MicSem Publications

In Search of a Home: Colonial Education in Micronesia

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

1975 Education

The young Micronesian today is often heard to complain that "The System" is trying to create Micro-Americans: that is, white minds wrapped in brown skins. It is especially the education he has received that is the target of his criticism. Reflecting on his experience, he sees his foreign education as the basic cause of most of the changes he himself has undergone. In his eyes, an alien and alienating educational system is the most insidious, and most successful, instrument for colonization yet devised by a foreign administration.

It would be dishonest of educators not to acknowledge the patent truth of his complaint. Education in Micronesia, like in any political dependency throughout the world, is in fact designed to do precisely what the young man charges. Not ordinarily, as this essay will try to show, through the deliberate political machinations of the foreign power, but because of the very nature of education in colonial countries. Macaulay's famous definition of the purpose of education in India–"to produce men who are Indian in blood and color, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect"–is a valid enough statement of its purpose in Micronesia or in any other dependency.

Education has always had a 'civilizing' function throughout history. Indeed, its principal purpose has been to make of the uninitiated–the "stranger" or "foreigner" to the society (and this includes the young native-born as well)–a "citizen" of the social group, well-schooled in and responsive to its traditions and values. It is the process whereby the barbarian is slowly fashioned into the civis Romanus and the second generation Pole is remade to the image and likeness of his townsmen in mid-western USA, who themselves were so reshaped years before him.

The Visigoth who had just crossed the Roman frontier and proceeded down the Claudian way towards the Tiber would be assimilated into the mainstream of imperial Roman society, as he mastered the Latin tongue, cultivated a taste for Falerian wines, learned to converse on the most recent political events of the day, and possibly learned to read Livy, Sallust, and Tacitus. As he gained a sense of ease in his new milieu, he would, of course, implicitly accept the values that gave meaning to all of the above. The Visigoth, was, in short, being 'civilized' or transformed into a citizen of the Roman civitas, just as surely as a citizenship class of immigrants preparing for their American naturalization. Education, whether formal or informal, has as its final goal the induction of the neophyte into the social group.

The same "civilizing function is served in tribal societies by an informal educational process that often culminates in an initiation rite. Through a combination of dogma, symbol and ritual experiences, the initiate is instructed in some of the sacred lore that is most prized by the tribe as he undergoes a vital experience which confirms his full membership in the fraternity. It is significant that, as one of the very formal educational experiences in a tribal society, the initiation rite is directly related to the acquisition of full citizenship.

The tribal initiations rites in the U.S., as sociologists have pointed out, is the public school system. Public schools arose in the last century out of the need to assimilate hordes of foreign immigrants into the mainstream of American life. The Americanization of the children of the foreign-born through their instruction in English language, the tenets of the democratic system, American history, and, of course, the rules of proper conduct was the express purpose of the early public grammar schools. At the entrance to many an old New England school built at the turn of the century is carved in large letters: "Dedicated to Citizenship." The fundamental civilizing mission of the school has remained unchanged to the present day, as many contemporary writers have pointed out. Lately, however, the schools have taken upon themselves the task of integrating into middle class American life "native strangers"–blacks , Indians, and members of other minority groups, who are the "dwellers of urban and rural appalachias". The socializing function of the school is the same, only its clientele has changed along with the rationale for performing its function. In our day education is regarded as the insurance of equal opportunity, the guarantee of a fair share in the American dream. Even if this rationale is now being decried as unrealistic by a growing segment of the population, public education is still necessary to initiate these outsiders into the folkways and traditions of middle-class America.

Schools, as institutions whose aims are expressly educational, are meant to serve the interests of the social group by which they are run. American Schools are intended to Americanize; Japanese schools must Japanize. It is clearly in the best interests of the society not to allow large pockets of its people to remain unacculturated, and the school is regarded as one of the most powerful means of effecting the socialization of "aliens."

But there are rewards, to be sure, for the individual who submits to this socialization process. As the "foreigner"–whether actually foreign-born or not–is assimilated into the society, he develops a self-identity: a sense of who he is, why he is important, and how he relates to others in the society. Ideally he acquires a sense of security and well-being that identify himself as a bona fide member of his social group. Schools, then, offer not just information and skill-training, but they hold out the promise of instilling in the marginal member of society a sense of belonging. Contrary to the impression often given by proponents of "career-education," the school's chief aim is not to assist students in finding a job, but finding a home.

