AIGLON FOUNDER JOHN CORLETTE
John Corlette's Aiglon Mission Statement
"The aim of [Aiglon College] is to train the mind and to develop in the students the qualities of uprightness, honesty, tenacity, self-discipline, good health in body and mind, thoughtfulness and service to others."
In a review (7/4/15) of Whipping Boy, Allen Kurzweil's book about his year at Aiglon College, the Sydney Morning Herald's Andrew Riemer wrote,
Aiglon College was founded by an eccentric (or crackpot) Englishman called John Corlette – he liked to be referred to as JC – with an educational philosophy (if it can be graced with such a term) made up, in equal parts, of self-improvement, mysticism, social responsibility and the like on the one hand, and fascist regimentation on the other.
That is a gratuitous slur from a writer who hasn't the slightest idea what he's talking about. Reasonable minds may disagree about Corlette's experiential pedagogical philosophy or certain parts of it, but he was neither a crackpot nor a fascist. In fact, his three-legged stool of "mind, body, and spirit" has now become so ubiquitous in school mottoes worldwide as to be almost trite. JC was way ahead of his time.
John Corlette founded Aiglon with just six students in 1949. It it said the name came from Isaiah 40:31—"but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint." Aiglon is French for "Eaglet."
Born in London in 1911, JC moved to Switzerland at 16 after a bout of ill health, attending Alpine College in Arveyes, just outside Villars (a ski resort near Montreux), before following in his father’s footsteps and training as an architect. But after reading history at Exeter College, Oxford, he developed an interest in teaching. He subsequently worked at Gordonstoun [School], in Scotland, where he drew inspiration from its founding headmaster, the famous German educationalist, Outward Bound founder, and fellow "crackpot" Kurt Hahn.
(Hahn once wrote,
...an eminent man challenged me to explain what sailing in a schooner could do for international education. In reply, I said we had at that moment the application before us for a future king of an Arab country to enter Gordonstoun. I happened to have at the school some Jews representing the best type of their race. If the Arab and one of these Jews were to go out sailing on our schooner. . .perhaps in a Northeasterly gale, and if they were become thoroughly seasick together, I would have done something for international education.
So there you have it; one man's sadist is another man's visionary. [see footnote, below])
Taking a cue from his mentor, JC believed that the pursuit of intellectual virtuosity must be joined with strenuous physical challenges and, importantly, strong moral commitment.
Accordingly, he set out to devise a rich experiential curriculum that touched all the necessary bases. For starters, Aiglonians didn't just look at slides of paintings and architectural treasures, they went to see them—and much more—in Paris, in Munich, in Florence, and in cities closer to the mountain. They didn't just listen to recordings of classical music, they attended concerts. (I was an usher at a recital-fundraiser featuring Dame Joan Sutherland whose son, Adam, lived across the hall from me.) Throughout the year, cultural exposure was a major component of academic formation.
And then there were the expeditions:
Expeditions on foot, on ski and on bicycle have been an integral part of our character training programme since the inception of the school. This part of the programme [...] offers a boy splendid opportunities to prove himself, to test his endurance and to satisfy the perhaps latent desire which every boy worth his salt has to submit himself to a discipline, to conquer and to endure hardships and difficulties. This is the crucible in which character is formed and the spirit strengthened, conditions which are too often absent from the life of the average boy in an affluent society. —John Corlette, 1966 (Aiglon was an all-boys school at that time.)
Those hiking, skiing, and cycling expeditions could be grueling. That was the point. More recently, serial entrepreneur Jesse Itzler netted it out: The more challenging the task, the more alive you feel." [see below]
Aiglon had a rank system that some people have characterized as 'militaristic.' But it really wasn't a rank system at all, certainly not in any military sense. For example, there was no 'chain of command.' Higher ranking students had no authority over lower ranking ones. It was what today we call a 'token system,' a strategy designed to reward appropriate behavior—the higher the rank, the more privileges and pocket money students received. Similar systems are now commonplace at other schools worldwide, though it's usually redeemable tokens of some sort rather than 'ranks' that are awarded. Some former students (inappropriately) conflated the school's rank system with its British-style prefect system. Prefects—few in number—did have the authority to discipline other students. But the purpose there was to teach leadership in an environment where mistakes would not be terribly consequential. In any event, the notion of a self-governing school community was nothing new.
