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Teach the Children Well: the Unrealized Vision In Teaching and Learning in the Residential Schools

Haida totem pole, British Columbia. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Through the entire era of the residential school in Canada, from the 1880s until the 1980s, parents, public school inspectors and departmental officials made serious complaints about the “poor education” the Native children were receiving. John Milloy (A national crime: the Canadian government and the residential school system, 1879 to 1986 [1999]) observes poignantly: “From the very first decade of the life of the school system, the Department had to face the troubling realization that not only would children return to their communities but that that reconnection might well undermine whatever civilizing influence the school had on the child” (p. 158).

The “civilizing process” was not working. The depressing old savage habits didn’t seem to go away. In Milloy’s acid words, “Equally evident was the fact that the children who returned to their communities had not been well-educated. They had not been transformed; they were not capable of moving their communities along a civilizing path” (p. 159). The lads who stayed on the reserve, wrote Superintendent General Henson in 1903, were more self-reliant and able to work than those who braved the icy waters of boredom and incompetent teaching in the residential schools. The grand transformative vision of the re-making of the Indian into the “new civilized man” was a bloody botch-up.

Departmental officials and their church supporters tried to blame the dismal outcomes on the reserve “environment” or those recalcitrant “older Indians.” But the educational failure lay with the “internal problem endemic to the school system itself”(ibid.). The residential schooling had “profound deficiencies”—both in the internal pedagogics of the school as well as two persistent characteristics of the system: “inadequate funding and the Department’s lack of supervision of the operation of the schools” (ibid.). The latter deficiency had devastating consequences because the government did not enforce its own standards. Native children and youth were constantly short-changed.

One is struck by how often the Department stonewalled making changes in response to endless calls for reforms. This theme weaves its way throughout every scholarly work on the schools. Milloy states: “That severe problems existed in every major element of the education sector, in skill and language training, in the content of the literary curriculum, and in the quality of the teaching corps, was constantly brought to the notice of the Department” (p. 162). The most radical message delivered to the obdurate Department contested the logic of the residential school itself. This argument, delivered by external educational experts and its own employees, asserted that “Aboriginal culture and education in western knowledge and skills were not mutually exclusive and, furthermore, that children would learn only within a program that took heed of the persistence of Aboriginal culture” (ibid.).

It is worth observing what is lost when a learning process damages the lifeworld foundation of problem-solving enabling conditions. Jurgen Habermas (“Equal treatment of cultures and the limits of postmodern liberalism,” in Between Naturalism and Religion) observes that:

“A culture can be conceived as an ensemble of enabling conditions for problem-solving. It furnishes those who grow up in it not only with elementary linguistic, practical, and cognitive capacities, but also with grammatically prestructured worldviews and semantically accumulated stores of knowledge….Young people must be convinced that they can lead a worthwhile and meaningful life within the horizon of the assimilated tradition. The test of the viability of a cultural tradition ultimately lies in the fact that challenges can be transformed into solvable problems for those who grow up within the tradition” (p. 302).

By the time Native children and youth limped out of the residential schools, they had lost any hope of a meaningful life.

The “founding vision” of the residential school lacked a solid epistemic foundation. The founders had no understanding of the nature of the learning process that would replace the “enabling conditions for problem-solving” of indigenous traditions and world-views. They were totally clueless. They had little understanding that learning processes had to be grounded in children’s experience and culture. Learning had to linked carefully to cultural understandings and problem-areas in the children’s lives. Dewey taught us that! Even though ideas about child-centred pedagogy were seeping into educational thought in the early 1900s, they had little idea, it seems, about the necessity of a nurturing environment for raising children who need to be loved, comforted and encouraged to have a strong sense of self-confidence and self-respect.

Contemporary psychology would have been appalled at the very idea that children could be taken from their parents and community surround, have their language banned and culture denigrated. Yet the founding vision actually imagined that that one could incarcerate children in a dismal, spite-filled and fearful environment and somehow hammer away to mould this new, civilized and shiny being who would have highly developed linguistic, practical and cognitive capacities. What a travesty of human imagination and intellect. Rather like providing a bunch of people with picks and shovels and asking them to tunnel through Rogers Pass.

The residential schools built schools in places where only the traditional way of life was possible. There was no direct relationship between the school curriculum and the learning challenges facing graduates. Lifeworld schools nestled within traditional ways of life would have been the appropriate educational form. These “schools for life” would have taught traditional cultural ways and wisdom. The “practical orientation” of the pedagogy would have been towards caring for the sources and sustenance of traditional resources. As “new problems” intruded into the lifeworld, tribal elders (in dialogue with expert sources of knowledge) could determine how to maintain a stable society. Answers might have been provided and the precise nature of more formalized learning institutions most relevant to the pressing learning challenges chosen carefully.

Some “good ideas” confronted bureaucratic mindlessness. In the 1880s, J. Powell, an Indian Commissioner, thought that an industrial school for BC coastal areas could be revised. They could learn how to develop an immense “Sea Farm” which would be a “source of great wealth for the country at large” (p. 163). He wanted one school to “operate out of a cannery where the children could be taught deep-sea fishing, curing, and not only Canadian culture but ‘fish culture,’ too” (ibid.). But a kind of recruitment mania, pushed by the churches, gripped the residential school scramble for recruits to boost revenues. Youth from “hunting and fishing” districts were removed from their locales and asked to do things which were of no practical use whatsoever.

