Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Inappropriateness of western school architecture in the third world

On Saipan and in Chuuk, where I spent 24 years of my life as a teacher, the school structures are inappropriate for the climate, not to mention culturally.  I get it: concrete block houses are much to be preferred in a typhoon; they are cleaner; they are drier. See this article. Where traditional houses were open, with thatched rooves, the modern equivalent use roofing tin, plywood, lumber, concrete or concrete blocks.  I have lived through a few typhoons, in various circumstances.   Our home was blown away in Typhoon Nina, in Chuuk, in 1987, while I slept in the concrete "tilt-up" home next door.  I cannot but wonder  what it would have been like to hunker down in a thatched structure through a serious typhoon.  Many, indeed most, islands in Micronesia are less than 10 feet above the highest high tide mark, and during intense typhoons they may be washed over.   One has heard stories of women giving birth in the tops of coconut trees.  Concrete homes, to the Micronesian family, represent a huge improvement in living conditions, in this respect.

But the tropics are humid, and can be hot.  Micronesian islands, being as they are oceanic, are not as hot as some, and thatched structures  can render conditions tolerable, even comfortable.   Concrete block structures, or even plywood structures, are poorly ventilated; they can be uncomfortable.  One supposes that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, but the simple local structure---whether thatched, with the very best ventilation, or a shack hastily cobbled together out of plywood, parts of trees, stones, coral rock, and roofing tin---seems to fit the circumstances much, much more comfortably and appropriately.   Life in the islands under these circumstances is, in my mind, a joy.   Inside the air conditioned concrete buildings, with glass windows and doors, sealed against nature and the climate: not so much.

It has been said that Robert Gibson, the first Director of Education of the US Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (US TTPI), commented on his inaugural plane trip to Micronesia, that his vision was explicitly NOT to build another Americal Educational System.   One assumes that he was referring to the curriculum and the teaching model, but the infrastructure may be an apt parallel.  The curriculums that were adopted over the years have become more and more American in terms of content, as well as teaching models, until today, the revisions engendered by the "No Child Left Behind" programs in the US DOE have become incorporated into the schools of American Micronesia, especially as it is linked to funding and testing.

But it wasn't only the educational programs that have become westernized.   Americanized.  The school infrastructures are as modernly American as the best minds of Micronesia (as trained in American schools) have been able to make them.  Let me emphasize: it wasn't only  Americans who most energetically worked for the building of schools on a *modern* model.

Working in schools in Micronesia, I have often  joked, "how much  better adapted to the tropics are thatched rooves and open rooms?"   Alright, it's not that easy, not that simple...

Here's the point of this post: a huge proportion of the pathetic budget of the local school district, on Saipan, is spent on energy.  Classes come to a standstill when air conditioners are broken, or power is off.  This is the tropics.  Humidity should not be a show stopper.  A significant part of the power bill goes to paying for electric power.  At least one school has an alternative energy project, making some small progress in eliminating dependency; the costs are incredible.  

When did we hear architecture discussed?  I have been in homes that are comforable without air conditioning.  These buildings seemingly were designed with other thoughts in mind. 

We haven't even started on the "digital divide." Or the appropriate curriculum framework for the islands.  Why is English a required subject for every student, in all grade levels; when local languages are either not taught, or taught as an afterthought.  Is this an adequate indication that these are Transplanted American Educational Systems?   I am aware of more sophisticated aspects of native micronesian languages, that are known by very few: is it not worth the money or time to teach these---while they still are accessible.  The decline is underway.  

Money talks. 

The article comes from a different direction, but no doubt about it,  school infrastrucure lacks.

Once the fish are gone, the games are on.

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