The school in modern societies and their colonial dependencies is becoming the increasingly pervasive path by which persons gain access to full-fledged adult membership in these societies,. as many educational sociologists have shown. If this is so, then we would do well to focus principally on the school in the remainder of this essay. Education, of course, is always understood to be something more complex than merely formal educational institutions, for socialization admittedly can and does take place on the playground and in the home as well as in the classroom. But the importance of the school as an instrument of socialization would appear to be so great that we shall concentrate on it alone hereafter. When the term "education" is used, therefore, it must be understood to mean formal educational apparatus, principally schools.

Given the fact that the business of the school is to "civilize" those who are still marginal citizens, it is not surprising that many young Micronesians should charge schools in the Trust Territory with Americanizing the young. What is surprising, though, is the look of pained astonishment that so often accompanies their complaint. One can only infer from this that the awareness that a foreign-fashioned educational system might produce a foreign product comes as a rude shock to many Micronesians. But do hens' eggs, when hatched, ever bring forth anything other than chickens?

The people of Micronesia generally expect that education will accomplish for Micronesia what it has done for countries such as France, Belgium, Japan and the United States. If it has "civilized" those other nations, why can't it do the same for their islands? If education can bestow other blessings–the imparting of skills and information, the sharpening of critical faculties, the deepening of one's self-awareness–why can't it also prepare the uninitiated for full participation in a distinctively Micronesian society? After all, it "civilized" young American for participation in their own society with some degree of success! Why can't it make full-fledged Micronesian citizens of our youth?

With a keen sense of disappointment, if not of real betrayal, they point disdainfully to the profound value changes that are transforming masses of young Micronesian students into "little brown Americans." They single out hair styles, tanktop shirts, or mini-skirts and pants suits as symptomatic of the enormous changes that are being worked on their young. In moments of critical self-reflection, students themselves will admit that something dramatic–and perhaps dangerous–has happened to themselves. On this point, the old and the young are in agreement. Even if neither group is capable of articulating the precise nature of the value changes wrought by education, they both realize that the young are different now. In a real sense, they are citizens of a strange land.

To expect education in the Trust Territory to convert young Micronesians into citizens of their own land is to fail to comprehend the peculiar nature of a colonial education system. I have repeatedly tried to show that the fundamental purpose of education is to make of the "outsider"–the immigrant, the ghetto-dweller, or even the child–a full participant in society. The initiation rites of the Tiv in Africa are designed to produce well-enculturated Tiv tribesmen. The purpose of the suburban Westchester high school is to turn out middle-class Americans with the attitudes and conceptual tools judged to be appropriated to middle-class citizens of the U.S. But when the educational apparatus of the middle-class American school is transplanted in a foreign soil, its definition of "citizen" will almost always remain what it had been in Westchester or Detroit. Is it reasonable to expect that the definition will be substantially altered because the building is shaded by palm trees rather than oaks or elms? "Dedicated to citizenship" might very well be engraved on the school buildings in Micronesia or in any other colonial setting. But to what citizenship? That of the mother country or of the colonial society?

This is the very dilemma of formal education in a colony. How can the metropolitan nation hope to implant an educational system that does anything but reflect its own national/cultural conception of what man is, what he should cherish, and what his duties may be? To put it another way, how can the alien definition of the "good man" be anything but maladapted to a colonial people, with its altogether different perceptions of what is meant by the ideal citizen?

Nevertheless, Micronesia has labored under colonial education, in a variety of forms, during the four successive foreign administration in these islands. Spanish, Germans, Japanese and Americans–each nation proposed its own educational formula for the enlightenment of the Micronesia in keeping with its own particular national genius. Naturally, each of the foreign powers understood "civilization" to mean something different, and each in succession attempted to bestow on the islanders "civilization" as interpreted by that nation. Education during the four colonial administrations, therefore, shows varying emphases at different times.

