, they were lost on what to do and classes would fall apart early on. One of the veteran instructors proposed a compromise to have students choose two courses at the beginning of each month to focus on every morning. The science educator Martin Magenschein, an early constructivist and inquiry-based education leader taught at Odenwald, developing his theories based on this idea. And this system continues at the School of Humanity today.

Yet, Geheeb didn’t care at all for this. He was solely interested in everything being completely without hierarchies, and just sort of accepted that it wasn’t perfect - but needed a willing staff at his school. He did not invest at all in Magenschein’s theories or the course system, as he did not care for any systems at all.

Geheeb believed that the best education theories devolved into slogans and mindless cliches, so he had no interest in writing about theory or inventing systems. He simply wanted to start a school that followed learner-first principles. Most of his day-to-day work revolved around guiding student endeavors and coaching life advice.

Many of these ideas were based on the ideas of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German scholar and philosopher. Geheeb stated that his schools were to be a “place of education as Goethe conceived it.” Goethe, in very simplistic terms, believed that learning by doing resulted in creative impulse, and he had a deep belief in the creative energy of nature.

This meant that Geheeb basically led on the sidelines. He rarely spoke (and therefore, when he did it was very meaningful.) He wrote verbose letters to students, families, and educators who questioned the principles of the school. If there was too much pressure on campus, such as complaining parents or some student issue, Geheeb would basically just leave on a hike with students into the mountains. In many ways, he was simply a thought leader who left educators to deal with all practical affairs.

One of the only authoritative decisions, and really one of the only systems Geheeb invented, was establishing the Warte: a system of student housing. When Odenwaldschule was founded, it was based on a family model: a couple of educators lived in a house with various students of different ages. Geheeb was frustrated that this model had essentially led to overbearing “parents”, where educators were detracting from student shared responsibility. Therefore, he separated the houses into the Warte system, where older students ran various households with the help of younger students. These students were responsibility for academic scheduling, cleaning, trips, pocket money, hygiene - really everything that students needed to do. Geheeb would meet with the Warte houses often to check-in, answer questions, and assist when asked. In the future, this system would prove immensely valuable.

In 1933, the Nazis came to power. Within a few months of Hitler becoming chancellor, the entire fascist government had taken hold. Right away, Odenwald was raided by the Nazi Brownshirts. Students were interviewed, homes were searched, and Communist party literature was found. Another raid soon after discovered works by Karl Marx, the Soviet Union, and writings on “progressive” ideas like coeducation and holistic learning. A teacher was arrested for having a collection of pacifist books.

Geheeb was warned by the storm troopers that his school must align with National Socialism, or else. He pleaded with the Nazi government to keep his school operational, while simultaneously secretly wrote to a friend in Switzerland with plans to flee the country. Just a month later, not able to control his opinions, a teacher had reported that Geheeb had called Hitler a psychopath to students, leading to yet another raid. The Hessian Minister of Culture Friedrich Ringshausen called Geheeb into his office and demanded an explanation, to which Geheeb burst out laughing, likely due to overwhelming stress. Ringshausen took control of the school: ending coeducation and firing almost the entire teaching staff to those sympathetic to the Nazi party.

Geheeb tried to reason with the new teachers to become who they are, thinking his pedagogy would change their disposition. However, as one may expect...this didn’t work. The new teachers were rooted in authoritarianism and expected the school to model that behavior. But the problem was that Odenwald was built entirely opposite of this, and the student-led Warte system was more powerful than the classes or teachers. Students basically ran the school and refused to cooperate with the new instructors. They would simply refuse to go to class, or would intentionally ignore or ineffectively respond to requests. The students would run their own classes and meet with Geheeb at their normal Warte meetings. The new teachers were left to the sidelines.

This lasted a couple of months before Nazi official Rudolph Blank was assigned to overseeing Odenwald. He made three drastic changes right away. First, he dissolved the Warte, stating “Dear children, you really have it much easier when your teachers order and the students obey and leave all responsibility to the adults.” Second, he promoted a co-leader to Geheeb named Freidank - the teacher who previously reported him to the Nazis. Third, he forbid Geheeb to close the school. Blank saw a huge opportunity for Nazi propaganda to use the well-regarded Geheeb as a symbol of the Nazi party. Geheeb fought back, to which Blank replied: “You say that I’ve completely destroyed your school. If you should happen to think of closing the school, we’ve still got space for you in a concentration camp in this area. And that’s where you’ll go!”

To complicate things further, Geheeb’s wife and family were all Jewish.

