by Francis X. Hezel, S.J.
Note: This discussion, which was held on November 19, 1998, was attended by 27 participants. Damian Sohl, the Director of Education for Pohnpei State, introduced the topic.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, in January 1974, Micronesian Seminar sponsored a week-long conference addressing this same question. But there is nothing surprising about that, for the purpose of education is a question that has to be thrashed out continually. Each nation, perhaps each school board, must wrestle with this issue-not once, but every generation or more often.
We can fail to articulate our philosophy of education, but the philosophy will come out in the end anyway. It will be implicit in the curriculum, in the educational structures that we establish, in the way we send our education money. Our philosophy of education underlies everything we do. Hence, we may just as well lay it out plainly right from the start, hold it up to the light, shake out its assumptions, and examine it carefully and critically.
The Director of Education for Pohnpei spoke of the need to get the community involved in the process of education and in providing input for the schools. There is not yet a concensus on what education should be doing. Some think that education should provide literacy and numeracy skills for the young. Others regard education as a training opportunity that is aimed at providing a job in the future. Many more would wish to emphasize the need to reinforce the culture. There is little agreement at present time on what schools should be doing. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of education for their own purposes.
We often hear it said that "education is the underpinning of development," according to one participant. But what, if anything, do these words mean? In one very broad sense, they suggest that all national development begins with education since schooling is the way of breaking out of the narrowness that impedes any sort of innovation. The development planners thirty years ago liked to say that education was needed to "break the crust of custom"-that is, to free people from the shackles of convention and provide them with the imagination and larger view of life that would allow them to dream of unseen things and create a better world for their people.
Yet, for most people development implies economic gains, and this translates into jobs. A majority of the population in FSM, as in other parts of Micronesia, have always understood the real payoff of education to be the jobs that graduates land when they finish their schooling. Many adhere to this view even today when government jobs are being reduced in number and employment in private business is not yet able to pick up the slack. Whether or not education for a livelihood should rule, it appears to be the expectation of people today.
At least one participant felt that vocational education, as important as it is, has not been taken seriously in FSM. He pointed to the insufficient commitment of resources to vocational education-voc ed has always been much more expensive than academic education-and the weak vocational programs that are tacked on to most secondary school curricula. In an age when money is even more hard to find than in the past, how can we justify the additional expenses for vocational education programs? This question is all the more difficult to answer when we realize that many of those being schooled in these programs will probably not find jobs in their own state. One suggestion was that the education departments make better use of the very few top-quality vocational education schools that exist. PATS immediately comes to mind as an example. Why isn't the public education system seeking to utilize the resources that this school has at its disposal rather than unsuccessfully attempting to duplicate it?
The moderator reminded participants that education for a livelihood is not quite the same as vocational education. At present, there are three major career streams for those coming out of the schools: some will seek and find government or private jobs in the towns; others will return to the village and support themselves from the land and sea, with the help of some cash-cropping; and still others will emigrate to seek full-time employment outside Micronesia. The needs of all three streams have to be considered when we consider education for a livelihood.
The matter is further complicated when we look at the range of skills needed within each of these areas. The government is forever requesting the high schools and college to train young people to do such different things as serve as officers on fishing vessels, become refrigeration mechanics, fly the planes for the local airlines, and replace the expatriate engineers in the utilities corporations. This is only the beginning of the list, of course. If vocational education efforts are not to become so thin as to be dissipated, educators will have to put more effort into finding a common denominator to serve as the core of a program. This will require delineation of a set of basic vocational skills comparable to the academic skills in the general education program.
There was another, very different tone sounded by other participants. A number of people seemed to hanker for a return to the academic basics in public education. One person put it like this: "Give us a good solid elementary education and we can do the rest." She and those who shared her view were unruffled when someone suggested that there might not be the jobs for their children when they finished school. Jobs were not the driving force for these people that they were for the previous group. They were content to let their children sort out their own careers in the future, even if this meant leaving Micronesia or possibly remaining without fulltime employment. Of greatest concern to them was that their children receive the reading, writing and 'rithmetic that has been at the core of the conventional school curriculum for so long.
Although this does not seem to be asking for much, people who subscribe to this view represent only one of the several interest groups staking their claims in education. The general population seems to be making so many demands of education that it can satisfactorily comply with none. There are other real constraints as well, of course. Public elementary schools may not have as much support from the community they serve as private schools do. Likewise, public school teachers often lack the training and commitment that can be found in their counterparts in the private schools. As one man put it, private school teachers seem to possess a motivation and a worry about letting down other teachers that their opposite number in public schools do not share. Then, too, there is the lack of money that is needed to do the jobs right, according to some of the participants who are in a position to know.