The Spanish, for whom religion and culture were inseparable (but not identical), left such formal education as was to be provided for the natives in the hands of their missionaries . The modest aims of their educational efforts are best summed up in the words of a Spanish Capuchin who visited Yap in 1887: "We hope to be able to contribute to the material and moral prosperity of the people with spiritual knowledge and instruction in the cultivation of crops." Religious instruction was the heart of the curriculum, but it was almost always supplemented with training in the trades (agriculture and carpentry, in particular). The rudiments of the Spanish language was sometimes also added when students were judged capable enough. Formal education during the Spanish regime, although conducted under the auspices of religious priests and brothers and centered on the catechism, was concerned with those practical skills that the padres felt would help natives advance materially. The school, like the medieval cathedral, was a religious edifice that extended into the temporal domain and permeated the day-by-day activities of the townspeople. Possibly the most notable example was de Colegio de San Juan de Letran, founded on Guam in 1669, which included ranches, farms, blacksmith 's forges, and carpentry shops.

Spanish education was too short-lived to leave any permanent traces in the Carolines, but the imprint of over 200 years of Spanish rule in the Marianas is evident in the language, dress and customs of the Chamorro people. What is perhaps the most significant relic of Spanish influence, however, is often overlooked. It is not the Catholic religion itself, but the permeation of that religion into almost every aspect of the culture so that, as in Spain, a fusion of faith and flag remains until today. The integral relationship between the Chamorro culture and Christian religion is testimony to the success of Spanish "civilizing" mission in the Marianas.

German education, too, was largely in the hands of the missions, even after the opening of the first public school in 1905. In the eyes of the German administration, the path of advancement lay in mastery of the German language and in the acquisition of the characteristically Teutonic virtues of thrift and industry. A government report in 1900 offered this definition of purpose: "Our task as regards the education of the natives is clear–they must be trained to work; they must be encouraged to earn and save money." Like the Spanish, the Germans offered in their schools training in skills such as carpentry and agriculture. The German language, however, had a much central place in the curriculum than had Spanish in earlier days, with large government subsidies granted to private schools for teaching spoken and written German.

The emphasis may have differed under the short period of German reign, but the sacred educational triad still appears–the language of the foreign power, vocational skills, and "moral training" in those values that were most integral to the national spirit of the foreign power (although not necessarily of the native population). The overall education program was fashioned so as to supply what, in the judgment of the colonial administration, was most needed to insure the progress of the native peoples towards civilization.

This latter purpose was articulated by the Japanese government at the beginning of its 30-year administration of the Mandated Territory. The fundamental object of the Japanese-run public school in Micronesia was "the bestowal of moral education as well as of such knowledge and capabilities as are indispensable to the advancement and improvement of their (Micronesians') lives." Not surprisingly, the first and most important step towards the "advancement" of the native children was felt to be a knowledge of the Japanese language, and fully half of the native students' class time was spent learning to speak and read Japanese.

At first it appears anomalous that, although the explicitly stated major objective of the Japanese school system was "moral education," so much emphasis in school should be given to language training and so little time (1 hour a week out of 24) allotted to the formal study of ethics. But to Japanese administrators , the study of their own language by half-naked brown natives was much more than the introduction of a new vehicle of communication. The Japanese language was itself education in a value system, and so was considered a suitable means of engendering such attitudes in the young "that when they grow up they may be capable of enjoying the blessings of advance civilization."

Instruction in the Japanese tongue was every bit as much an initiation into the mysteries of "salvation" in this period as the catechetical lessons of the Spanish priests had been in earlier years. Where the Spanish had seen baptism into the faith as the beginning of the long process of "civilization" (a term that went beyond the Catholic faith), the Japanese–to an even greater extent than the German–had looked to a knowledge of the language as the means of socializing Micronesians and bringing to them the "blessings of civilization." The vocational arts such as sewing, fishing, handicraft and farming were not altogether forgotten by the Japanese, but they were given a place of secondary importance in the educational system.

The Japanese government encouraged the work of the foreign missions in the Mandated Territory, presumably because of the morally uplifting effect that Christianity had on Micronesians. Even if mission schools did not always teach the Japanese language, they did have an acculturating effect of their own kind on the young; and anything was better than leaving the Micronesians as they were.

