Ruth Cohn, a main building rock of the Ecole structure

Wednesday, 07. November 2018

Photo of Laurie & Sophia: Wes | Photo of Ruth Cohn: Peter Friedli

Who was Ruth Cohn? “An amazing woman… a main building rock of the Ecole structure”, according to Sophia and Laurie, Ecole students respectively in their second and fourth year. But who was Ruth Cohn, really? Sophia and Laurie could not tell much more, and therefore decided to prepare and lead an “Andacht” (the Ecole Sunday Evening Program) to enlighten the Community members about Ruth Cohn’s life and her contributions to the Ecole.

Sarah and Alain, who have taught and lived at the Ecole for 40 years, knew Ruth personally. They answered Sophia and Laurie’s questions for the whole community and shared anecdotes and sayings from Ruth’s time at the Ecole. Over the course of the evening we all became better acquainted with Ruth, who never asked, “What’s wrong with you?” Instead she always wanted to know, “What’s right with you?”

Ruth C. Cohn was born in 1912 in Berlin to a Jewish family. Forced to flee from the Nazis, she arrived in Switzerland in 1933 and began training as a psychoanalyst. In 1941, she emigrated to the United States where she lived and worked as a psychologist and psychotherapist, collaborating with celebrities from her field including Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Virginia Satir, Rollo May, and Fritz Perls.

In the 1970s, Ruth Cohn was looking for an opportunity to return to her roots in Europe. Her friend Hans Näf, shared her story with Armin Lüthi, who was then Director of the Ecole (1961-1994). Armin was intrigued and invited Ruth to the Ecole to help improve retention and morale among his faculty. Ruth, meanwhile, was eager to find an institution where she could put her philosophy of group dynamics into action. It was a perfect match. Ruth’s acceptance of Armin’s offer marked the start of a long and fruitful partnership between the distinguished psychologist and the school. Ruth was so successful in her work with the Ecole faculty that many of the young teachers she worked with remain at the Ecole today, forming a stable core of veterans; among them, Alain & Sarah, Ernst & Sigrid, Fränzi & Frédéric are still active at the Ecole today!

Sarah shared a story both thrilling and moving about Ruth attending summer camp when she was not yet nine-years-old. Desperately homesick, Ruth made friends with another young girl who was also missing her family. Ruth revealed a shameful secret to her new friend: she had stolen a piece of chocolate and couldn't stop lying to her dad who kept asking her about it. Then the friend also shared something she wasn’t proud of: she couldn’t say ‘I'm sorry’ even when she knew she should. Ruth suggested that she would write a letter to her friend whenever she had trouble admitting to a mistake and that her friend could write to her whenever she was struggling to apologize. In these letters the girls could be truthful with each other which helped them, over time, to be more open and honest with others. Eventually Ruth admitted her chocolate theft to her father and the friend learned to voice the powerful words, “I’m sorry.”

This therapeutic intuition in her childhood and its success had an influence on the path she took as a psychotherapist: the mutual respect between patient and therapist, the certitude that already simply to express a conflict has a healing effect, and the trust in the therapist’s confidentiality.

As an interlude, Sophia and Laurie read “The question is”, a poem that Ruth Cohn wrote:

The question is
what will remain
when shadows dissipate
and glaring colors violate pastels?

The question is
what will remain
when fertile soil erodes
and naked boulders stare
where bread was to be sown?

The question is
who will remain?

Ruth Cohn is famous outside the Ecole for inventing and developing “Theme-Centered Interaction - TCI” – a concept and method for working in groups. But what does this concept mean, and how did it begin? Alain explained that Ruth’s work as a therapist showed her that even the most diverse group of people had something in common: a theme. From this, she conceived that well-known triangle: in each corner appear the words “I” for the individual, “We” for the group, and finally, ”It” for the theme, all of which are influenced by the environment, represented by a circle enclosing the triangle.

Ruth was also convinced that if you find your own entry to the theme then you learn much more and more quickly. Alain interrupted his story when he observed a student who was not paying attention. He reminded the assembly that Ruth used to say the average person can focus for only seven minutes! In this statement, and all of her teaching, Ruth taught Alain how to deal with someone who is not as he wants them to be. You cannot change the other person, so you just have to change yourself!

Ecole students and teachers also learned about Ruth’s political engagement. At the time of apartheid in South Africa, she arranged for the Ambassador to South Africa to visit the Ecole! Not only did he have a usual “simple” Ecole lunch at Osthaus, but he was probably also surprised by Ruth using the informal “Du” form when addressing him during their lunch discussion and again in Schulgemeinde at the old Turmhaus. While the Ambassador tried to justify that separating races would lead to increased stability in the society, Ecole students and teachers bravely challenged his position.

Fränzi also shared a dear memory of how Ruth taught her to deal with her anger. Fränzi had to learn to first acknowledge the feelings, even pinpointing where she can actually feel the sensation, pain or frustration in her body. Only then could she finally let the feelings go at the right time and place, even if that means taking some time for herself before dealing with something else.

Although Ruth Cohn passed away eight years ago, the values and ideas that she brought to the Ecole live on in our daily practices and traditions:

• The “Ruth Cohn Triangle” is very well known by Ecole students, because it is a base for reflection and discussion in feedback sessions (Ecole students receive individualized, carefully differentiated feedback instead of grades, and actively and regularly reflect on and evaluate their own work).

• Exactly a year ago (October 2017), the Ecole inaugurated the new Eberhard-Berent House which now houses the library. The former library space was then unanimously baptized the “Ruth Cohn Center”, as she had been so much involved in building the first Ecole library there. Today, the Ruth Cohn Center is a cozy place hosting not only academic classes, but also afternoon classes (yoga, theater, meditation), special meetings (Women’s and Men’s evening) and where students and teachers are invited to meet and connect in their free time.

• Last but not least, Sigrid and Ernst currently live in Dunkelhouse, the very place where Ruth lived during her time at the Ecole. When she first stood on the balcony and took in the beautiful, sweeping view of the Alps, she exclaimed, “Maybe here I can find God!”

Ruth Cohn’s teachings and writings continue to resonate at the Ecole d’Humanité, and in particular this meaningful quote that is more relevant today than it has ever been: "A group does not become stronger, when people forfeit their individuality. It gets stronger, when they actualize themselves in their community. Everyone realizes oneself in relation to others and in dedication to the task at hand."

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