Perhaps one of the most serious obstacles to achieving this goal is in maintaining the balance that is required between local concerns and an orientation to the larger world. Too many "culture classes," athletic field days, units on environment and conservation scan distract from the major task at hand. One participant illustrated how well-motivated and sound desires to boost the local self-image can result in educational losses at another level. He pointed out that when the school system in Tanzania adopted the policy of doing all instruction in Swahili, those coming out of the educational system lost ground-not only because they had to postpone learning a world language until after elementary and secondary school, but because the education system was unable to keep up with the demand for new materials in the local language.
Academic skills aren't the whole of it, even for those who endorse a return to the basic core curriculum. Values, too, figure strongly into the educational package. As one man with considerable experience in international education reminded us, the educational package should include personal development as well as basic academic and vocational skills.
Aside from the standard list of virtues-honesty, hard work, reliability, loyalty to kin and country, etc.-one or two others came up in the discussion. Acceptance of outsiders, or even outer islanders, was one that was mentioned more than once. One person admitted being compelled to withdraw the children from a public school because of the lack of tolerance they experienced there. Many other countries, including the US and Australia, have experienced their own problems in this regards. Whatever their present shortcomings, these nations have come a long way since the days when white supremacy reigned in the US and a White Australia was the rule in that country. It should be noted, however, that the schools were not so much the standard bearers in these campaigns as institutions that somewhat reluctantly acceded to the demands of what was really a social revolution.
In the end, schools may have to be modest in their claims as to what they can do in value education. One person with experience in high school administration asserted that the school in which he served was unable to implant a new set of values in young people who did not pick these up from their family before beginning high school. In a contest between the school and the family, the latter was sure to prevail, he said. This may be just another way of saying that values are "caught, not taught."
The importance of culture in the school is undeniable. In one of his occasional outbursts, the moderator reminded us all that culture should be the ambience of education rather than merely a part of education. It is the very air that is soaked into every pore of the student and should never be reduced to merely a class or two. Indeed, the dangers of attempting to teach "culture" are to be seen all around us. Attempts to present traditional island navigation as a course, because they fail to do justice to the environment in which this instruction was conducted in the past, can end up as just another course on something in Micronesia's past rather than something relevant to its present and future. Another example may be the legislation that mandated the teaching of Chamorro language in Guam. This could be seen as a desperate last-ditch attempt by the community to demand of the schools that they preserve what the community could not save (since the language was fading by that time under the influence of TV and the ethnic minorities on Guam had together become a solid majority of the population).
The school ought to reflect the living culture, not serve as a museum for the exhibit of the past glories of the culture and language. While this principle seemed to be generally accepted, there were those who took issue. One person reminded us that schools have helped in successful language restoration efforts in other places. It was the schools, he said, that had saved Gaelic and Welsh from extinction. Perhaps the schools in Micronesia might assume the same role someday.
The culture is living, growing and changing, most acknowledged. It is reflected in the present rather than in the past, so that Pohnpeian culture today includes sakau markets, discos, basketball and even rugby. Hence, this too should be regarded as the proper context for education and the raw material for educational instruction.
Just as the importance of culture was stressed, its limitation was also adverted to by at least one speaker. Although education can never be done in a culture-free bell jar or vacuum, it should not be treated as the last word. Although we can not live without cultures, it is to be hoped that education will give the student a different perspective on his own culture. He or she will see it as a human product, generally good but not in every single respect. The educated person should be able to maintain a degree of objectivity about his culture, criticizing it where this seems called for. Without this perspective, there would never have been a social revolution, including the ones that overturned the racism that once prevailed in many countries in the West.
In the words of one participant, "education is too important to be left to the schools." Education is a process that continues through our whole life, whether we happen to be sitting in a classroom or not. Education may be formal (where experiences are systematically organized to achieve precise learning outcomes) or informal (including just about anything, no matter how serendipitous). Once this is acknowledged, school people can relax a little more since they ought to feel no obligation to correct every error and teach everything necessary for a long and productive life.
The community into the formal education system should be welcomed. In fact, the ideal in the minds of many educators is a community-based management system, meaning that the local community takes ownership and even day-to-day control of the school. For all this, however, the local community must learn to be realistic in what it expects of the school. The school can't do everything; it shouldn't even try.
The different emphases that came up in the discussion-vocational education, "basics," values, and culture-are not mutually exclusive as such. One participant wondered why education couldn't include a little of each of these elements. It can, as long as care is taken to insure that the demands on schools don't become impossible.
Formal education is a delicate balancing act between the poles along different sets of axes. Schools have an obligation to the state and its interests (economic, political and social), but they are also meant to be a path to individual liberation. They should in some way help people move easily into a livelihood (otherwise known as a career), but they should be directed at the larger goal of helping prepare for life in all its various facets. They should serve the local community in all its cultural coloring, but they ought to prepare young people to become citizens of the world community. This is not an easy mission, but that's always been the challenge of formal education.