Aiglon also had early morning PT (physical training) and brief cold showers. JC had read that cold plunges (widely practiced in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia) contributed to better mood, vigor, and memory. And today there's some research to back him up. Accommodations were spartan. There was no reason for a country club campus, and there was something to be gained by teaching youngsters—many from affluent families, some spoiled rotten—how to be comfortable with being a little uncomfortable. In addition, JC discouraged poor dietary habits. He ordered special multi-grain bread from the local bakery and tried to ban the consumption of sodas and junk food.
Finally, JC wanted Aiglonians to look inward. To that end, every morning started with a meditation, often led by people of different religious and philosophical persuasions. He wanted students to have the ability to see the sacred—the philosophia perennis—and to be able to recognize its numerous manifestations. Never was there an attempt to indoctrinate, unless you consider Anglican confirmation instruction offered to willing students (or at a parent's request) indoctrination. While comparative religion is often a third rail in American secondary education, it was an integral part of an Aiglon experience. And why not? It should be obvious that there is no way to understand, say, India unless you know something about Hinduism; no way to understand the Middle East without knowing something about Islam; and certainly no way to understand Western Civilization without some grasp of Christian theology and tradition. In that regard, Corlette was on the same page as distinguished British historian Christopher Dawson, a contemporary, who believed the relationship between religion and culture was rich and deep.
I knew John Corlette personally, though he was a semi-retired administrator and I was a young student. Sadly, I never got the opportunity to speak with him at any length. While he left few written documents explaining his educational philosophy, it was a philosophy I lived for two years. It has become clear that a few students hated everything about the place. Some would have hated any school that made demands on them. But it is also clear that many others loved it. And then I'm sure there were others, perhaps most, who found themselves someplace in the middle. Today, all the top independent schools have resort-like campuses, dazzling high-tech pedagogy, and oodles of "pastoral care." How wonderful to be able to lavish so much on youngsters. But one has to wonder if that experience really trumps a dedicated faculty, some well-worn hiking boots, a pair of banged-up skis, and a few old converted hotels in the Swiss Alps—John Corlette's Aiglon. And one wonders if most schools are really serious when they tout "mind, body, AND spirit." Personally, I have my doubts. I suspect they're much more interested in building state-of-the-art facilities and gaming standardized test scores. After all, that's the compelling pitch these days.
But as for me, I am reminded of a classic film and the famous dying word uttered by the rich and urbane [Citizen] Charles Foster Kane: "Rosebud." In hindsight, days spent cold and wet on a Colorado slope with his little sled meant more to him than all the comfort money could buy.
"IT'S ONLY WHEN YOU KNOW DISCOMFORT THAT YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE." —EX-NAVY SEAL DAVID GOGGINS
Footnote: The pendulum may now be swinging back John Corlette's way. In November 2015, serial entrepreneur Jesse Itzler released a book entitled Living With a SEAL: 31 Days of Training With the Toughest Man on the Planet. (The cofounder of private-jet-card company Marquis Jet, a former MTV rapper, and co-owner of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, Itzler is married to Spanx founder Sara Blakely.)
One day back in 2010, Itzler invited—well, offered to pay—a former Navy SEAL, David Goggins, to move into his Upper West Side NYC apartment for a month and teach him a thing or two about life and character. It was a transformative experience to say the least. The Aiglon College my classmates and I attended 40+ years ago was nothing like the quasi-Special Ops training Jesse endured for 31 days. But there are some striking similarities: up early, strenuous-to-the-point of-exhausting exercise, cold plunges, seemingly arbitrary rules (lots of them), and the exhilaration and confidence that come from overcoming frequent, difficult physical challenges. Still, at Aiglon, nobody's physical safety was ever put at great risk and nobody went hungry. Everybody had what they needed—and more. So, does Itzler think his month-long experience was worth it? What did he learn? Buy the book or click on the link below to find out.
You can also watch this more recent short video on Itzler and Goggins, here.