Why Were Indian Residential Schools Uniquely Abusive?


Xerxes went to a private residential school in India, and he and his fellow alumnae seem to have pleasant memories of it. He writes: 

“The majority of letters describe the boarding school experience in glowing terms, especially about lifelong friends made there. I wonder even more what made the staff at Indian Residential Schools, especially the nuns, so abusive. I wish I knew more.”

He has a point. There is no good reason why the level of abuse should be higher at an Indian Residential School than at any other residential school. The circumstances are the same.

In fact, we do not know if the Indian Residential Schools were any more abusive than the average residential school.

The reports we have in either case are anecdotal. Some may come forward; some may not. For those who do, we rarely have independent corroboration. We cannot really tell how widespread abuse was.

We can assume that a situation where an adult has control over every aspect of a child’s life is a situation that will allow for bullying and sadism, and will attract bullies and sadists. This will hold true for any kind of residential school. It will hold true for orphanages. It will also hold true for families. The easiest way a bully or a sadist can indulge their worst desires is to have children. 

The imponderable question then becomes, in which of these three situations is the likelihood of abuse the greatest, and is there any way we can reduce the risk?

In fact, the risk is probably less in an orphanage or residential school than in a home. In an orphanage or residential school, no one staff member has such absolute control as does a parent. Other staffers are likely to intervene. A child abused in a residential school can appeal to his parents to go home. A child kept at home (or in an orphanage) has no escape. 

Upper classes everywhere have from time immemorial farmed out their children to others. Was this is for the convenience of the parents? I doubt that. Do most people really dislike spending time with their children?

It is more likely for the children’s protection. Time has taught us this lesson, and we have forgotten it. A child is most at risk at home. No doubt the average upper class parent would not abuse. But they could not be sure of other relatives: not their spouse, and not some uncle. Safest to have them in hands known to be responsible. And anyone who did not do this was probably suspected of abuse, which itself was helpful.

As for orphanages, Richard Mackenzie, who grew up in an orphanage, found his own childhood had been happy enough. So he decided to investigate. Were orphanages really that bad? An economist, he knew how to gather his data.

He found:

Alumni reported that they had done better than the general population on almost all measures, including education, income, attitude toward life, criminal records, psychological problems, unemployment, dependence on welfare, and happiness…. The alumni reported that they had an overall college graduation rate 39 percent higher than the general population in their age group … They also reported 10 to 60 percent higher median incomes than those in their age cohort. 

Twice as many pronounced themselves satisfied with their own lives, and twice as many felt they had achieved “the American Dream.” 

“Yes, there were occasional bad eggs on staffs of my own and other orphanages I’ve surveyed,” Mackenzie acknowledges, “… but they were probably rarer than those found in many biological and foster-care families.”

How might we try to reduce the risk? One obvious strategy, and a traditional one, is to give the charge of residential schools and orphanages, and farmed-out individual children, over to religious groups, who pay attention, if imperfectly, to the moral character of their employees. In some cases, as with priests and nuns, religions require of them some material sacrifice, such as celibacy or poverty, as a proof of sincerity. Even in the public schools, until a few generations ago, the primary consideration in hiring a teacher was their known moral character.

Lacking hard evidence, there is good reason to assume that the level of abuse in the Indian residential schools was lower than on reserve, or in the general population. But this has never been looked into—due to a larger agenda of scapegoating religion and driving it off the reserves.

Most people raised in their biological families remember their childhood as a golden time. It usually is. Most people also remember their time in residential schools fondly: I think of Tom Brown’s School days or Goodbye Mr. Chips. There have always also been some who had the opposite experience. I think of the movie “If…,” my friend James FitzGerald’s book Old Boys, or George Orwell’s memoir “Such, Such Were the Joys.”

However, it is far more socially acceptable to report a bad experience at an Indian residential school than in one’s family or in a private school. One even stands to get financially rewarded for it. So we get far more reports of it.

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