Although Geheeb couldn’t close the school, the students had other plans. Collectively, the Warte decided that they would close the school. By withdrawing in large numbers, they would bankrupt the school’s operations. At the same time, Geheeb travelled to Switzerland looking for a new site for Odenwald. He found a struggling private school who needed increased numbers, and the director agreed to partner. Geheeb wrote letters to trusted families with his plans to redirect students to the new school. He conspired with an American friend who actually sent the letters, acting as if he was a random person giving advice. No single person - family member or student - reported the plan.

Geheeb returned to his school in the Fall and found it remarkably destroyed, it now had military training, political education coursework, nationalistic marches, and training of the Hitler Youth. It had segregated not only boys from girls, but Aryans from Jews. Enrollment had dropped by roughly a third. Geheeb told Blank that he wished to keep the school running, but he was financially strapped.

Soon after, he visited Berlin. He told the Ministry of the Interior that his school was doomed due to declining enrollment. He said he could continue to demonstrate the power of German culture and the Nazi regime by operating the school abroad. Either due to the Minister wanting to get rid of Geheeb or being entirely sympathetic to his cause, Geheeb was approved to move the school - and all its students - to Switzerland.

Geheeb, with his family, 2 teachers, and 25 students, emigrated to Switzerland. The existing private school was at odds with Geheeb’s principles, and eventually the former director left. Geheeb’s pedagogy was at odds with the existing private schools of the area, which were elite boarding schools centered on college preparation. The Swiss private school directors wrote,

“His idea and his basically Germanic temperament makes Mr. Geheeb appear especially ill suited to work with a Swiss and especially a Latin education. He lacks a healthy understanding of human beings, the capacity for reasoned deliberation, and clarity.” They called him a nudist and communist to destroy his character and denied his operating of a new school. After multiple years of negotiations, Geheeb eventually opened his school in an abandoned castle...then an inn...then a house...then a Christian recreation center, and finally its location in the remote mountains above Goldern, Switzerland.

Geheeb renamed the school to the School of Humanity and led the school for nearly 30 years.

A student quoted at length stated,

“The students were aggressive, dedicated, and too old for their years. And they ran the school.Most of them were refugees from Germany who could pay only an exceedingly small sum each month, some nothing at all. Paul[us] never turned a pupil away. They were brilliant, defensive, and, many of them, tragically maladjusted. Children who have seen their parents shamed, mistreated and, in some cases, jailed or killed are not children...They wanted to work and work and work. They wanted to build themselves into people who could fight back. Under their rigid discipline we worked and studied and worked from the cold early morning exercises until bedtime. Even our recreational moments had to have a purpose.

They knew how hard it was for the school to keep going, and through their student government, and it was a complete student government, they saw that all the chores of keeping the school clean and fed were carried out. The emotional strain was unbearable for some...the German mail plane—with the swastika on its wings—flew over the vegetable garden every afternoon around 4:00 and those of us working in the garden screamed and yelled curses in uncontrollable hate…

This was progressive education—harsh and exaggerated to be sure. This was the Paul Geheeb Educational experiment—living still in poverty and exile...This was an educational experience none of us will ever forget.”

The renaming to the School of Humanity reflected Geheeb’s growth toward believing in a “humane education.” He believed that it wasn’t enough for students to develop a love for themselves and their family (and their school “family”), but the community itself. By everyone growing increasingly connected and having international and local ties to classmates and the surrounding community, a love and demand for peace would be developed. Much of his writing centered on the need for communities like this to prevent the World Wars that he lived through.

Geheeb was then faced with selling his school to the local Swiss populace. Although Geheeb was a respected school leader, his ideas weren’t exactly presentable. It was a wild notion to allow students to have coed houses up in the Swiss mountains and run their own education. Plus, Geheeb wasn’t exactly the most presentable person: he maintained an extraordinarily long beard and almost always wore shorts and sandals...despite the temperature. Slowly, the school developed a helpful reputation by assisting local farmers in chores and maintenance work.

The School of Humanity exists to this day as a nonprofit private school, largely based on the thoughts of Geheeb. Not much has changed in its structure: there are extremely small classes of 2-9 students per teacher, of which students choose two classes a month to deep dive. Students do not receive grades, and instead self-reflect and receive portfolio feedback. There is a large focus on outdoor events and hiking. All learning is conducted in small groups and cooperatively students move from task to task.

It enrolls first to twelfth grade across six buildings and numerous small dwellings for 150 students. It employs 50 people. Many of the buildings are rented out to local businesses and residents, which the students help maintain.

It’s not entirely the same, however. There is much more focus on increasing advanced placement test scores; albeit not as much as a traditional private school. Due to the School of Humanity’s reputation, there is an expectation that many students will go on to “elite” colleges. There is a selective admissions process based on a student’s familiarity and willingness to adopt to self-directed education. The school is subject to the government curriculum, although it seems loosely followed. Some of the student’s choices for month-long coursework is mandated by these standards. The Warte system is once again led by employees, usually two - who are often married - for every four to twelve students (called a “family.”) They stay within this family all the way until they graduate.

