Educator, Changemaker, Environmentalist, Lawyer: An Interview with Hans Hageman

Hans Hageman has worn many hats, among them school founder, educator, coach, lawyer, activist, and environmentalist. He’s a role model for youth and adults alike, and we are so grateful that among his significant volunteer choices (such as firefighter as seen in this photo), he serves on IHE’s Curriculum Advisory Board. 

IHE: Hans, you were educated in some of the most prestigious schools and universities including The Collegiate School in Manhattan, Princeton University, and Columbia Law School. You then went on to found schools serving largely disenfranchised youth, volunteered in prisons, and worked across the globe helping children living in poverty and working on environmental issues. Can you tell us about your goals and motivation in bringing your substantial gifts and knowledge to those most in need?

Hans: I grew up during the ‘60s in a residential drug treatment center in East Harlem started by my father. He was a white Methodist minister from a poor farming family in Nebraska. My mother was an African-American whose large family came to Chicago in the Great Migration. One flight down from our apartment lived 50 men who had recently returned from prison or who were Vietnam veterans. Another fifty men and women took part in vocational training and therapy sessions during the day.

My mother taught and organized in the community, and my father marched (and was arrested) with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These were days of protest and division. My parents devoted their lives to reweaving a social fabric that was exposing all of its torn and worn spots.

In our un-airconditioned, fourth-floor walkup, in the 8×10 foot room I shared with my brother, in a building that housed convicted felons and men suffering from what they would later call “PTSD,” I led a fairytale existence.

My brother, sister, and I didn’t have a lot of “things,” but we were never hungry, and our parents purchased any book we wanted. I looked out my window and walked the streets and saw many children who didn’t have what I had. I intuitively felt that I had landed on my good fortune by accident of birth. I received daily lessons on the power of redemption. I learned that there were no “disposable” human beings of any age. I discovered that there were many children in my community who had had their birthrights stolen by a system that didn’t value them because of their color and where they were born.

The vibrancy, passion, purpose, and poverty in my community were juxtaposed with my attendance at an elite all-boys school founded in 1628. When I started there in 2nd grade, I was the only minority in the elementary and middle schools until my brother joined me the following year.

I grew up wanting to be a lawyer. My goal was to correct the wrongs that led to my parents eventually working themselves to death. I ultimately accomplished that goal. I learned to be tough and to remain vulnerable. I learned the importance of being predictable and reliable. I discovered the importance of a tribe that extended beyond blood relatives. This tribe ensured spiritual and community survival.

My parents taught me the importance of mastery, self-knowledge, personal agency, self-actualization, and servant leadership. These were gifts that I brought to the students I would later work with in East Harlem, Lucknow, India, Machakos, Kenya, and an upstate NY maximum-security prison for teen boys.

I was also motivated to bring my gifts and hard-won knowledge to young people because of the male doctor at Rockefeller University Hospital, who sexually abused me on more than one occasion when I was ten years old (something I haven’t publicly disclosed until now). I wanted to make sure that the children who crossed my path had at least one adult who was reliable and trustworthy.

IHE: I’m so sorry this happened to you Hans, and even more impressed with how you’ve chosen to turn abuse into generosity and support for others. Can you share with us some examples of the power of teachers to transform the lives of young people, and the power of education to forge profound opportunities for children? 

Hans: I have several examples of transformative teachers from my life. They range from my 1st-grade public school teacher Jean Dindia to my English/karate teacher Dr. Joseph D’Angelo, to the Princeton chaplain Ernest Gordon who survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp and was one of the builders of the Bridge Over the River Kwai. I saw the power of Sashi Acharya, who was a co-founder of my girls’ school in Lucknow, India. For close to a decade, and with limited resources, she changed the destinies of dozens of poor Hindu and Muslim girls.

My love of reading helped me learn about teachers like Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound, who fought against “the misery of unimportance” that too many children are forced to suffer. I discovered Janusz Korczak, the Polish-Jewish educator and children’s rights activist who died with his students at the Treblinka extermination camp. One of his books provided me with what became my mantra, “I exist not to be loved and admired, but to love and act.” These words carried me over some challenging places.

These were teachers who demonstrated altruism as an antidote to the preoccupation with self.

I witnessed how Nature can be a “first teacher” when I took students on desert survival trips to Utah and winter camping trips to northern Minnesota, where the air temperature went down to -65 degrees Fahrenheit.

 It’s my experience that the best teachers embodied the words of Kahlil Gibran who said: “Work is love made visible.”

IHE: As you know, IHE works to educate young people to be solutionaries who have the knowledge, skills, and experiences to solve both local and global challenges in ways that do the most good and least harm to people, animals, and the environment. While we are seeing some classrooms, schools, districts, and even a large county serving 113,000 children embrace the goal of educating a #SolutionaryGeneration, most schools are still operating under an old model that includes separate content areas rather than interdisciplinary work; standardized testing and grades as the primary assessment tools; textbook-learning rather than real-world learning, etc. What do you think it will take to shift the educational system toward more relevant learning and solutionary practices?

Hans: I’m frustrated that Frederick Winslow Taylor’s theory of “Scientific Management” still impacts so much of today’s schooling. The children of the elite can escape the worst of this in their expensive academies. But even those children do not escape unscathed. They, too, suffer from “discouragement” – the elimination of opportunities to show courage. Adolescent rebellion is a symptom of the scarcity of adventure.

Individual learning must benefit the community instead of only serving as a weapon in an arsenal for academic and social advancement.

Schools prepare children for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet and a future that, especially with things like climate change, we have a hard time imagining. There is plenty of evidence to show that the “soft” skills such as creativity, community-building, critical thinking, problem-solving, exploring, emotional intelligence, intuition, storytelling, the pursuit of mastery, and the embrace of failure, hold more promise for a successful and joyful life in the face of this uncertain future. Experiential and adventure-based learning are two of the paths to this place. There must be a balance of body and mind, and there must be schools and jobs that allow us to use both.

Schools must become a place where children learn the importance of personal responsibility instead of obedience to outside authority. Children can develop inner discipline from a set of values and a desire for “greatness.” Without this, children become susceptible to the tyranny of adults, their peer group, and mass media.

There is a history of top-down education reform efforts that usually repeat the same mistakes.

The temptation for many of us is to default to the “experts.” Things are moving too fast for us to allow this to continue. There is a history of organizing and movement building in civil rights, women’s rights, labor, etc. We must create the same thing in education. This education movement must be intersectional. All of our children are at risk. As John Dewey put it, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely and left unchecked destroys our democracy.”

IHE: Thank you so much, Hans. We are so grateful for all that you are doing to transform education and build a more just and humane world.