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Educating for Self-Reliance

Staking Out the Issue

How can the FSM promote the self-reliance that it has set as its goal? By building a strong private industry, was the reply of participants at our last discussion. But self-reliance, and the productive economy that goes hand-in-hand with self-reliance demand more than natural resources and capital investment. At our last discussion many people expressed the belief that education was an essential element in development. They underlined the need for motivation, a change in attitude, a new approach. The old way of looking at life may have been good enough for yesterday's subsistence economy, but it will never do if we propose to modernize the economy. The people of FSM, who will be the driving force of the new economy, will have to embrace a new set of attitudes and values that are congenial to development.

In his introduction, the moderator proposed two major questions to guide the discussion.

  1. How do we educate for self-reliance? What values and attitudes are required in a nation that wants to move in this direction? How do we go about making such a deep-seated change in the inmost part of our people?
  2. Should we do this, even if we can? The mindset that is of critical importance for successful development might be at odds with many of the key values that were honored in a traditional society. If so, then we risk losing some of the most cherished parts of the cultures by making a transition to a modern economy. Under such conditions, what course should we take?

The New Work Ethic

Just what attitudinal and value shifts are necessary for development?

In a traditional Micronesian society people worked only as long as necessary to get what they wanted. A family might work furiously to make copra for money to buy a new boat, but after the boat was purchased the family members would slack off and rest for a while. They might work very hard to gather the food needed for a village feast, but afterwards they would take time off. The attitude was "work for a while, get what you want, and then rest." This is very different from the approach of a commercial fisherman who is on a fishing boat for perhaps 30 days at a time, puts into port for a couple of days, and then goes back out to fish. The rhythm of life and work is dramatically changed in a modernized society. Work is not intermittent but a burden that must be borne day after day, week after week. The new development, and the work ethic it entails, puts great emphasis on saving-personal savings put away in the bank for future needs, and national savings to enable investment in new industry. The more traditional attitude is to spend it as you get it; the modern approach is to put away money for a "rainy day."

In a modern society workers are expected to be punctual in showing up for work, which they perform on a methodical, clock-oriented schedule. In former days the work schedule was much more easygoing and people could relax as they needed.

Strong motivation is needed to get people to make such profound changes in their way of life. Someone suggested with tongue in cheek that perhaps the people of FSM should develop an addiction to machines (computers, automobiles, boat engines, etc). His point is that people can be motivated to work steadily by the need to acquire money for what they truly want. When people have everything they need (as they did in an earlier age), there is no incentive to produce. Modern society provides an incentive-in fact, a steady stream of incentives-to work without let-up in the glittering array of consumer goods it offers people. If the people of FSM lack the desire to enter the modern economy, perhaps new "needs" should be created. Nineteenth century traders sometimes taught the local people to smoke to induce the need for tobacco, which the traders could thereupon barter in return for the goods they wanted. The attraction of new and expensive goods and services could possibly create a Western work ethic.

How to Inculcate Self-Reliance

All the discussants realized that the above discussion was largely theoretical. In practice, Micronesians still scorn working on the commercial fishing boats, and women abandon their work in the garment factories after just a few months. Money may be an important motivating factor, but it clearly was not everything. People seem to find some kinds of work simply too hard or possibly even degrading. One answer proposed was to have leaders seek industries that offer people the kind of work they might want to do. At first sight, this would seem fanciful. How could any nation pick and choose in the work it is willing to perform? Can we suppose that FSM will have the luxury of turning out engineers but not common laborers, managers of fishing companies but not the fishermen themselves, accountants but not sales clerks? Someone pointed out, however, that this is not as farfetched as it might sound. It has already happened in Guam and the Northern Marianas. There local people run the government and serve as middle-level businessmen, while outsiders (Asians and people from the FSM) provide the work force in construction and take the less desirable jobs. The problem, of course, is that such societies require an underclass to perform the work that no one else wants to do.

This turn in the discussion brought us back to the question of the motivating power of money. If people are hungry enough, someone reminded us, they will take any type of job to satisfy their basic needs. Perhaps the people of the FSM are simply not hungry enough. Micronesians are capable of working hard when need arises, but there may be no urgent need to do so now. One person thought that the sums of money FSM is receiving from the US may be the greatest obstacle to development. His conclusion was that if the money flow from the US was stopped, development would begin in earnest. This was bitterly contested by others. One man pointed out that in the early years of its trusteeship when budgets were very low, Micronesia showed no signs of development at all. The island economy was stagnant for lack of capital. People survived during these years and the government limped along with minimal services, but FSM citizens expect a good deal more today. People's expectations have risen greatly since the 1950s; no one today wants to settle for a subsistence economy and a bare modicum of government services.

The position in which the FSM finds itself today, then, would seem to preclude simple solutions. People have enjoyed two or three decades of substantial support from the US government. This has raised expectations among the populace. Perhaps Micronesians could return to a bare-bones economy if there were dire need to do so, but no one would choose to make this backward leap if they could avoid it. The FSM government is not starting from scratch today. It is trying desperately to meet the needs and desires of people who have come to expect much of their government, and it is trying to do so from its own resources rather than those of its long-time patron, the US government.

Even so, there are some first steps that FSM could take to educate its people to think in terms of self-reliance. The government could promote local industries, even small ones, by taxing foreign imports that compete with them. Levying an import tax on soap and pepper, products that are produced here, would have not only protect local industries but would serve a valuable educational function as well. It would induce people to think in terms of local consumption and might also encourage them to go into smallscale production of other items that could replace imports.

What Formal Education Can Do

Most of the discussion up to this point had centered on informal education. We were discussing a change of values and attitudes that goes beyond what we usually expect schools to do. Some participants, however, felt that there was an important role that formal education could play in preparing for self-reliance. Schooling could obviously help train young people for future job openings in the islands. It could also steer the young towards the kinds of employment that is most needed. Children who raise gardens as part of their elementary education experience, for instance, may develop an interest in farming that could otherwise go untapped. On the other hand, there are limits to what formal schooling can do in the way of preparing people for self-reliance. The "education for self-reliance" that we were discussing was primarily an attitudinal change. Is it reasonable to suppose that the study of marine science in school will motivate the young to sign on a fishing boat? Can formal studies of agriculture and fishing, to mention one or two examples, be expected to change the values of young people so profoundly that they will perform whatever manual labor may be needed for the good of their nation? The training in agriculture that many Micronesians have received does not seem to have resulted in any of them becoming commercial farmers. As a matter of fact, formal education tends to work the other way. It often results in a distaste for manual labor and a desire for white-collar employment. Rather than assisting in self-reliance, it seems to have had the opposite effect in many developing countries.

Many of the participants were willing to acknowledge that formal training in needed skills areas would be a help in building up industries, but no one seemed to feel that it was the answer. A more relevant curriculum and an improved school system, while worthy goals in their own right, are in themselves unable to produce the change of mindset and values needed for self-reliance.

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