The world is a big place and, three decades ago I felt drawn to see a part of it very different from my home region in the middle of the USA.
I decided to go somewhere in Africa. I sought work as a mathematics teacher, found it, and signed a two-year contract to teach secondary school.
My school was located in the interior of West Africa, right about where the green becomes brown on the left side of this sattelite image. This region is known as the “Sahel” – the edge of the Sahara.
I lived and worked in the country of Burkina Faso, located north of the green coastal nations, and south of where the Niger River bends its way into and then back out of the Sahara desert. At the northern apex of the Niger River is the legendary city of Timbuktu, one of the richest cities in the world at the beginning of the last millenium.
My village looked a lot like this one. Burkina is a beautiful country, with friendly and gracious people. But, thirty years ago, it ranked among the five poorest nations on earth.
At the time, it was suffering a drought which baked the soil. A few months into the dry season, the annual Harmattan winds picked up the unprotected soil and turned it into powder.
Oh, and my second summer, Burkina was covered by a massive brood of locusts.
Here’s a picture of my school, a Roman Catholic boys’ boarding school, Saint Augustin. It was located in a small village, a hundred kilometers from the capital city.
There I am, on the left, posing for a picture with the fellow who cooked for the teachers.
And here are four of my fellow teachers.
Here are some of the boys before a football match with another school. Twenty years after I left St. Augustin I learned about the boys’ futures. Twenty had become priests, another 15 teachers, and 3 were university professors.
Nine students had left Burkina to attend graduate schools in Europe and North America. In addition, among the boys I had taught, were 2 doctors, 2 lawyers, 2 accountants, 2 diplomats, a business owner, and a non-profit organization head.
How does one account for such successful educational outcomes?
Granted, St. Augustin was not an average school. It was a privately run, highly disciplined, religious school with a common set of values. And, it was selective. Not all students who applied were accepted. Plus, the school added an extra year of schooling in addition to what was required in the national curriculum.
Still, none of the students had money. Wealthy students would have attended a fancy private school in the capital city. Our students were rural poor. One among the hundred or so students was the son of a merchant. But, his father sold goods at village markets, like this one in my village shown here.
All of the other hundred students were farmers’ children, struggling to survive against drought, locusts, and other perils. I’m convinced that boarding had a lot to do with the boys’ success. Boarding made them independent, provided them focus, shielded them from society’s many distractions, and taught them discipline and self-reliance.
I now work for The Association of Boarding Schools in North America. Over 250 schools in the United States and Canada are members. All are private, independently-run, university-preparatory schools. They can be very expensive. Only half the Canadian provinces, and very few US states, provide any subsidies at all for private school enrollment.
About half of our member schools can be found in the northeast of the United States and the southeast of Canada. This is the area of the earliest European migrant selttlement. Some of our member schools were founded before any public schools existed in North America.
A few years ago, we conducted a study of our member schools’ graduates’ progress through university. In North America, we call university “college”. So, it was titled the “Study of College Progress and Outcomes”.
We compared our graduates’ progress to that of university students from public schools and private day schools. We adjusted the boarding school graduates’ outcomes for family socio-economic status to ensure a fair comparison.
In this figure we compare boarding school graduates—in the two columns labeled in red on the left—to all other types of secondary school graduates on the selectivity of the universities they enter. The darker the color inside each column, the more selective the university. Most boarding school graduates enroll in the most selective universities
This figure shows boarding school graduates’—in the two red columns on the left—persistence at university, compared to a variety of other types of university students. Persistence is the opposite of “dropping out”. Boarding school graduates’ persistence is close to 100%.
These 2 figures compare the speed at which students complete university. Boarding school graduates are more likely than other students to finish university in 4 years—the figure on the left—or in 6 years—the figure on the right.
Even in the most elite universities—those in the so-called “Ivy League” in the United States—boarding school graduates are more likely to complete their studies, and to complete their studies more quickly, than other university students. Here, over 94% of boarding school graduates finished their Ivy League university studies in 4 years whereas 88% of all students at these universities did.
