Friday, October 14, 2011

Education and neo-colonialism in Nauru

[For most of the week just passed my father-in-law, the educationalist and veteran folk musician Alan Wagstaff, was lodged in our spare bedroom, as he waited for the birth of his first grandson (the boy, who is my first nephew, was finally born last night: like my second niece Rita, he bears the name of a famous modernist painter).

Alan defected from mainstream education to the Steiner movement soon after graduating from a British teachers' training college in the late '60s. After a few years' service in the old country, he and his wife Ruth emigrated to New Zealand, where they helped found Auckland's first Steiner school (their daughter has blogged about her time at Michael Park Primary here).

Although he broke from the Steiner movement more than a decade ago, after deciding it was hopelessly contaminated by the dogmatism and the peculiar supernatural beliefs of its founder, Alan has remained a critic of mainstream education in the West. He recently opened a twitter page, where he launches broadsides against the educational establishment, and polemicises in favour of the practices of Silkwood Independent School, the Queensland institution where he works as an advisor on curriculum.

Alan came to the Steiner movement as a refugee from the rote learning of facts and figures and the corporal punishment which were the stock in trade of schools in the 1960s. The strap and cane may have been banished from most Western schools in the twenty-first century, but Alan is convinced that the 'National Standards' testing which is being foisted on teachers in Britain and in Australasia is forcing a return to the authoritarian and inefficient methods of rote learning. "The idea that all children can learn at the same rate is a nonsense" he told me the other night, as we sipped coffee and waited for a call from the hospital down the road. "And the idea that something as subtle as early learning can be measured by something as crude as a statistic is also nonsense. National Standards forces teachers to spend most of their time feeding children information to help them pass tests which measure nothing. And the kids who are out of sync with the 'learn the same way on the same day' model demanded by National Standards - the kids who are ahead of the pack and the kids who are left behind, academically speaking - well, those kids make trouble, and classrooms become dysfunctional. Kids have to learn at their own pace - and the curriculum has to engage with their interests, their world, their cultures."

Alan's views on National Standards certainly seem to be shared by many educators in this country: teachers' unions have taken a strong line against the system, and a recent study suggested that a third of schools are refusing outright to implement it.

I didn't want to share Vaughan Rapatahana's articles about the education system on Nauru with Alan earlier this week, because I thought he was under enough stress waiting for the birth of his grandson. The idiocies being perpetrated under the name of education in Nauru might have been too much for him to bear.

I posted Vaughan's article about his experience at a Nauruan school in the late '70s and early '80s last week. The following article, which I've abridged slightly, was written after Vaughan's return visit to the struggling island-state in 2010, and reveals that, partly as a result of the neo-colonial policies of Australia, the shortcomings of the Nauruan school system have become even more pronounced in recent years. If National Standards is homogenising education and alienating children in the West, then the imposition of an utterly alien curriculum and the refusal to engage with local culture has led to the mass desertion of Nauruan schools.

Vaughan's article isn't only a lament: drawing on his knowledge of New Zealand's te reo Maori and kohanga reo movements, he makes some suggestions about how the sorry situation in Nauruan schools might be turned around. I think Vaughan and my father-in-law should have a beer sometime...]

A Personal Reflection: Return to The Republic, February, 2010

Vaughan Rapatahana

Thirty years after my stint as a native-speaking teacher of English in Nauru, I returned for a visit, an update. It was the least that I could do to give a fair appraisal of the island. I undertook to read as much as I could about Nauru, especially pertaining to English-language education...

Many things had changed by 2010. Many. Yet, in a sense, many things were still the same. Nauruans remained good people, with what would have to be unlimited patience, given the disastrous economic tsunami that wiped out their salaries and resources for about ten years from 1995-2005, the ramifications of which continue to plague the island. Lots of administrative paperwork and proclamations – many available on the web – had been churned out, with little real, visceral effect, for example the 1995 Nauru Curriculum Footpath, and the 1997 Nauru Education for the 21st Century, whilst politics remained a crazy game of musical chairs between – among others - Marcus Stephen and Ludwig Scotty.

A lot of rain had fallen recently, and days were overcast, with only flashes of the diurnal blistering heat I remembered.

The airport runway was longer – courtesy of a New Zealand work crew some years before. I had always used to wonder how aeroplanes ever managed to land there without sliding into the sea.

