Shaping elites and children at risk: public discourse about the residential care for children at risk in nineteenth-century Brno
The long lasting tradition of creating huge institutions of residential care for children at risk in the Czech lands and Moravia in particular may be traced back to the needs of nineteenth-century philanthropic elites and the discursive presentation in the local press of the “best kind of care.” In Brno, several aristocrats and representatives of the higher clergy cooperated with a small but wealthy middle class elite when organizing care for children with audial and visual impairments as well as children endangered by “moral negligence.” Political connections of those civic philanthropists allowed gaining public funding for expanding expensive institutions of residential care. At the same time, public discourse presented the institutes as important meeting places of the local old and new elites. The compromises of socially, religiously, and ethnically heterogeneous but cooperating sectors moulded social careers, promoted religious tolerance or equal linguistic rights of two Moravian nations in the public discourse. The taste and gifts of local philanthropists also shaped the care that children received. The help itself was ever more strongly presented as the duty of the society; this duty was fulfilled under the leadership of those “on top.” The help was presented by metaphors of “raising up.” The child would be taken away from its original surrounding in order to be “raised up” to a productive, free, or even “noble” individual. The long-lasting need of providing proofs that the care was effective was satisfied by the means of preselection of children for the institutes. Somewhat exaggerated optimism about the effectivity of philanthropy resulted in an original tendency to reject the pessimism of rising eugenics concerning the handicapped in Brno philanthropic circles.
The prestigious publicity that those institutes received allowed medical doctors and pedagogues to build their individual and collective careers. Newspapers praised them for volunteering, professional know-how and their ability to bring fame to the region. Professionals also contributed to the image of effective residential care by presenting their exclusive ability to help children at risk and to show the native environment of children to be unsuitable or dangerous. While gaining ever more public financing, the institutes were gradually turned into domains for professionals.