And there’s an extremely high price tag: between $60,000 to $100,000 per year, not including trips. This price goes toward campus facilities, of which all educators live full time. Because there are so many employees, the school actually operates at a loss and survives through donations. To compensate student tuition, a scholarship fund in Geheeb’s name provides partial to full tuition for diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds.

And there is some control. Students must help take care of the school: everything from cooking to cleaning to building maintenance is done, in-part, by all students. Food is kept simple, and students have limited pocket money. They’re not allowed to drink or smoke. And all private modern recreation is forbidden - no video games, TVs, or radios in private rooms, for example. It’s believed that this will encourage students to be passive instead of active creators, and to limit anxiety.

The school states,

“We try to bring our pupils into a living relation with the riches of culture, arouse in them interest in the great problems of our time, and shield the children from trivial diversions. We welcome and promote independent activity...and we encourage pupils to participate responsibly in school life. We strive for a simple life close to nature (food is simple, but planned along nutritional guidelines; smoking and the use of alcohol are prohibited even for the oldest pupils). The magnificent mountain landscape offers great opportunities in the summer for excursions and in the winter months for winter sports.”

Finally, the school has adopted long-term projects that students work on beyond their coursework, which involves something they’re passionate about and want to explore. This is mostly self-assessed with feedback from educators.

Graduates of the School of Humanity include Hans Zimmer, the film composer; various noble families such as the Nehru, Gandhi, Boss, and von Rosenberg families; and various academics and writers such as Sarah Gorham. Odenwald and The School of Humanity were associated with the birth of the progressive education movement by Adolphe Ferrière, who in 1921 established the New Education Fellowship with Maria Montessori, Célestin Freinet, Gisèle de Failly and Roger Cousinet.

Because Geheeb focused on practice rather than systems, his model of education was never explicitly copied, although it is very similar to many self-directed democratic schools today. Ironically, the one system he explicitly defined, the Warte, was likely the reason why he was able to resist full Nazi occupation and continue the legacy of his school.

In general, his views on education were difficult to explicitly define and theorize, so much of the education world hasn’t written about him. Geheeb believed that “intelligence” could not be directly fed through schooling. If that happened, then the learner would simply be dehumanized. Instead, education was a mix between growth, reflection, development, investigation, cognition, and more. It was wildly complicated and fulfilled through students exploring the world around them.

When schooling systems forced students to learn through threats, fear, and failure, they ultimately submitted to authority. Or, they retreated into isolation. Geheeb was concerned the growing movement of authoritarianism (for good reason) but almost more concerned with isolation: if students couldn’t face the “real world”, they couldn’t fight back nor understand oppression.

Drawing on experiential education, Geheeb simply wanted to expose students to a variety of opportunities. He assumed that students would form their character and knowledge of the self by seeing a bunch of intriguing things, which they may like or not like. They would “become who they are.”

Geheeb never wrote about really any of this, as he saw the student to student and teacher to student relationships, daily routines, events, hikes, and coursework as all organic and unpredictable. If it became prescriptive, then it no longer met the goals that he had in mind. To put this into perspective, it was written that:

“"Thomas Mann’s sixteen year old  son, Klaus, wrote poems and novels. He resisted the inclination to attend classes regularly. Often he simply remained in bed in the morning and when Mr. Geheeb, the director of the school. knocked on the door of him [sic] room, he would get the answer from the student , 'Please don' t bother me; I'm writing.'' At that [sic] Geheeb would usually withdraw. Some laughed about  it ,but other[s] wrinkled their foreheads in troubled consternation.''

It’s important to note that Geheeb’s legacy isn’t rooted entirely in self-directed education. Instead of fully embracing entirely unstructured classes, students had academic and behavioral standards and are obligated to work. Students are kicked out if they misbehaved or didn’t contribute at all academically. And the focus on an elite graduate education was and is commonplace. The current directors state,

“The academic achievement here becomes quite impressive as students find their natural motivation to work, but you cannot force students who are resisting you to learn well…

Achievement seems to come easily  once  the student has come to terms with himself, but that takes time. One must often be very patient. And one must take risks to educate well. You need  to  trust the child's desire to grow. Under the proper conditions , learning continues to take place everywhere, even in those moments of quiet and withdrawal, in those moments of personal  reflection. Very often it's there that new possibilities of understanding and new insights present themselves, not only for these students but perhaps for us all.”