However there was also a lot missing:

- Most Kiribati and Tuvaluans had been returned to their respective homelands in 2006, when it was apparent that there was no money to back-pay them. This repatriation – and their payment – was organized by the South Pacific Forum. The workers' living quarters had subsequently been taken over by Nauruan residents.

- There was no Staff Club anymore – it had been transmogrified into a church. An absurd irony, if you reflect for just a moment.

- There was no more Bank of Nauru: apparently money-mismanagement had made it insolvent.

- There was no more grocery store in the Civic Centre, in fact not much at all in the Civic Centre these days. The best grocery store by far now is Capelles, which is flourishing and four times its size in 1979 ... it’s also a hotel. And a car hire centre too, or so it says outside.

- There is only one aeroplane in Our Airlines, but the replacement for Air Nauru is a fine little airline. I found it very professional, serving very good food with convivial staff ... Actually, Our Airlines does have a second plane, wearing Norfolk Island livery, which is utilized as a charter between Norfolk Island and the Australian mainland.

- There is no more expatriate housing, except for some non-European Nauru Secondary School staff, who are put up at the sadly rundown and expensive Menen Hotel. Our lights went off one night and no land line telephones were available – mind you, most people now used mobiles. There was no TV reception whatsoever and an interesting minimalist menu was available, although the food was tasty.

- All expatriate homes were returned to Nauru in 2000 and many of the ones the expatriates used to live in - including those in upscale Menen Terrace – are now back in Nauruan habitation. Some houses, however, including the very first home we lived in way back in 1979, were decrepit and overgrown and had no inhabitants whatsoever.

- There is also no more Menen channel: now there is a newish (courtesy of Japan) boat harbour there ... I couldn’t swim unhampered by rock pinnacles like I used to, at least in Anibare Bay.

- There were no more Harleys or loud pumping SUVs and Landrovers. Now there were only small-cc motorbikes and a noticeable dearth of brand new motor vehicles. Mind you, there was also a dearth of empty beer cans. Nauru seemed to me to be much tidier than when I first lived there. Much quieter too, I guess. Less to celebrate nowadays, I surmise...

The Police Commissioner is an Australian, and I was told that the jail is full. A vicious murder or two had blighted the country recently. In 2004, in return for $22.5million over two years, Australia actually installed a Secretary of Finance and appointed a Police Commissioner … there are very strong shades of re-colonization in the republic nowadays. I even heard further rumours of the current Australian administration approaching Nauru to once more ‘host’ the infamous ‘refugee centre’, the Pacific’s own Guantanamo Bay!

New Government House/buildings have been built since I was last there. They are nice, to coin a word.

Kayser College now has classes from pre-school (called ‘infant school’ there) through to Year 10. We also drove past a new Nauru College for primary students.

Nauru Secondary School had been temporarily relocated to the former ‘Pacific Solution’ refugee camp, while a multimillion dollar newer and larger NSS was being built with AusAID revenue. It was due to open in March, 2010 during a visit of Taiwan's Premier. (Taiwanese aid to Nauru is also apparent in the pig and chicken station not far from Capelles.) Apparently there is lots of truancy now – even more than when I was there. I guess that kids (and parents) think ‘what’s the point of going to school?’ - particularly when over 90% of the population are without work...

I heard later in 2010, that yes, the new school has been reopened on the site of the old school.

In 2009, Papua-New Guinean teachers complained bitterly about a lack of consistent salary payment, about being accommodated at a Menen Hotel with no cooking facilities, about racist taunting, about everything being ‘in Nauruan’ language', and about their ‘original’ contracts being abrogated on their arrival on the island. All of this sounded very familiar.

The situation of education in Nauru is, perhaps, best summarized in a National Assessment report from 2004:

Despite the substantive investment in education over 36 years, there is still a huge gap in quantity of trained workers across the various disciplines … At present the reality of the education system is somewhat different from the ideal. The education system in Nauru is failing to produce Nauruans competent to deal with the future. There is a lack of continuity, relevance and of a culturally appropriate curriculum – which, combined contribute to academic failure, loss of identity and sense of purpose. Schools and training facilities are dilapidated and poorly equipped, and there is over-crowding in classrooms. As a matter of fact, significant numbers of Nauruans are illiterate in English and have a poor command of Nauruan. Collaboration between teachers and parents is intermittent … (pp. 32-37).

