Education &Culture

Education implies change; changes in attitudes and beliefs; changes in culture.  The formal definition of learning is: changes in thoughts, emotions and behaviors as a result of experience.  If a student has not been significantly changed by their school learning experience -- then they haven’t been educated.

For example, if one learns to think scientifically, to see cause and effect in a rationally explainable manner, then one can no longer engage in the superstitious, magical and supernatural thinking that a culture might subscribe to.  The field of mental health is a good example.  Here in the FSM some people still believe in ghosts, spirits and magic as agents that can affect peoples’ lives, behavior and health.  According to this view, people become “crazy” or sick because of these unseen malevolent forces.  Physical and mental illness are often attributed to spirit possession or magic.  In reality, physical and mental illness have organic physiological causes, which is why many people go to the local clinics or off-island for medical treatment.  Organs like kidneys and livers, and systems like the renal or endocrine systems malfunction for many explainable reasons.  A person suffers depression, mania or hallucinations because of chemical imbalances in their brain that are caused by various explainable things.  Schizophrenia is not caused by grandma’s ghost, as I was once told by a student who had a schizophrenic family member; it is a brain disease that is caused by genetic and environmental variables; and it can be treated with medicine rather than with witch-doctoring and exorcisms.

And here lies the value of the scientific understanding that can come through education.  If you believe that your physical or mental illness is caused by a bad spirit, magic or supernatural punishment, then it doesn’t give you much cause for optimism.  You will suffer more anxiety because of a more fearful and fatalistic outlook than if you know it’s an organic condition that can be treated with medicine.  And speaking of medicine – there are some “local” medicines that probably have real medicinal value based on the chemicals they contain, and sakau is one of them.  But there are others that probably have no real chemically-based medicinal value at all.  Those that have no real medicinal value often still work because of the “placebo” effect whereby the patient believes the medicine will help them and the power of their positive thinking about the medicine helps heal them, but the leaf, bark, root or magical incantation actually did nothing at all.  Chemical research needs to be performed on leaves, bark or roots to determine if they have real medicinal value or not, and truly useful plants should be catalogued and promoted as “real” medicines.

And one more thing regarding mental illness -- if one believes that a person is mentally ill because of spirits, magic or supernatural punishment, one may tend to think that the person is getting what they deserve, or one may be afraid to get close to them and help them.  This doesn’t make for a very sympathetic and helpful attitude toward the mentally ill.  I’ve often also heard people say that mentally ill people are just acting that way because they are lazy and don’t want to work, or that they used to think too much and their brain overloaded and blew a fuse.

Now what about culture?  What is it and what is it not?  To begin with, culture is not sacred, not mine or anyone else’s.  It’s not something that can be preserved on a shelf; that’s for museums containing a society’s past history.  Culture is a current, total way of life and a dynamic system of adaptation.  Culture is a human tool for guiding survival and reproductive behavior within a particular natural and social environment.  When the economic or social situation changes, culture usually changes with it.  The history books are full of stories of societies that disappeared because they could not adapt to changing environments.

Culture conditions and shapes our thinking about the natural world.  Culture teaches people to notice and consider some things over others and to subscribe to some explanations of natural phenomenon over others.  Pre-scientific culture sometimes teaches people to see cause and effect in the natural world in supernatural terms based upon fictions, whereas scientific culture teaches people to see cause and effect in a manner where every phenomenon has a rational explanation based upon facts.  Scientific thinking is necessary to the fields of medicine and ecology, to name just a few.

There is deep culture and there is surface culture.  Deep culture is things like social and economic relationships such as family, clan, land tenure and economic production methods.  Surface culture is things like trends in food, dress, hairstyles and entertainment.  Surface culture changes easily with the winds of commercialism, foreign visitors and people traveling abroad to see other places and then returning home.  Deep culture is much more resilient, but can also change.  Structural changes in family and clan relationships, land tenure and economic production are more fundamental than orange hair, mini-skirts, hamburgers and rap music.  A structural change from an economy driven by government employment and Compact Funds to an economy driven by the private sector and by wealth-generating primary and secondary production would be a significant deep cultural change.

Culture is the total, current way of life of a people, not some idealized version of the past.  Today “Micronesian culture” includes rice and soy sauce (introduced by the Japanese), hamburgers and pizzas (introduced by the Americans), and many other things like dress, hairstyles, popular music, dance and videos from various sources.  It also includes the “foreign” white man’s Christian religion.  Is the acceptance of a “foreign” religion from “foreign” missionaries a form of mental colonialism? Micronesia could have been Buddhist or Shinto or Moslem if the historical winds had blown a different way, and there’s nothing wrong with these religions.  Isn’t it ethnocentric to believe that your religion is better than others?  What happened to traditional Micronesian religions, foods, dress, entertainment and explanations of natural events?  It’s probably not so much a case of ethnocentric foreigners forcing their ways as it is a case of people freely choosing something they want for utility or pleasure; and this is the way it’s always been for most cultures throughout history – borrowing and adapting useful and interesting things from other cultures, assisted by the process of education.