Monday, December 17, 2018

Did Anything Good Come of Residential Schools .... Absolutely Not!

The idea that residential schools were "not all bad" is floated now and then. I honestly don't know why. Well ... OK, I think I *do* know why, but the key point here is that this is an argument that should be -- perhaps even needs to be -- addressed because it is, periodically, made the guise of careful historical treatment of this subject. I recently listened to a well known (and very good) historian discuss the need for "balance" in the treatment of residential schools and suggest that they might not have been "all bad." Students, for instance, I heard one person note learnt skills ... like the English language. While another person claimed that there were some nice people teaching in the schools.

Both of these points are, of course, completely beside the point and, in fact, are shockingly ahistorical in their analysis. And, this leads me to another point: another idea I have heard is that it is not historians' job, as it were, to pass moral judgements on the past. Instead, they seek balance in interpretation and let others develop their own views. On a general level, there is something important in this contention. If, however, balance comes at a distortion of the past -- if our effort to arrive at "balance" leads to misrepresent what went on in the past in order to avoid being called "moralistic" -- then, I think, as historians we have failed because, in my view, there is some idea of accuracy to which one should aspire. Let's address these intertwined issues by looking at residential schools.

Before doing so, however, one needs to acknowledge the tragedy that occurred and is still occuring as a result of residential schools. The level of violence mobilized against children in these institutions is staggering and this has been, of course, amply documented.  I don't want to get ahead of myself, but if anyone reading this thinks that the term "violence" is somehow morally charged ... well ... then ... you have not been doing your homework and have never taken the time to investigate residential schools.  I'll pick just one example: the use of children in medical experiments has amply documented. If this does not pass a means test on violence ... well, then, I am not certain what will. Let's come back to that because it is important. Here is the key point: we are not talking about strict discipline. Indeed, if strict discipline were on the only problem, I don't think we would be having this discussion. Instead, we are talking about systemic abuse, medical experimentation, death from disease, murder, and astronomical levels of sexual assault.

The points often made in favour of residential schools -- that they helped children learn things like the English language -- are misnomers.  The argument is logically and ethically flawed from the beginning. It is also deeply historically problematic. How so? Let us assume for a second (for the sake of argument only) that this is true and that children learnt English in residential schools and this was good for them. Does it them follow that because something good occurred in a residential school that this somehow negates -- balances out, in the language of the learned scholar to whom I listened  -- the bad? If a child abuser teaches a child English, to put this in more graphic but also historically accurate terms, does this somehow lessen the effect or impact of the child abuse?

A good way of assessing this situation would be to shift the focus from residential schools to another institution, let's say the public schools. If we made this argument about non-Indigenous schooling, would anyone accept it? If we had schools where non-Indigenous children were systematically abused but also taught, say, math and English, would anyone way that this balances things out?  Would any parent say "gee, sure, send my kind to school with this child abuser because they will also learn English." Would you send your children there?

The very idea is, in fact, laughable if it were not also horrifying and so ... why would anyone make it for Indigenous youth? I am serious in asking that question: if we would shrink from asking the question -- if we would, in fact, consider it horrific if asked about non-Indigenous youth in the public schools (would you say it was OK for someone to abuse your child if they also taught them, say, math?) -- what would possess anyone to think that it is a legitimate way to assess residential schooling for Indigenous youth? The only difference between (right) horrific rejection of the idea (sending children to school with child abusers because the learning of English balances abuse) is the colour of the children's skin. And, if that is the only difference ... one needs to ask some deep and probing questions about anyone who would make this argument.

Let's take this argument one step further. Not all children were abused, some say. OK, that is I am sure true. Does that balance things out? The ethics behind this proposition are equally shaking and equally scaring. Let me use an example to illustrate my point. There are two children. We will call them Child 1 and Child 2.  Child 1 is abused in school. Child 2 is not, but learns English. Does the fact that Child 2 was not abused somehow balance against the fact that Child 1 was? Certainly not for Child 1.

Again, let us flip it around and ask the question of non-Indigenous youth. Would it be OK for your child to be abused -- would that somehow balance things out -- if your neighbour's child were not? Would you say "yes, that school is doing its job and it is a good place to send my child."