Absent the underlying focus on test scores in some cases, the principles of a semi-structured environment are very commonplace in progressive pedagogies and schools. Having choice, free rein over much of one’s learning, and the ability to pursue interesting projects is the cornerstone of the School of Humanity’s structured morning learning. A student stated, “Because I was not forced, because I was able to choose for myself, it was in the end much easier to cope with  the material.” The educators focus on balance, never too much of one thing, and they want learners to be content. The school is still entirely gradeless, parents receive a certificate after students complete a year. Students may reiterate on past learning if they struggle, for example in an mandated English class, but never explicitly “fail.”

Geheeb’s story and lasting legacy offers us the opportunity to analyze ways to replicate success across different educational environments. Although Geheeb was opposed to “systems”, I believe that his idea of systems is a bit more rigid than how many progressive educators view systems-based thinking. When Human Restoration Project mentions changing “systems”, we are never proposing a rigid structure of anything, but a change in how we navigate certain structures such as grading or discipline. This is evident in Geheeb’s belief of self-directed education, which is one of HRP’s “systems.”

At the heart of this structure is a deceptively simple concept: students have some required work in the morning, time for self-exploration and articles of interest, and the afternoon to participate in what they’d like. That, in conjunction with less authoritarian teachers by removing barriers to learning such as strict discipline systems, grades, and tests, leads to discovery and community building. Geheeb later added the element of place: giving students a space to connect with community members through work and play.

Now there are numerous barriers to replicating this model step-by-step in US schools,

  1. The requirements of funding these schools is extraordinarily high, especially given the number of employees.
  2. Boarding schools tend to separate from the family, which isn’t commonplace nor welcomed by most.
  3. And high-stakes testing and cultural norms of schooling tend to favor traditional methods.

And it’s important to note that the cost of enrollment for the School of Humanity means that many of the students are privileged to begin with, which means our understanding of the success of the school is skewed toward families with adequate resources to begin with. It seems most young people would be successful if in a situation where their families can afford a $100,000/yr tuition to live in the mountains, no matter the circumstances. That said, this school modeled was widely accepted and successful when it was simply taking any student who wanted to attend.

When I hear of this model, I can’t help but think of Finnish public schools, which feature shorter school days, a large emphasis on breaks and play, consistent teachers from a young age, little to no standardized testing, and large government support structures that care for impoverished students and their families. Although not a great measure, Finnish schools consistently rank extremely high on international tests. In better metrics, Finns are twice as likely to have friends and family to turn to in need than the United States, and rate as the happiest country in the world with only 2% reporting low life satisfaction (in comparison to the US, which ranks #18.) There’s virtually no homelessness, and Finns have most of their needs met through social democracy.

Therefore, I think there are two lessons learned from Geheeb’s story, prompting teachers to advocate and change schooling:

First, educators need to advocate for the removal of barriers between teachers and students. Children are able to flourish when boundaries are removed, when we remove judgement, ranking and filing, over-standardization, and tracking; or when we remove authoritarianism through harsh discipline measures and the banking model. These systemic and pedagogical changes will allow students to create and do amazing things, as showcased at the School of Humanity and many other progressive institutions.

Second, we need to advocate for social justice for our communities to have the necessary tools to have schools like this. It’s not fair that rich, private institutions are able to incorporate progressive ideas, but ignored communities are usually preyed upon by corporate, high-stakes, ultra-authoritarian charter schools. Not only do we need well-funded schools, we need our community’s needs met through an elaborate social welfare system. Teaching would be much more feasible and sustainable in a system where all children have access to the necessities at home.

Ultimately, Geheeb’s story showcases to us that the progressive model works. When we dedicate ourselves to the principle that students learn by doing, teachers serve as guides, and children need time and space to flourish, we raise a generation of creative young minds. Equally as important, as we see the rise of authoritarianism both through fascist thinking and neoliberal corporate control, raising children in an environment where they have power is essential to the fight for social justice. Students must learn to use their voice by actually using their voice. We must abolish the systemic oppression of the overwhelming control of students that occurs in K-12, and fight back against those who prop it up. When we build a reimagined education system, we’ll build a robust society that cares for each other, establishes a better and safer future, and ensures humanity flourishes.

And lastly, this story communicates how much of a struggle changing education can be. Not only do we need to deal with the day-to-day matters of running our classrooms, but have to embark on a journey of setbacks, challenges, and arguments to justify the use of progressive education. Geheeb faced setbacks from school leaders, local communities, landlords, his school community, and of course, the Nazis. Yet, he persevered after decades of advocating for a better school for young people. The world needs a movement of educators that embrace changing education for good, a series of advocates working together to bring transformation to our school systems and communities.

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