MicSem Publications

The Price of Education in Micronesia

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

1989 Education

Schools have long been decried as alien institutions imposed by colonial powers upon Pacific societies that had no need of formal education prior to Western contact. This was true in Micronesia, a sprawling array of archipelagoes north of the equator that have shared a common colonial history under four foreign powers within the past century. Only within the last ten years has this area attained a measure of self-government while splitting into four separate political entities: the Northern Marianas, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. In all of these modern-day states, the school, like other legacies from their colonial past, has been fully endorsed by the local people and has been gradually integrated into island life. Today the school is as much a Micronesian institution as the meeting house, the legislature or the church.

Within just a year of the arrival of the first Spanish troops and missionaries in the Marianas, the first school was founded on Guam. This institution, known as the Colegio de San Juan de Letran and opened to young boys in 1669, earned the distinction of being the first school in Oceania, largely because the Marianas was the first part of the Pacific to be colonized. Jesuit missionaries, who spoke of the school as the wellspring of their mission, used such blandishments as candy and holy cards to entice small children to school. Once they were there, students learned prayers and studied the rudiments of the Catholic faith, much as Protestant students did two centuries later after early American Board missionaries introduced Christianity to the Carolines and Marshalls and established the first schools there. These church-run schools, the forerunners of later public educational systems, offered a smattering of academic instruction in arithmetic and English, but the overall curriculum was directed a single end, that of instilling Christian beliefs.

With the onset of German rule in Micronesia at the turn of the last century came the minuscule beginnings of the public school system. Although the German government, like the Spanish regime before it, was content to leave education mostly in the hands of the missionaries, it opened the first public school in Micronesia on Saipan and began in Palau a formal program to train local policemen that was tantamount to a small school. The purpose behind Germany's embryonic public education system as well as its subsidies for mission schools was to raise the islanders' material standard of living by promoting those attitudes needed to increase their productivity. As the German government succinctly phrased it in an annual report, "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."

Not long after the Japanese took possession of island Micronesia at the start of World War I, the public education system prefigured by the German administration became a reality. At the height of the Japanese Mandate there were 24 schools for islanders offering three years–or in some cases five years–of basic instruction to about half the school-age population. The study of Japanese language dominated the curriculum, with a variety of other subjects, academic and practical, rounding out the syllabus. Japanese educators regarded their language as much more than a tool for communication; it was a window to a superior value system. Hence, teaching the Japanese language was not so much a practical necessity as a way of engendering such attitudes in the young that "when they grow up they may be capable of enjoying the blessings of advanced civilization."

Early schools in Micronesia then, served to initiate the young into the mysteries of a totally different value system, whether that be a religious faith, a modern economic system, or the "blessings of advanced civilization" as embodied in a culture. The education that young Micronesians received was unabashedly intended to inculcate new ways, even at the expense of their folkways if that was the price of progress. When the United States assumed control of Micronesia as a trust territory following World War II, it extended elementary schooling through six grades and expanded enrollment everywhere, but professed a policy of non-intervention with respect to the local cultures. While this may have seemed a startling and perhaps refreshing change from the educational policies of early colonial powers, American education also rested upon premises that were alien to the island cultures: the existence of basic rights inherent in each individual, the value of democracy and the expression of one's opinion, the importance of economic development, to mention a few of the more important ones. Despite the laudable noninterventionist intentions of American educators during this early period, the set of premises on which its education system was founded insured that the worm would remain at work in the wood.

In 1963, the last year of Kennedy's presidency, the US suddenly reversed its previous policy of slow-paced change and modest annual subsidies in favor of rapid development. No longer was the pace of modernization to be determined by the territory's growth in productive capacity. Influenced by new theories of economic growth that called for heavy investment in the social services, especially health and education, as a prerequisite for economic growth, the US administration doubled its annual budget for Micronesia in a single year and raised it dramatically in the following years. The yearly subsidy of $6 million in 1962 was increased eightfold to almost $50 million by 1970, and by the end of the next decade it had doubled again to about $100 million (quite apart from another $25 million in US Federal program funds). Washington officials could be pleased with themselves by the end of the 1960s; they had not only put to rest earlier charges that the US was neglecting its responsibilities towards its distant trusteeship, but they had created such a state of dependency that Micronesia's future would be almost certainly linked to the United States forevermore.