The educational thrust of the American administration during the past 30 years is difficult to summarize in a few sentence. Early policies, established under the Navy and the first decade of the Civil Administration in the Trust Territory, were later reversed during the 1960's as hundreds of classrooms were built, expatriate teachers hired on, and English made the official medium of instruction in the schools. Whatsmore, additional educational programs for those outside of schools were implemented, largely through U.S. federal programs. The handicapped, the aged, unemployed, school dropout s, teachers with previous classroom experience, and others have been the target of these programs.

It is not easy to find a clear statement of the educational goals of the American administration, particularly one that is adequate to encompass the various kinds of educational activities that the U.S. has undertaken. There are, however, certain implicit goals that seem to underlie the direction (that education in Micronesia has) taken during the past ten years. In the first place, education is aimed at preparing young and old to participate in a democratic society, one in which their own choices are of great consequence. Hence, the school system aims at providing the kind of information and mental enlightenment that will enable future voters to understand a democratic government and to make wise and constructive choices in the future. It should be noted that this is the same basic aim that Robert Hutchins and others have ascribed to the public school system in the United States. Understandably enough, American education has been charged with the task of preparing the young for insertion into a democracy; and when American education travels abroad, it is likely to retain the same fundamental goal–even in those overseas possessions without a democratic tradition.

Secondly, education in the Trust Territory seems bent on directing Micronesians towards the larger world beyond their islands. In principle, at least, education is to prepare Micronesians to adapt to the inevitable changes that will be brought here in the future, as well as to adjust to new surroundings elsewhere if they choose to leave the islands. This goal is reflected not only in the orientation of the curriculum itself to the "great world beyond," but in the push to send as many young people as possible to colleges outside of Micronesia. The very decision to use English as the medium of instruction in the schools was partially based on the reasoning that it would provide an effective communication link with the outside world.

Thirdly, education is geared to encourage people to fully enter the money economy. The young Micronesian, it is expected, will move directly from school into wage employment. One of the major concerns of education in recent years, in fact, has been furnishing suitable enough skill training in school so that the student will be able to find a job after his graduation (if he is not lucky enough to be able to attend still another school). At times, it begins to appear as if the real purpose of school is to equip the young for future employment.

There are, no doubt, a number of other important characteristics of present-day education in Micronesia that could be added. These three, however, are enough to illustrate the fact that the major goals of education–and of political and economic development as well–have a distinctively American flavor to them. Democratic participation in society, an openness to the world-at-large, and entrance into the dollar economy imply certain values that are fundamental to a people. And it is these values–especially those of freedom of choice and egalitirianism–that lie at the bedrock of the American "civitas."

Colonial education in Micronesia throughout the four successive administrations has successively embodied the values and national genius of each of the foreign powers. One could call this education imperialistic, but that would fail to take into account the fact that each of these foreign governments was genuinely concerned, to some degree or other, with the "advancement of the people" in Micronesia. if the path to this "advancement" was viewed differently by each, this was because the final goal–"civilization"–was also different.

As alien to traditional values as the colonial patterns of education in Micronesia may have been (and still are), they eventually gained widespread acceptance from the native population. Today American schooling is almost universally sought by Micronesian parents for their children. A formal educational system from abroad holds an almost irresistible attraction for colonial peoples, who see in it the promise of emulating the technological development of the great powers on the other side of the sea. With something of the spirit of the cargo cult devotees, they look to the school as the quasi-magical means of introducing the millinery age of material prosperity into their society. Once they have learned the white man's educational secrets, the blessings of material advancement will quickly follow. There shall be jobs and paychecks for the multitudes, professional skills for the exceptionally talented, and a better life for everyone. The colonial power, of course, does little to discourage these fond hopes. With confidence in their indigenous institutions greatly weakened due to long years of contact with the rich and sophisticated overlords from abroad, the colonized are quick to accept an educational system that is brought to them directly from Tokyo or Los Angeles, not so much in spite of its alien nature as because of it.