This rift between school and place was evident early in the career of the residential school. Anglican activist S.H. Blake lobbied the Department in 1906 for an Indigenous education that would provide the training for “future usefulness in … [their] particular part of the country” (ibid). In 1926, the Indian agent reported that at the Alberni Residential School still trained the Native youth to work in agriculture. But the West Coast Indians did not follow agriculture. Despite repeated calls from a few Department officials to train Native kids on the West Coast to work in fish canneries and on commercial vessels, this useful education was blocked. Milloy points out that: “In terms of the time and energy devoted to it, practical instruction probably ranked third in a curriculum comprised also of religious instruction and ‘literary’ subjects” (p. 165).

For their part, Aboriginal parents were also highly critical of the inadequacy of the equipping of their children with “skills that could aid in in forging a new life for their communities … “ (p. 166). Displeased, these parents pulled their children out of schools. In 1938, one group of parents voiced their complaints about the Birtle School in Manitoba. “Their children received instruction in arithmetic, reading, and writing, but they returned home with neither farming knowledge nor any practical skills” (ibid.). In the 1930 and 1940s, inspector’s reports, school by school, were considered by R.A. Hoey, the Department’s Superintendent of Welfare and Training, 1936-1945, as “rather disturbing” (p. 167). Hoey had some sensibility to the contrasts between vital, lifeworld-enhancing education and the empty mindless routinizing of control over Indigenous personal flourishing.

Although Hoey made some attempts to address the “growing interest in skill training among school administrator’s themselves, his efforts were stymied by the old bugaboo, underfunding. Thus, for Milloy, “The economic situation of schools determined the practical curriculum more than curricular philosophy born of the Davin Report … “ (p. 168). The economic plight of the schools was often met by overworking the youth to subsidize the school’s funding. This work was sheer drudgery and bone-and-mind-numbing. Lots of studies tell us tales of woe—where the youth did not gain practical knowledge and skill-sets could be useful.

Teaching and learning in the residential schools–the “curriculum, literary and practical, was meant to be the bridge from savagery to civilization over which the children would be led by caring and talented staff” (p. 172). But the Eurocentric nature of the curriculum was an impediment to the “much-longed-for cultural transformation of the children” (ibid.). If one begins with the rigid dichotomy (anchored in the notion of an unequal treatment of cultures) between savage and civilized. The Department was told numerous times, Milloy states, that because there was “very often a very wide difference in the life experiences of Indian children and white children, . . . [that] difference . . .should be reflected in courses of study” (ibid.). These suggestions were never heeded.

Inspector Warkentin articulated the cultural critique of the curriculum. Beginning with the Dewyian-inflected pedagogical insights, he told the Department in 1940 that the curriculum had to be “child-based.” Warkentin and others called for the development of a “curriculum specially aimed at instruction for Indian children”—one that “reflected, rather than ignored or denigrated, the children’s cultural heritage—for example, “giving the students an understanding of their own tribal law, art, and music.” Indeed, Inspector Sigvaldson thought that social studies could be “taught by a due recognition of Indian background” and by using “story telling,” an Aboriginal teaching method, to “more effectively … arouse interest” (cited, p. 173). Inspector of Schools H. McArthur even suggested that Native children’s interest in learning could be heightened “through a well planned program of craft work—particularly work based on Indian arts and crafts” (ibid). All of the suggestions for curricular reform urged the need for toleration of a “rich store” of “Indian art, and Indian culture generally” (p. 174).

In the late 1930s, even a few churches annunciated the “astounding principle” that: “Nothing in an indigenous culture should be destroyed or condemned unless it can be proved that it does in fact obstruct the progress of culture” (ibid.). But Milloy cautions us to observe that this statement was not quite as radical as one might think. The churches selected those Native traits that would fit them for national life. They gave no quarter to Aboriginal spirituality and did not mention the sustenance of language. Aboriginal spirituality, they claimed, “hampered the work of physician, missionary, and school. It fosters superstition, degradation, and a certain distrust of the whiteman” (ibid.).

The traditional epistemological foundation of the residential school—the savage/civilized dichotomy– was falling apart in the 1940s. And the revolutionary potential was never integrated not the Department’s educational philosophy. This was yet another unheeded message. Milloy states: “The retention of an unreformed curriculum that reflected that original vision and strategy would only telegraph the school system’s failure into the post-war future” (p. 175). The Department did not heed the calls for the “indigenization” of the curriculum. Even if did, the teachers were so badly educated that they could not either comprehend or implement it.

In the end, Milloy concludes bitterly, Native children returned home “unable to led any sort of productive life, old or new” (p. 185). Indeed, “The pattern of neglect and abuse rooted in the very bones of the system and the dynamics that animated it, as well as the earth of financial and moral resources, did not change throughout those next four decades [1940-1980]. There were hundreds of new stories of neglect and abuse, school by school, but only that one, old persistent narrative” (p. 186).

More articles by:

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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