The Director of Education is yet another Australian trying to bring in – absurdly – the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra) curriculum! What the relevance of this is to a sovereign independent state like the Republic of Nauru, with its own indigenous culture and language, totally escapes me. It is now 2010...

Nauruan is still NOT an official language! There are conflicts over its approved historical version, over its orthography. Perhaps Maori education in Aotearoa could be utilized as an exemplar: Maori have, to some extent, regained control of their education, their mana, via their own language, te reo Maori, as taught by Maori in nga kura kaupapa (schools with Maori subject matter taught in Maori by Maori). However, this model is exactly that – merely a model. Nauru can streamline its own system so as to best support, maintain and nurture into full fruition its own language. It surely must be tino rangatiratanga (total self-determination) time for Nauru.

There is an expectation of five more years of phosphate mining and 25 years of secondary mining on Nauru. In early 2010 the Government had stabilized somewhat – despite the possibility of another coup d’etat when we were there, which thankfully did not transpire - and Nauruans now felt the water at about chest level, and not over their nostrils, like they had just a few years earlier, when the country had been listed by the USA as a ‘rogue state’, because the many passport selling and money laundering schemes extant there.

No. Not drowning anymore, but the water swilling around is still far too deep and there are too many sharks circling...

Nauruans remain friendly people. When we ran out of gas one afternoon there was no problem in finding someone willing to just drop everything and go and buy some more gas for us – and they had to be almost forced into taking some dollars. I spoke to loquacious (in more than one language), intelligent locals – among them Maria Gaiyabu, Julie Olsson, Tim Angimea, Paul Finch, Chinese restauranters – people who are more than capable of handling their island’s own destiny.

Yet, when once there was happy singing everywhere, now Nauruans still sing, “but the happy songs have gone”. Then there is Topside, the old phosphate-mining area...Topside remains a bitter ironic symbol, a devastated landscape ultimately only serving to make non-Nauruan fields greener, more fertile, richer. Like daytime vampires the colonial powers robbed one land to make their own plains flourish. I have alluded to Australian recolonization already, but the Peoples Republic of China, Taiwan and now it seems also Russia are also rubbing their hands and looking at Nauru – and an Indian-run private company, Getax, is also involved in supposed financial finagling …

My hope is that the Republic of Nauru can remain on its track to stability, that it can gain full control over its destiny, incorporating a system of education of relevance through a medium of relevance. Nauru did not ask for the relentless manifest and latent colonial and postcolonial pillaging of its physical, mental and spiritual resources.

As of now, Nauru remains a signal symbol of rampant neo-colonialist greed. The agents, especially, of the English language are big bad bullies indeed.

12 Comments:

Anonymous querulous fellow said...

a question for VR

don't Nauruans have to take some responsibility for frittering away the royalties they received from phosphate mining?

At one point they were the richest people in the world, per capita.

Large sums were wasted.

What does VR think of this?

3:24 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mean if a country occupies an Island, tears it to pieces, makes billions from phosphate (or say oil copper and gold etc and other minerals and products in Papua New Guinea etc (while destroying the environment (the forests are destroyed) and other stuff, us and abuse the indigenous people (if they don't actually invade and bomb them as in Korea and Vietnam and invade and exploit fiscally and in other ways as in the Philippines, Indonesia and the Marshalls etc) for labour, pays a pittance %, is not responsible for reconstituting or rebuilding that country, takes no responsibility for the huge profits they make (mostly whites) and the usage they get in this case for super phosphate in NZ and Australia..do you mean the people on the islands that were so devastated (the coconut trees were meant to be replaced [in a contract the British had but failed to keep to] but everyone who were on Kiribati (or Nauru) have to account for every penny they get? Do you account for everything YOU spend? If a country is devastated as to be almost uninhabitable: what royalties in such cases can ever repay anyone? Such cynical royalties are like throwing pennies in the face of a dying beggar. Better to piss over such a person.

Well, I know something about Nauru and Kiribati as my grandfather (from Britain) worked on Ocean Island for the Australian and NZ Super phosphate Company. And my uncle worked in Papua new Guinea. He conceded that it was wrong. He (when working for the Australian Government in Port Moresby) he had participated in the terrible unjust racist exploitation of that place. He confessed to this colaboration as a British Colonialist exploiter, and said he was ashamed...