This is, in fact, a long-standing ethical issue raised by thinkers such as Voltaire in his famous novel Candide. Is it OK to abuse one person so that others might gain? Is it OK to be unjust to one person so that another may benefit? If, right now, you find yourself saying yes ... are you willing to be the one abused? Are you willing to be the one treated unjustly? Assaulted? Killed? Subjected to medical experiments? I find people who make this argument -- the argument Voltaire is rejecting in Candide -- often imagine that they will *not* be the one abused and are willing to suffer another's abuse for their benefit. But, if the issue is flipped -- are you willing to be abused and have it called OK for someone else's benefit -- they start to prevaricate pretty darned quick.

As an ethical proposition, the logic is actually garbage. It is entertained sometimes in intro Philosophy courses as a way to teaching people to think about others, to empathize, to use different ways (say, small-l liberal theories of justice) to build courses of action that are far more ethically sound, but that, of course, is not really even my point. My point is that those who argue that there is a need to see balance in the history of residential schools are, in fact, making exactly this argument -- that is OK to abuse one child if another benefits -- but I suspect they don't even know that they are making that argument and would, in fact, recoil in horror and disclaim the point if they were confronted by it. Yet ... yet ... that is precisely the claim they have made in their quest for "balance" and explanation that some good things happened.

Two final points: the idea that some good happens often misses what is, in fact, the key historical question -- the key question historians ask -- and this is particularly odd when historians argue for balance (because they are ditching their own methodology). Why did we have residential schools? Was it to teach English? Was there no other way to teach English and, if there was, why was it not taken? There were, in fact, other educational systems but we need to ask the point with regard to residential schools to understand the reason why they were created in the first place. They were created to assimilate the Indigenous population. Learning English was part of that but that was a means to an end; not the end itself.  The issue, then, is not "should Indigenous kids get an education?" but should they have subjected to forced assimilation?

Lest someone accuse me of being moralistic, let me point out that it is only by asking this question -- why did we have these schools verse some other method of teaching Native kids -- that we can come to the heart of their purpose. That is: I am attempting to accurately understand why these schools were set up in the first place; not to moralize about their potentially positive affect. I am attempting to deal with the real of fact; not the realm of what I, as a white guy living in 2018, happen to think is good or bad; negative or ameliorative. In other words, I am attempting to understand these institutions on their own terms by understanding their self-proclaimed purpose. One might take moral lessons from that, but to me it is good history.

Finally, what about the argument: there were some good people who worked in residential schools? The historian's answer to this question is: so what? I am sure there were good slave holders and even nice Nazis who went home and kissed their kids and bought their parents presents on their birthdays. That is not the issue. The fact that someone kissed their kids does not somehow balance out mass murder, it does not mediate it, it does not excuse it, it does not introduce any level of "balance" to it. The issue for historians is how institutions function and how to we develop normative standards of niceness as a society. After all, nice is not an absolute term. What I think is nice, another person does not. The issue, then, is not "were their nice people" but what did it mean for Settler society to be nice to Native kids? It turns out, that it meant a whole bunch of things that they would not have defined as nice of they had been subjected to them.

Do historians have moral responsibilities? That is a question for another day and a discussion I would like to open up. I am, however, not dealing with it in this post. Instead, I am asking a different type of question: are historians being moralistic in developing critical perspectives on residential schools and is that a violation of historical methods and practice. My point is that the opposite is true. Anyone who would argue that some sort of good things that happened in residential schools -- allowing this only for the sake of argument -- balance the bad is simply in violation of good historical practice. They develop argument that simply cannot be accepted by anyone who actually cares about accurate history and arguments that we would not make for other groups of people (or, their children).

Our task as historians is to look at these institutions, their objectives, how they functions and their effects. If one wants to avoid moralism in your assessment of them, go ahead. Doing so will not lead to an assessment that there were positive things in residential schools because good and sound historical analysis will necessarily reject this point because it is ideological and not historical. And, in my view at least, it is an ideology I think has little place in history.

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