The effect of this dramatic shift in policy on education was enormous, of course. Education's share of the annual budget, which had stood at about ten percent in 1962, doubled to 20 percent by the end of the decade, as the government undertook its massive school building program. By 1970 the total public school enrollment in the Trust Territory had doubled from 13,000 to more than 28,000. Even more indicative of the level of change during this period, however, are the soaring per pupil expenditures–from barely $50 in 1962 to $240 eight years later. At first American teachers were contracted to fill the new positions in the recently constructed schools, then Peace Corps volunteers replaced them after this program was extended to Micronesia in 1966. By 1970 the education scene in the islands had been totally transformed. Virtually all educable children of elementary school age were in school sitting at a small bench in a newly constructed buildings usually built of cement block and roofed with tin, with one or more of their instructors an American teaching in English. The expansion of elementary education during the 1960s was quickly followed by a similar phenomenon on the secondary and tertiary levels. The first full high schools had been begun in 1953 with the opening of Xavier, a Catholic mission school, and PICS, a government-run school, but it was not until ten years later that each of the six districts had its own full high school. In the early 1960s there were no more than 100 young people graduating each year in the entire Trust Territory; by 1967 there were almost 500, and by 1971 there were nearly 1000. In 1970 the Trust Territory Director of Education announced that the intention of the administration was to make secondary education universal in the same way that elementary schooling had become universal in the decade before that. Despite the high level of funding that the Trust Territory enjoyed at this time, this proved an impossible goal. Throughout the late 1970s about 60 percent of all elementary school graduates were being accepted into high schools and this figure has remained fairly constant since then. The secondary schools throughout the Trust Territory, including the Commonwealth of the Marianas, have a total enrollment of almost 8,000 students and graduate about 1,200 young men and women a year.

What do these high school graduates do afterward? Increasingly in recent years they are going off to further their education in tertiary institutions in the US. Since 1972 when Micronesian students became eligible for US federal aid packages designed to furnish an opportunity for a college education to less affluent Americans, large numbers of Micronesians have applied for these grants, scraped together enough money for a plane ticket, and left for Guam or the US in search of a college education. Throughout the 1960s, when limited TT scholarship funds were the only means of financing a college education, only 200 or 300 young Micronesians could attend college at any one time. Since the early 1970s and the availability of US federal education grants, a college education is no longer seen as the prerogative of the intellectually gifted, but is viewed as a universal right. Nearly half of all the high school graduates in Micronesia have gone on to college in recent year and the number of students currently abroad is estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000.

Those young Micronesians who had the good fortune to finish their college ten or more years ago found jobs waiting for them when they returned to their home islands. Even after the Trust Territory budget reached a ceiling in 1975 and it appeared that there could be no further increase in the number of government jobs, the rapid proliferation of US federal programs during the next three years offered new opportunities for employment to graduates. Finally, however, in 1979, many of the programs were discontinued, funding took a sharp turn downwards, and the job crunch began in earnest. As the second and third wave of the mass exodus to US colleges in the mid-1970s returned, many were disappointed to find that their college diploma did not guarantee them the government jobs they expected. There were simply far too many returnees and too few positions. Perhaps even more disappointed than the young college graduates themselves were their parents, who had sent their children off, even at the risk of seeing them shed their old island ways, in the belief that an education would be the unfailing key to a job, a paycheck, and lasting material prosperity for their family.

Education had far outraced the economy. In fact, it was never a real contest. Virtually the only new employment created during the years since the big buildup in the early 1960s was either government jobs or the service sector that fed off government salaries. The "investment in man" theories of development that had been invoked to justify the rapid educational expansion now appeared bankrupt. The industries that were supposed to have developed if only enough seed money could be found and intelligent and enterprising people provided to initiate these projects were never begun. Instead, young graduates did what they knew best-worked for the government–and when jobs there could not be found they returned to the village to wait until their luck changed. Yet, it is significant that, despite the stagnant island economy, young Micronesians have returned home after college to take their chances on their island rather than reside in the US permanently. The notable lack of a "brain drain" thus far has confounded the dire forecasts of social planners. It can perhaps be ascribed to unfavorable US immigration laws for Micronesians, but it is probably also owing to a kind of homing instinct on the part of young Micronesians.

Proper emphasis on vocational rather than strictly academic education could have changed all this, some well-meaning but naive critics assert. They complain, quite correctly, that the vocational education in many schools is only a short interlude in an otherwise academic curriculum, and that the courses offered are occasions for dabbling rather than opportunities to master a skill. Yet, even if this were not the case, it would be futile to regard vocational education as a panacea for Micronesia's economic and educational ills. There remains a strong bias in young islanders for white-collar employment, a bias that government salary schedules and the enviable lifestyle of higher officials has only strengthened. More important, however, is that fact that those Micronesians who do find jobs in the trades for which they were trained invariably wind up working in the service area rather than the productive area of the economy. They eventually build houses for others, fix their autos and pickups, and repair outboard engines or air conditioners; they do not fish or farm commercially. As long as this remains the case, the economy will remain crippled, regardless of the emphasis given to vocational education.

From a strictly economic viewpoint, the education explosion in Micronesia twenty years ago has been nothing short of disastrous for the islands. In the first place, the US administration allocated to education a growing share of its budget, leaving Micronesia with a costly, if not extravagant, system to maintain under self-government. To make matters worse, the graduates that this system produces make further demands upon the government for jobs and additional services, since education almost necessarily inflates expectations regarding lifestyle. All of this, of course, only further boosts the cost of governments which is now well beyond the means of the islands to pay its own way, and makes anything resembling self-reliance all the more distant.

