Childhood and early life

Kurt Lewin was born on September 9, 1890— what he himself called "the ninth nine of 90" in the small town of Mogilno, which is now part of Poland. At the time of Lewin's birth, however, it belonged to imperial Germany. His father, Leopold Lewin, ran a small general store on the ground floor of the family's home. The Lewins also owned a small farm a few miles outside Mogilno, where Kurt acquired a love of nature and enjoyed the freedom to explore the nearby fields and forests. He also had his own garden and became a skilled amateur mechanic.

Lewin's mother Recha was a warmhearted and energetic woman who reared her four children while she worked in the family store. Hertha, the firstborn child, was the only daughter. Kurt was the oldest of the three sons; his younger brothers were named Egon and Fritz. The family was close-knit and affectionate with one another. The Lewin family was not wealthy, but belonged to the financially secure middle class. Lewin's father served for a time as the president of the local synagogue.

In 1905, however, Lewin's family moved from Mogilno to Berlin because the parents wanted to give their children a better education than small-town schools could provide. Kurt was enrolled in the Kaiserin Augusta Gymnasium, a very selective high school that prepared students for university entrance. He was not regarded as an outstanding student until his last two years at the Gymnasium, when he began to study Greek philosophy and fell in love with it.

Lewin graduated from the Gymnasium in 1909 and entered the University of Freiburg, intending to study medicine and become a country doctor. He disliked the anatomy courses, however, and left Freiburg after one semester, transferring to the University of Munich. After completing one semester at Munich, Lewin transferred again—this time to the University of Berlin, where he remained until he completed his Ph.D. He took courses in philosophy instead of medicine, and found himself particularly attracted to the philosophy of science. One of Lewin's teachers suggested that he might find psychology interesting, and it was this suggestion that led to Lewin's work in the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin. When the time came for Lewin to choose a director for his dissertation, he requested Carl Stumpf (1848-1936), who was the director of the university's Psychological Laboratory. Stumpf was a pioneer of the experimental method in psychology, which brought him into conflict with the reigning school of psychology in Germany in the 1890s. In addition to Stumpf, the other professor who made a deep impression on Lewin was Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), who taught courses in philosophy of science. Lewin always admired Cassirer for encouraging him to push beyond the boundaries that limited the study of psychology at that time.

While in graduate school, Lewin became involved with socialist groups that advocated a democratic government for Germany as well as legal and professional equality for women. He formed a group of nine or 10 students who organized evening classes for working-class men and women in subjects ranging from arithmetic and reading skills to history and geography. The informal "school" continued to enroll more and more students each year until the outbreak of World War I.

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