Education did not begin in Papua New Guinea with western contact. All societies have methods to deal with the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation, including knowledge of the right way of doing things. All societies are diligent to ensure that young people learn what is necessary to enable the society to survive and prosper.
Many of the ritualistic practices of traditional society in PNG, in pre-contact times, can be understood in terms of the preservation of knowledge, skills and power and their transmission, at specific times, to selected members of the younger generation. The ten years that young men in parts of Gulf Province used to spend in seclusion in the Haus Elavo, learning the duties expected of men, was education. So were the practices in women’s houses that communicated to all young girls what the society thought they should know about the very different expectations their societies had for them. The pattern was repeated in every part of the country. Even today the Wigmen of the Huli people in the Southern Highlands Province go to Wig Schools where they live in seclusion for a year and half while they learn sacred dances and grow the hair that they will later cut off to form the wigs that they need to wear during their rituals.
The first shift in this world view came with missionization and the simultaneous encounter with Western technology and Western forms of social organization. With total confidence in their own view of immortal life the missionaries replaced the old gods with their own. Missionization was the first Western educational process to affect people in Papua New Guinea and it is an on-going one. Converting people to Christianity requires schools, preachers, and literacy. It requires progress through a curriculum or body of knowledge and the passing of a test or some form of examination to check the understanding achieved. It is only the subject matter and the degree of faith involved that makes missionization different from the secular processes we normally know by the term ‘education’.
As educationists, the missionaries performed one vital function, which even those who deplore their single-mindedness must acknowledge , and that is to have democratized the idea of education. If knowledge was highly valued in traditional society, it was only the few who were allowed access to it. In fact much energy went in to the elaboration of rules which were designed to prevent all but a self-perpetuating class of individuals from participating in it. Christianity, with its proclamation that God’s word was intended for all, changed this basic social premise. At a stroke , the acquisition of the most important knowledge became a theoretical possibility for everyone , a matter of pragmatic issues such as the provision of schools, teachers, books and the simple opportunity to learn.
Of course what has been discovered subsequently is that, in practice, providing an effective, worthwhile, relevant and valued education service is a far from simple matter. This is true for any country in the world, no matter how ‘developed’. It requires endless care and attention to ensure that the experience of schooling does truly reach out to all, that the curriculum is up-todate and well thought out, that inequalities do not get built into the system, and that those who are particularly successful at it do not fall into the same patterns of behaviour as those earlier shamans and magicians who tried to keep all the benefits to themselves.
Some of these concerns have yet to surface publicly in PNG, which is still struggling with some of the more basic problems that prevent education being the powerful force it might be for both individual and national development. But after these have been solved, when all the school buildings have been built and are being well-maintained, when the teachers are all well-trained professionals who are happy with their status in society, and when all children are attending school , they will remain as tantalizing questions which have to keep being asked.