Same Lesson: This Time from Horace Mann
That’s the question, the through-line, in Amos Kamil’s article about sexual abuse at the Horace Mann School during the 1980s. The article was published in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine.
Kamil was a student at Horace Mann beginning in 1979, and his research for the article reveals that numerous faculty members and the headmaster at the time were either actively involved in sexual abuse of students or were aware of it and did nothing. Kamil says he spoke with nearly 100 people in researching his article including 60 former students and 15 former or current faculty members. He found a range of responses. Some said nothing good could come from opening old wounds; others said that the school is greatly changed from the 80s. Some said they were unaware of any problems; others said they were surprised it took so long for the issue to be revealed. Several students, however, admitted being victimized by specific faculty members during that time.
The fact that institutions develop their own cultures is not a new idea. Erving Goffman produced seminal work in the 1960s. His book, Asylums: Essays on the Social situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, first published in 1961, analyzed life in “total institutions” – prisons, army camps, nursing homes, mental hospitals, and boarding schools. While controversial, it focused on the conformity to institutional norms that was required for survival in these institutions, which are, in a sense, insular from the general public.
According to Goffman, this insularity coupled with the fact that “inmates” frequently have no one to advocate for them, often resulted in abuse that would not have been tolerated in a more public venue. Unfortunately, we have other examples of this theory from Catholic orphanages in Ireland to Jerry Sandusky’s organization for underprivileged kids, The Second Mile. The insularity of these organizations, the unequal power between the staff and their charges, and the vulnerability of the youngsters can result in an institutional culture damaging to kids.
Kamil writes that Horace Mann today is vastly different from what it was 30-40 years ago. Students are more vocal and more social media savvy, more connected. Parents are more involved. That may be true. But the fact remains that children are more vulnerable in schools where classroom doors are always closed, principals stay in their offices, and parents are uninvolved for reasons unavoidable or not. Institutions that don’t fear outside interference think they can behave with impunity.