Variations | Under direct American rule

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IN the mid-1960s, in the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, education was — as it is now — a top priority for the natives.

The TT consisted of the former Japanese mandated islands in the Micronesian region: the NMI, the Marshalls, Palau and what is now known as the FSM. The U.S., which took over the islands during World War II, governed the TT on behalf of the United Nations.

E.J. Kahn Jr., in his 1966 book, “A Reporter in Micronesia,” wrote that in these U.S.-administered islands, many “municipalities allocated ninety percent or more of their skimpy budgets for education.” And yet “most of the school buildings were dilapidated and most of the teachers, few of whom had had much schooling themselves, were so inept that as one visiting U.N. observer put it, ‘the blind were leading the blind.’ ”

According to Kahn, “Considerably less than half of the [TT] teachers employed in the public-school system today have had better than a ninth-grade education, and that is the equivalent of perhaps a fifth- or sixth-grade education in a run-of-the-mill American public school. The current demand for native teachers is so much greater than the supply that [islanders] sometimes say it is possible for any one of them to get a teaching job provided he can count to ten and doesn’t have a criminal record. In…Truk [Chuuk]…a fifteen-year-old boy teacher is doing his best to cope with a class containing some students nearly twice his age.”

In those days, Kahn said, dozens of middle-aged natives “have been teaching school most of their adult lives but are barely educated themselves and could never hope to complete high school, let alone college.” The U.S. set up an educational center for these teachers, Kahn said. “Of the fifty-nine…enrolled there in 1965, eighteen held the title of school principal.”

The enthusiasm for education in the TT was widespread, he added, and “contagious.” On the small island of Parem, in the Ponape (Pohnpei) district, the population was about 125, Kahn said. “Until recently they had never had a school of their own, and few of their children had been to a school of any kind.” They had told the district education office that they would build their own school if it would assign a teacher to their island. Done, said the district education office. A school was soon built: “a one-room open-sided structure, twelve by twenty-four feet, with coconut-log uprights, a thatch roof, and a dirt floor. The education office provided some nails, a blackboard, and a pencil sharpener. There are eight desks, made of used dunnage [‘loose wood, matting, or similar material used to keep a cargo in position in a ship’s hold’] supplied by a sympathetic ship captain. Twenty-four children are enrolled, between the ages of seven and thirteen. They are all in first grade.”

Kahn said when the TT’s American librarian heard that a book called “The Story of the Interior” had been published in the states to educate teenagers about the Department of the Interior, the librarian considered ordering several copies for the students in the TT. He believed that the book would “enlighten [the native students] about the agency that ran their lives and instruct them how the Trust Territory fitted into Interior’s scheme of things.”

The book had 117 pages, Kahn said, but no mention of the TT. “The librarian changed his plans, not wishing to import further evidence of what many [islanders] of all ages and degrees of literacy gloomily suspect: that very few people in the rest of the world, including the omnipotent U.S.A., know or care much about the existence of their peculiar…region.”

Kahn said “[w]hatever anyone may propose about [the TT], it is the United States Congress that disposes.” As the head of the U.N. 1964 mission to the TT declared, the U.S. Congress had “immense power for good or ill over the evolution of [the islands] in the period immediately ahead.”

Kahn said “of the men who hold this power, probably fewer than one-tenth have ever heard of the Trust Territory, and these congressmen who are ignorant of it have been pretty much content to leave its fate in the hands of the [U.S.] Senate and House Committees on [the] Interior and Insular Affairs.” In the U.S. House, the committee chair at the time was Wayne N. Aspinall (1896-1983), Democrat of Colorado. “[W]hat he says about [the TT] goes,” Kahn wrote. Despite the hassle of air-travel to the islands, the congressman had been to the TT four times, Kahn said. “Aspinall thinks [that the U.S. has] treated [the islanders] fairly and squarely and that we might be doing them more harm than good if we poured a lot of funds in there that they weren’t equipped to cope it.”

From 1945 to 1964, Kahn wrote, there were a few American teachers in the TT, and “by and large the natives were expected to provide their own educational facilities and their own faculties.”

Still, this was much better than the education system during the Japanese administration of the islands, Kahn said. “The Japanese didn’t believe in giving their colonial underlings more than rudimentary schooling, and spent four times the money on policemen that they spent on teachers. Between the First and Second World Wars, only a handful of [islanders] went beyond the seventh grade.”

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