Playing the Indian Card

Saturday, July 01, 2017

On the Horror of Boarding Schools

We all know the horror stories about boarding schools. Not just the residential schools Canadian Indians attended. Indeed, there is no reason to suppose those were worse than the “public schools” rich Brits have sacrificed their scions to for generations beyond counting. We have seen the movie “If...” and read of Orwell’s experiences in “Such, Such Were the Joys.” Awful, no doubt, for many, especially sensitive, children. Even Tom Brown’s School Days admits that the “public” schools were hell for sensitive children; and describes some bullying that veers close to attempted murder.

Nevertheless, it seems to me there is a good reason why prominent families for centuries sent their wee ones there. In most cultures, the pukka classes seem to have had their children farmed out in one way or another. The Irish gentry used to swap kids. Everybody got brought up by a foster family, with all the fairy tales tell us that entails. There is also, of course, the tradition of the wet nurse or nanny.

It was for the kids’ benefit.

Some, no doubt, as they say, are born great. Others have greatness thrust upon them. But others achieve greatness, at least in the eyes of the world, by looking out for the main chance. The odds are fair that any who become very socially prominent and wealthy became so in part because they are, basically, selfish and self-aggrandizing. They put themselves and their wishes first in all situations. They acquire a lot of money because their priority is to acquire a lot of money. They acquire prestige and social position because their priority is to acquire prestige and social position. Which is to say, more broadly, their number one priority is themselves. They believe themselves pretty awesome.

See the Gospel of Luke on that one. No man can serve two masters.

Upper Canada College, Toronto

Yet that is not even the worst risk. If these are people who have achieved for themselves, at least in part by hard work, talent, and enterprise, from obscure beginnings, they have some perspective on what they have accomplished. They have some real perspective, then, on their just desserts; they know not always having it. Moreover, the ability for a selfish person to achieve spectacular success is limited, by those around him or her gradually smelling out his motivations. In business, at least, as they say, honesty is the best policy.

The worse danger is parents who have had wealth and prestige handed to them: the second generation of the rich and famous. Always knowing wealth and privilege, they are naturally inclined to come to believe they deserve it. Always having others fawn on them, they are naturally inclined to believe they and their wishes are simply more important than those of others.

Besides being disastrous for the enterprises and the nation they are called on to run, these are exactly the sort of people who will see their children as their possessions, there only for their benefit. They are likely to abuse them. They are going to want to manipulate and control them. They are never going to allow them to develop into themselves.

Worse still if the unlucky child turns out to be exceptionally talented in some way. Then they are going to look like competition for attention. The self-absorbed parent is going to see an existential threat in that. This, I suggest, is the true import of all those Delphic oracles in classic myth of the child murdering the father.

Sending Thurston Junior off to boarding school protects him, in the second generation, from becoming a devouring monster; and, should his parents have become such monsters, can protect him from being devoured.

Granted, such schools are themselves also natural magnets for abusers. And some of the students will arrive as abusers. But, on the odds, the poor kids’ chances are better among strangers. Among their social peers, they cannot consider themselves so special. They must learn to interact with others as equals. Non-relatives will not feel the urge to coddle them. And, at worst, the strangers will not see them and their eventual success as a personal threat. At worst, they will not have as much social power to use against them. So the kids have a better chance of surviving emotionally intact into adulthood.

Ruling classes learn this lesson, or they do not remain ruling classes. The Laius complex naturally tends to destroy any prominent family within three generations: hence, for example, Greek tragedies usually came in groups of three, tracing a noble family through generations. The first generation achieves, the second generation reaps the rewards while achieving little, and then devours the third generation.

Even in China, they know this: “greatness,” so the Chinese proverb goes, “costs a family three generations.”

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