I joined the Programs in Anthropology and Education in the fall of 2015 in order to conduct research on the links between identity formation, individual well-being, and environments where “forms of knowledge” are produced. My interest in knowledge production grew out of a project undertaken while working on my MA in Anthropology at Binghamton University(2009-2011). For my MA thesis, I looked at pedagogy and the creation of training policies and procedures among UN peacekeepers. Through this project, I began to think about the importance of different types of educational practices on the lives of people within various environments, and about how institutions can be simultaneously constraining and productive in learning and the shaping of identities.
My curiosity about boarding schools as institutions and locations of identity formation began when I accepted a full time teaching position within one. I quickly began to notice something that appeared peculiar to me. The school had a very clear “philosophy” about what made someone a good student and a proper citizen, and life at the school, whether it be in the classroom, dormitory, athletic facilities, or elsewhere, appeared to be tailored to create an insular community of values and behaviors tied to that philosophy. Wanting to understand what was happening around me and the impact of such an environment on the people living and operating within it, I drew upon my background in anthropology to begin conducting participant observation. I was particularly interested in boarding schools as institutions and locations of identity production and formation. For one year, I conducted observations, compiled field notes, and became involved in as many parts of campus life as possible.
At Teachers College, I have continued to utilize the ethnographic material collected during the previous year, and I am pursuing further fieldwork and supplemental research on boarding schools. My goal is to complete a thorough project about the ways that the environment of a boarding school constrains and shapes student lives. I will be delving into student behavior, conceptions of self/identity, and embodiment, and how each of these components of lived experience are tied to the structures, rules, and philosophy of a particular school. While the majority of my previous work and research has focused on student experiences while they are physically present in boarding schools, I also plan to conduct future fieldwork among recent graduates. The goals of this seemingly “supplemental” research is to compare the way students operate and experience life within the school and outside of it, as well as to assess the potential long-term impact of attending a boarding school on the lives of students.
Students who attend boarding schools are often viewed as members of the “elite.” While it is true that the majority of these young men and women come from wealthy families, a focus solely on social class and the privilege required to attend a boarding school can mask the very real, often unpleasant ways that boarding schools constrain and shape student lives. I believe it is important to understand the impact of boarding schools on the bodies, identities, and behaviors of students, partially because of the ways people associate boarding schools with privilege and status. Many families aspire to send their son or daughter to private boarding schools, out of a belief that such schools offer their children a “better education,” or more opportunities in life. Some parents will go into considerable debt in order to finance private education. Unfortunately, the impact of this type of school on the current lives of students, including their sense of self and their physical health, is usually not taken into account. Perhaps this is due to a societal assumption that a private or more extensive education will be beneficial to a person in every possible way, lumping together beliefs concerning schooling, future happiness, and well-being.
As previously mentioned, it is my assertion that boarding schools actually exist with the express purpose of “molding” young people – to shape them into a particular type of person. The entire structure of the school – the routines, the rules, the physical layout, the relationships between faculty and students – exists to create a group of young people that embodies and lives out the philosophy of the school itself. This is important for people to realize, before they make the decision of whether or not to send their child to a boarding school. It is also problematic and can lead to trauma and suffering for students who disagree with or are uncomfortable with the type of community the school is attempting to integrate them into. This can take a toll on students emotionally and physically and may have repercussions for their health and happiness beyond their time within the school itself.
*Molly Sardella is currently a student pursuing her EdM within the Anthropology and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She earned her MA in Anthropology and MAT in Social Studies Education from Binghamton University and obtained her New York State Teaching Certificate in 2012.