To sum up, boarding school graduates, enter the most selective—the most rigorous—universities to begin with, persist at higher rates, and finish their studies more quickly. And, this is true even when adjustments are made for socio-economic background.
10 years ago, we hired an independent research firm to survey North American students and adults in order to compare boarding school students’ and graduates’ secondary school experience to that of other students and adults.
In this first figure, we compare the responses of boarding school students—on the left—to those of all other students, public school students, and private day school students. The white area in the columns represents the percentage of students who thought their school was “academically challenging”. 91% of boarding school students did; only 53% of all other students did.
When asked why they and their parents chose boarding school, the top reasons were academic: the first three reasons cited most often were “higher academic quality”, “better education”, and “challenging education”.
However, when asked to identify the personal benefits of boarding, students cited reasons such as “learn independence”, “ability to make friends”, “more diversity”, and “maturity” more often than “strong academics”.
It is sometimes argued that boarding school students do better at university because they have been practicing at being university students—living in residence halls and being independent of their parents.
Our study of boarding students’ progress through university included only North American students. The numbers of International students—overwhemingly from countries with few boarding schools available—have increased steadily over the past few decades. International students now comprise one-third of our member schools’ boarders.
The bulk of the international demand in the past two decades has been from East Asia. There are now more applications to North American boarding schools from China alone than there are places in our schools. That is, applications from China outnumber the total capacity of our schools. This figure shows the top ten sources of our schools’ international students, by country.
Interestingly, in percentage terms, the largest increases in international student enrollments in the past several years have come from Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
This chart shows the results of a survey of international students enrolled in boarding schools in Australia. This being Australia, the creature at the lower right is a Koala Bear.
International students were asked to identify the reasons they chose to attend boarding school in another country. The top two reasons cited—by over 60% of survey respondents—were not available in their home countries. They wanted to “gain experience living and studying in another country and culture”—a very modern reason--and “improve their English”. English is the primary language of Australia. Certainly they could study English, or any other language in their home country; apparently, these students sought an immersion experience.
That was the good story about boarding schools. Now the bad story.
Here are some current headlines I found easily on the internet from researchers and activists studying the terrible history of government-run boarding schools for Native Americans from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. Children were forcibly taken from their parents and placed in boarding schools often far distant from their homeland.
Similar programs existed in Australia and Canada.
Here, for example, is a group picture of pupils at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the US state of Pennsylvania around the year 1900. Carlisle, Pennsylvania was thousands of kilometers from most Native American homelands in 1900.
Conditions were like military camps—very restrictive, tightly scheduled, highly disciplined. Students wore military uniforms and were forced to march.
In his history, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, David Wallace Adams documents the evidence that the intent of this US boarding school program was cultural assimilation—to wipe out Native American culture.
Here’s one quote from the book: “[The] goal was to “kill the Indian, not the man.” In order to assimilate American Indian children into European culture, [the boarding schools] subjected them to what we would call brainwashing tactics today. These are the same methods that cult leaders use to coerce recruits to commit completely to a new way of thinking.”
Native Americans of the Apache Tribe, for example, live in the southwest of the United States and the northwest of Mexico, 3 thousand kilometers from Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
In 1900, the US army was still fighting Apache warriors in that region. The top photo shows how one group of Apache children appeared upon arrival in Carlisle; the bottom photo shows the same students 4 months later.
Here is another before-and-after photo, of a student given the Europeanized name of Tom Torlino at the Carlisle school.
At these boarding schools, according to a Native American organization’s website, students were forbidden to speak their language or to practice their religion. They were given many rules and no choices. They had no privacy. Parents were discouraged from visiting and, in most cases, students were not allowed to go home during the summer.
So, a very large body of evidence shows that boarding schools can produce substantial benefits, and boarding schools can impose substantial harm.
A key factor in determining which, of course, is the selection process. Families choose to enroll in the boarding schools of our association. In the past cultural-assimilation government-run boarding school programs in the United States, Canada, and Australia, families were given no choice. Enrollment was forced.
Weighing the benefits and drawbacks, I suggest a hypothesis that will surprise no one: boarding schools intensify the experience, for good or bad.