It is well known the devastation that white colonization has done to thousands of pacific Islands...and Australia and NZ. It is like the Holocaust only in the Pacific regions...

The Marshall Islands have been massively ripped and polluted by nuclear testing and general exploitation by the US military etc and the French have torn the guts out of wherever they went. NZ, Australia and other nations stole massive profits from the Fijian sugar (originally it was the British and probably also still is) and so on...

But I think that Vaughan's "report" was relatively unbiased, he wasn't making any overt political statements about (say) the "poor old Nauruans" ... you clearly haven't read his posts very closely. They are in no way one sided...

I "know [something] about" Nauru but since reading his posts I now know some more. Read his posts or his "reports" closely and you might learn something, Querulous.

Curmudgeonus Anono Mausus.

10:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great passionate comment there. Thanks.

11:11 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is Alan Wagstaff still a practising anthroposophist?

2:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS If so what temple does he go to?

2:05 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

I think we do have to acknowledge the historical fact of poor economic management by succesive Nauruan governments during the
'70s and '80s. To fail to do is implicitly to deny the Nauruans any sort of historical agency.

At the same time we shouldn't be shy to offer explanations for the spendthrift nature of Nauruan governments during the brief period when they had high revenues from phosphate mining...

8:56 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But Naruan Govt doesn't quite = Naruan people.

12:33 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Given the fact that the country was and is democratic and the fact that governments distributed material rewards to their voting bases I think it is reasonable to talk about government policies which were economically less than sensible having some support amongst the population.

I think some factors we might use to explain the 'spend up big' policies of the '70s and '80s are the persistence of pre-capitalist attitudes towards material goods money, and also the feeling that any good times were likely to be brief, given the suffering Nauruans had experienced for decades at the hands not only of Europeans but of the Japanese during World War Two.

In a tropical environment like Nauru many products - a haul of fish, for example - would traditionally have had to be consumed very quickly, if they were not to be wasted. And consumption of some key resources would have been cyclical, meaning that they were consumed in great quantities when they were available, and then not consumed for some time. A 'consume while you have the chance' mentality would have been normal and useful.

It's not hard to see how traditional Nauruan attitudes to consumption could have impacted upon modern government, particularly because Nauruans never made the decision to abandon traditional ways of life and modes of production, but rather had change imposed on them after the 'discovery' of phosphate by the colonists.

3:15 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Here's a piece Dougla McNeil sent me some time ago, about the atrocities Japan forces committed during their occupation of Nauru:
http://www.japanfocus.org/
-Yuki-TANAKA/3441

3:19 am  
Anonymous Vaughan Rapatahana said...

Kia ora.

Just got back from another (very and systematically) colonized and ravaged environment - where we also have a home, by the way - The Philippines. (Bears a whole other chapter.)

Re: Republic of Nauru - yes some of the 'locals' bear a measure of responsibility for their large economic rampage - given their historic naivety and ingenuousness and their kid in a toy shop behaviour - but no one has mentioned the steady stream of Pakeha carpetbaggers who flocked to Nauru when there was freefall money, with lurid promises of more fortunes...

Maps - it's also relevant to refer to the sad and sadder case of Diego Garcia...

Vaughan Rapatahana

8:47 pm  
Anonymous confused traveller said...

Wow...I had quite a different experience of Nauru when I visited in '98...I remember not the desolation but the lushness...underpopulation sure but not desolation...days of walking through jungle, sometimes following a vague trail sometines hacking a trail with a machete one of the rare locals had sold me...picnicking and pitching a tent in clearings or else in some of the rocky swimming holes at the end of narrow channels that came in from the coast...smoking weed with my girl...nauru was very enjoyable...a real pradise island...I do remember rocky areas, in fact the whole island was a single rock isolated in the ocean...but never any diggings...no sign of mining...now I'm scratching my head and wondering:

how could the author of this article have visited the same place as me? Was I mad? On some superstrong weed? I believe that we all experience reality differently but this is ridiculous...

1:18 am  
Blogger Steve Bliim said...

Are you sure you were on Nauru? I have only been here 6 weeks but I am totally unaware of "rocky swimming holes at the end of narrow channels from the coast". If you saw no sign of mining then you were not on Nauru, the signs are everywhere.

Steve

4:17 pm  

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