Congregationalist missionaries who arrived in Hawaii early in the last century had little difficulty convincing the royal family of the value of learning to read and write English. Within five years of their arrival, the chiefs had sent native teachers into all districts of their kingdom to instruct the populace how to read. The mana of the white foreigner, which was already well established among the Hawaiians through such evident measures of technological superiority as the size and construction of his ships and the power of his firearms, was believed to reside in the foreigner's ability to decipher and manipulate the mysterious symbols of his writing system.

Education for the Hawaiians then, as for Micronesians now, was readily seen as the precious key that opens the treasure chest from the West.

The dynamics of colonization, therefore, includes the validation of an imposed educational system–precisely because this educational system–precisely because this educational system is foreign in its nature. In no colonial nation has it ever been necessary to march school children into the classroom at gunpoint. One need only show them a merchandise catalogue. preferably illustrated, and then point to the alphabet on the blackboard. At a certain stage in the experience of a traditional society, the school comes to be widely accepted as a necessary means to a highly desirable end.

The nature of colonization is such, then, that the native population tends to conspire with the foreign power in the introduction of a formalized type of education whose purpose is to assimilate the population into the foreign polity.

There comes a certain point, however, when resistance to this socialization begins to develop among the native people. Some of the initial fascination with the alien culture's technology is lost; the material achievements of the foreign power are stripped of their magic. Twelve or sixteen years in the classroom, it is at last understood, are not a guarantee that one will possess the secret of the philosopher's stone. Formal education does not empower one to change lead into gold–to transform a traditional society into a modern industrialized society, or to stock the shelves of every home with products made abroad. As the expectations of a developing people become more realistic in time, there is a sense of frustration that so much less can be accomplished than was originally envisioned.

At the same time, the eyes of the colonial people are turned inwards on themselves, for education serves to heighten both personal and collective self-awareness. It is only a short while before the especially perceptive individuals among those who have been led down the path to someone else's village will ask themselves what they are doing here. They have followed quietly for a long while, but are becoming ever more anxious as they are unable to pick out any reassuring landmarks. There must be some mistake, they think to themselves as they survey the unfamiliar terrain, for this is not our village–the place where we were born and raised. Someone then asks the one who is leading them why they are being brought here. The answer comes back: we thought that you would be happier living in our village than in your own.

The outcry at this presumptuousness is easy to imagine. And as the realization slowly dawns on the colonial people that they are absorbing life-goals, values and a conceptual framework that is making of them citizens of a strange land, it is to be expected that a loud hue and cry shall be raised. The politest reply might be: "But I do not want to become a citizen of your country; mine will do fine, thank you!" Other responses are frequently far less restrained. It is understandable that the young Micronesian should feel indignant at the way he was taken and look for hints of a conspiratorial political play on the part of the foreign government. And yet, what did he expect American education to produce? First-class Hottentots?

Thus the final outcome of an educational system imposed on a colonial people is a political backlash leading in many cases to a strong pull away from the administering power. The deepened self-consciousness that is the effect of successful education only intensifies this backlash and encourages people to shape for themselves a new identity neither wholly traditional nor one shaped by the civilizing attempts of a foreign power. Education, then, is not always determinative of the political future of the people in a colonial state. often enough, as in Micronesia today, it prompts those who have nearly acquired foreign "citizenship" to take stock of themselves and ask: "What am I doing here in this strange land?"

Yet, if the seeds of discontent are sown in colonial education, causing a rejection of much that has been willingly embraced before, it is also true that something durable remains in the native people–something that makes them strangers in their own home. There is a residue of foreign values to which they cling long after they have shed the more superficial trappings of the alien government–the foreign language, the white teachers, and the American history courses. There are certain sacred values and truths, imbibed through the years of foreign-born education, that are not seriously questioned by even the most vocal of the young nationalists. No one challenges such statement as these: "I am as good as anyone else in society and am entitled to equal rights !", or "Decision-making should reside in all people, not just a privileged few." It is the wide acceptance of such values that is the most eloquent testimony to the lasting effects of foreign education, both formal and informal.

These recently acquired values and aspirations, along with a new political consciousness born of the frustration of being prepared to live in a foreign land, are the legacy of colonial education. And so it is that Micronesians, who have endured the attempts of four nations to bestow on them foreign citizenship, now begin the long journey back in search of a home!