The State of History

On May 4th at the Hawaiʻi Book and Music Festival I was on a panel, with three other Hawaiian history scholars, which focused on the use of sources in historical research. It asked the very pertinent questions:

What Are the Indispensible Resources for Hawaiian History?What are the existing must-read publications for those working in Hawaiian history, or simply interested in it? What important new resources will we have access to soon? What do Hawaiian-language sources offer those who can read them? Just how much are we really missing by not having access?

And concluded:

The four panelists are all currently conducting research into diverse nineteenth and twentieth century Hawaiian cultural and historical topics, and will share their own experience of finding their way through the whole range of materials, good and bad, now publicly available, and also how they deal with the inevitable gaps they encounter.

My remarks began with a stark assessment of the state of Hawaiian history as a field. I pointed out that there have only ever been three (or possibly four) people ever employed specifically as Hawaiian historians at a “research 1” university – Pauline King, Noelani Arista and John Rosa (one might count Ralph Kuykendall, M.A., but one would do so at oneʻs own peril). I stated that this is only true if one takes such disciplinary boundaries seriously – which I do and donʻt (such boundaries have significance, but so too do interdisciplinary studies). Rosa’s position had to be specially created by the State Legislature – thatʻs my point; it’s not automatic that there are Hawaiian historians.

Prof. John Rosa

As I mentioned in my debate with Ian Lind, it was confided to me that King was hired to “do in” Hawaiian history – she produced no original publications in her long career. Ronald Williams was the first PhD to graduate from a program specifically focusing on Hawaiian history (this is partly because they had only recently hired Arista and Rosa to supervise such a program). Of course there are those with history degrees who teach in Hawaiian Studies. Jonathan Osorio, who was the moderator of the program approached me afterward and said “you know that Lilikalā [Kameʻeleihiwa], Kanalu Young and myself all have history degrees and consider ourselves historians?” And of course I did know that, but the fact that he included the late Kanalu Young on the list only underscores my point. Add them and we have six, one deceased. And there are others, such as political scientists Keanu Sai or Noenoe Silva, who said in a class once “Iʻm not a historian but I may as well be.” But we are talking about a dozen scholars at best, compared to tens of thousands of scholars in US history, for example.

What this means is Hawaiian history as a field is, as I perhaps controversially stated, that is both in its infancy and is an amateur undertaking. It is only recently becoming professionalized as a field. The vast majority of books on Hawaiian history are written by amateurs and/or outsiders with little grasp of the nuances stemming from the dominance and suppression of the Territorial period. While the professional historians can only do what they are capable of given the slow pace of publication and constraints of academia, the effect in the community is that there is little “trickle down” of good research into the lower levels. With so few top-level researchers, there truly is nothing but a trickle of new historical perspectives. And in this case it truly is a top-down situation. Amateurs cannot be expected to devote the time and resources to study that are available to a professional historian.

The result is graduates who go on to high positions in government and the corporate sector who exhibit very shaky understandings of how we got where we are as a society. Many become interested in, even passionate about history as adults (by which time it’s too late), but in school it is, as portrayed in the film History Boys, “just one bloody thing after another.”

There is an infrastructure of knowledge, a “house of intellect” as Jacques Barzun called it, and reasons why we know what we know. We canʻt take this house for granted – the Lahainaluna scholars knew this, as did Kauikeaouli, who said “he aupuni palapala koʻu” [mine is a kingdom of learning]. This vision was invested in, as we still reap its rewards a century and a half later. There seems to be – across the board, not just in Hawaiʻi – a nonchalant squandering of the gains made over history in labor rights, environmental protections, civil liberties, and social justice by a generation of profit-seekers who ignore or are ignorant of history. These people, in whom most power is invested, imperil us all with their proclivity to proverbially “repeat history.” We must demand that history not be completely over shadowed by STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields in the name of “twenty-first century” skills, if we want that century to be better than the last.

UPDATE: Arnie Saiki had this response on the Statehood Hawaiʻi Facebook page, which raises very valid counterarguments and gives me a chance to clarify my position:

I think there are a lot of people who do contribute to the growing canon of Hawaiian history, and follow well disciplined methodologies, as well as pave the way for methodologies that speak to cultural, linguistic, customary practice.

What … strikes me about Hawaiian history is just how much work has been done for a place that boasts a little more than a million people. Although I have not done a full accounting of library catalogs, it seems that there is more historical work produced on Hawaiian history than most states. Granted there is likely a political reason as to why that is, an element that sought to make Hawaii “knowable” to colonial settlers, but it seems that in regard to Hawaii, everything that was recordable was recorded, and it is relatively easy to access. 

Its very true that there is a fascination with Hawaiian history that does not exist in other states – a fact evidenced by a Facebook group I started called Mooolelo: Hawaiian History, which grew to 500 members within a couple of months. But it’s important to remember that this is a national history, and should thus be compared to other national histories (I think of New Zealand, for example), than to other states. In the case of New Zealand, a close look at the historical work there shows a depth that Hawaiʻi could only envy. This is in a country that, while larger than Hawaiʻi, has the same population as the average US state.

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under Mooolelo, Uncategorized

3 responses to “The State of History

  1. Apologies if this is covered in another post, but what would you say are the “existing must-read publications for those working in Hawaiian history, or simply interested in it?”

    The main full books I’ve read are Michael Dougherty’s “To Steal a Kingdom,” Jon Osorio’s “Dismembering Lāhui,” and Stacey Kamehiro’s “The Arts of Kingship,” as well as Marshall Sahlins’ “How Natives Think,” and Gananath Obeyesekere’s “Apotheosis of Captain Cook.” … I know of a whole bunch of others, of course, but which ones would you say are the “must-reads”?

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s