But economic considerations are not everything, especially in a territory that is still bankrolled by the US government. What of the effect of education on school graduates and their communities? Has the cost of education in terms of dollars and limited political options been partially offset by its social benefits?

This is a difficult question to answer as long as the argument rages over what may be called "appropriate" education for the islands. Some maintain that the only suitable education for Pacific islanders is one directed towards the needs of the community, even if this means letting personal interests and ambitions go unrealized. Hence, if the community in question is a small agrarian village, a "good" education will equip the person with what he or she needs in order to return to the community with the minimum amount of disruption and provide skills that the village can use in its everyday life. There are others, however, who argue that the purpose of education is always to develop the potential of the individual by deepening his understanding of himself and his world and enhancing his skills, regardless of where this path may lead him in the future. This has always been the philosophical underpinning of what was formerly known as a liberal education they assert, and societies from classical times to the present have bestowed this type of education on their members in the confidence that these persons would ultimately find some way to enrich their own society through the new tools and perspectives that they had acquired.

There is probably no satisfactory way of resolving this difference in the theoretical order, And we can only return to the concrete realities of education in Micronesia to search for an answer. The education to which Micronesians have been subjected for two decades now is largely patterned on the liberal education that is common in the US and Europe, although some modifications in its content and style have been made in island schools. Those who have finished school have unquestionably been "alienated," as is often charged, but not hopelessly so. Those who fail to find government jobs in town return to their villages where they are easily recognizable as recent returnees from school. Their clothes are flashier than ordinary, they speak with a certain amount of disdain of some features of village life, they complain about the slow pace of life add eagerly seek out the company of others who have had the same type of experiences abroad that they have enjoyed, and they chafe under what they call the authoritarianism of life in a small community. Yet, for all this, they appear to be fairly healthy individuals, certainly not schizoid types who are helpless to integrate what they have learned abroad with the demands of village life, even if they do experience the devious tensions between the two. Eventually they adapt to the rhythms of village life and are soon pounding breadfruit and fishing like everyone else. This is not to imply that they merely fade into the community circle, however. Even after years in the village, they often retain a healthy skepticism, a mildly critical spirit, and a restlessness for new ideas that constitute a positive contribution to community life.

The picture sketched here is admittedly quite different from what many of us feared would happen as the education explosion in Micronesia began. We foresaw frustrated young men and women returning to their islands to find no jobs, few modern conveniences, and a very tenuous sense of their own identity. Perhaps we underestimated the personal resources and adaptability of the young Micronesians who were going abroad. At any rate, events have shown that the educated do not huddle together feeding one another's discontent and plotting the overthrow of the present order. Neither do they turn up in any great numbers in the jails, except for the usual drinking incidents; they have not become marginalized or social drifters. Moreover, even those who have failed to find salary employment are not candidates for the rising suicide rates in the islands. Despite their experience of "cognitive dissonance," as educators might call it, the young educated give the appearance of being reasonably happy and well-adjusted.

Micronesia's foreign-born education system has been modified many times over since the early 1960s and is increasingly developing a character of its own. Island schools were already being adapted to local cultures long before the Micronesian states achieved self-government in 1977 and assumed formal administrative responsibility for these institutions. The most significant modifications were not the contents of the curriculum, although this is what most observers look at first, but the whole general style of education and the fit between the school and the community. A village crisis, for example, almost always leads to the closing of the school for a more or less extended duration, and absenteeism on the part of both students and teachers is rampant. Discipline tends to be loose and a rather easy-going attitude towards studies generally prevails, to the despair of American supervisors and educational consultants. Whatever else may be said of the Micronesian school today, it is as much modified by local circumstances as one could imagine. If this fact constitutes adaptation, then we need not worry any longer about the problem of adapting the school to its socio-cultural environment. It has already happened.

Education, although originally a foreign artifact and one that was used quite deliberately to colonize the islanders and induce them to change their ways and accept the "blessings of civilization," has now become a cherished part of Micronesian life. Like other foreign institutions it is in the process of taking on distinctive Micronesian features. Yet it is not so much this adaptation as the resilience of the people themselves that has spared the islands some of the dire consequences predicted by Westerners of what would happen to the educated and their islands if schooling went unchecked. After all, societies, like the human beings that make them up, are organic entities and have an adaptability and pliability that continues to mystify social scientist. The pressing question for Micronesia, then, is not whether its cultures can survive under the impact of a Western-patterned educational system, but whether it can afford the luxury of such an expensive system at a time when it is struggling to achieve a type of economic development that can advance its own political autonomy. Education such as we see in Micronesia today may not be too socially perilous, but it could well be too politically costly.