Category Archives: Education

Ta Nahisi Coates in Honolulu

Written originally for Letters: The Life of the Mind

Ta Nahisi Coates began his talk with a disarming humility. He says “if you have some success in a particular area like writing a book people overestimate [the knowledge you have.]” And “I don’t just come here as someone just dispensing knowledge but as a consumer too.” He also admitted that he does not know Hawai’i’s history. Most people here don’t either (the bain of my existence), so how could he? Merely bringing up this knowledge gap, for me, is a step forward. He says, without false modesty, that he was a really bad student, but always a deeply curious person. This was apparently genetic: his father cut school to go to libraries and museums, then joined the Black Panther Party. He dropped out of school but eventually went back and got his college degree. The academy has become more open. Usually people who do what I do have PhDs or are similarly situated. “I’m not.” This is the virtual definition of the working class intellectual. What stays with me most about Coates breakthrough book Between the World and Me  is his imagined dialog with Saul Bellow who famously quipped “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” Coates responded that “Tolstoy in the Tolstoy of the Zulus” evoking a global intellectual heritage of the kind that this site is all about.

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Defending the Mauna

This is another piece I wrote for Letters: The Life of the Mind, so it was written for a general (not local or Hawaiian) audience – it is slightly amended here.

When measured from the sea floor, the tallest mountain on Earth is Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai’i. Decades ago, a telescope was proposed for the summit. There are already a dozen telescopes there, but this is the very large Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). The construction of TMT on a summit that Hawaiians consider sacred has provoked the largest protest movement in recent years, rivaling the mass movement to stop the Navy’s target practice on the island of Kaho’olawe. A few weeks ago, Native Hawaiian activists blocked the entrance to the road to the summit, creating an encampment.  In July 2019, Native Hawaiians began to make national news over their efforts to block the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i Island. NBC news recently covered the emergence of a school. Named Pu’uhuluhulu University, it offers free classes, taught mainly by Hawaiians. NBC’s headline read that protestors (who call themselves “protectors”) started the school to teach “local culture and values.”



Last Sunday, several thousand people gathered to sing and dance hula in opposition to TMT


Native Hawaiians are involved in the building of infrastructure that could lead to greater things. I’ve written before about the need for a Hawaiian college here. The university established during the occupation is as grassroots as it’s possible to be, and seemed to emerge spontaneously out of the lava rock. It included lectures on decolonizing religion, “stepping into sovereignty,” water law, Hawaiian language classes and training for hula that would be performed during protocols. My lecture was titled “Nonviolence and Land” – two topics I know well, allowing me to speak extemporaneously without notes. But the organization of this occupation included medical services, a fully operational kitchen, and a protocol area in addition to the school. Many groups appeared with offerings for the leadership of the movement, on the day that I was there offerings were made from the Native American tribe from Standing Rock.

At one point, when the movement seemed to build steam, I thought to myself: “where were these people when the permitting process was happening?” This occured mainly in the 1990s, with some friends of mine (about my age – in their 40s and 50s now) being very active in that process. But I realized that many of the current protestors were in elementary and high school at that time. But here’s the rub: many were in schools that were started as part of the larger Hawaiian movement: Hawaiian Language Immersion schools, Hawaiian Culture-focused charter schools, as well as the school that I teach at (Kamehameha Schools, exclusively for Native Hawaiians). For example, Kaho’okahi Kanuha, who many consider the leader of this movement, is the first graduate of Punana Leo, the Hawaiian immersion preschools, as well as a graduate of Kamehameha. In the 1970s Native Hawaiians had a cultural renaissance, and in1990s and 2000s they built institutions, from which the current crop of protectors has mainly emerged. So viewed from a larger social perspective, the presence of millenial-aged protectors is a product of the institution building of previous two generations, and thus a case study in social movement building.

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Thought in a Time of Climate Change

This is from my new site Letters: The Life of the Mind

In 2016 I was a keynote speaker for an institute at Cornell. One night I found myself riding in a Volvo 850 with three professors, talking about Volvos. Every person in that car had, or previously had, a Volvo (I had a V70). Volvos match the intellectual’s personality; safe, long lasting, high brow but not so high as to alienate the lumpen proletariat. But they are definitely not fuel efficient.

As it is when it comes to money, the academic culture is ambivalent about day to day environmentally sustainable lifestyles. We drive gas guzzling Volvos but once on campus, we walk. More importantly, we teach, often esoteric, subjects in safe spaces while the world burns. Bill McKibben tells us that the major impacts of climate change are not 50, but 10 to 15 years years away. The usually upbeat Professor Skip Fletcher of the University of Hawai’i, a major scientist studying climate change, states that he finds it all very depressing and that what’s needed is not hope but courage.


Environmentalist Bill McKibben

Recycling is institutionalized in most campuses, but conference travel casts a huge carbon footprint, but is necessary for tenure and promotion. Back in 2008 The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story entitled “Academic travel causes global warming,” but admitted:

OK, the headline is a stretch. However, it is true that air travel puts large amounts of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, soot, and even water vapor directly into the atmosphere, all of which makes an inordinate and unsustainable contribution to global warming. And academics do fly — a lot. As the environmental writer and activist Mark Lynas argued in the New Statesman: “Probably the single most polluting thing you or I will ever do is step on a plane.”

Around Harvard, I’d hear about (but never saw) Noam Chomsky riding around on his bicycle, but I’d stop short of saying we should all be like him. Though there is a bike path from his home in Lexington to Cambridge, it doesn’t really reach the far end of the city where MIT is, so I doubt he rode this distance daily.

Still we could all do more. I commuted by running for about six years, distances of three to six miles. Living in Hawai’i has its perks – I don’t mean the ones you might think. We have a major convention center and so major academic conferences come here. I was on a panel at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) conference in 2017 here and I’ll be on another panel at the American Studies Association (ASA) this November. Next year, the International Studies Association (ISA) is also here in Hawai’i. All without boarding a plane. Of course, most attendees will have flown 2500 or more miles, but focusing on regional conferences this way could help shrink the footprint academic life makes on the planet.

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Images: Watch Picasso’s “Guernica” Emerge — Human Pages

Scroll through this selection of preliminary studies & photos of the canvas as it was worked on & completed. Pretty astonishing, & all done in about five weeks.

via Images: Watch Picasso’s “Guernica” Emerge — Human Pages

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May 23, 2019 · 7:40 pm

Privatizing ‘Aina: Iolani Palace Speaker Series

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The Lecturer’s Tale

The writer and teacher of creative writing James Hynes wrote a novel called The Lecturer’s Tale, a sardonic look at the life and absurdities of university teaching at the proletarian level. As a lecturer myself (at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa), I’ve been hesitant to cast my hat into the debate over the state of adjuncts – I appreciate the position I have, enjoy my department (the Institute of Peace) and feel valued there. This position also works with my schedule and the rest of my life. I teach in the evenings, online and in the summer and it allows me to keep a university affiliation that I otherwise would not have – this is important for publishing, conferences and other academic activities. They also pay me well as lecturing goes. For some the lecturership makes sense.

But the outcry is getting louder that something needs to be done about the two-tier system within academia. Seventy percent of college teaching faculty are now lecturers, which seems to signal a decline in the desire of universities to have research-producing faculty. Some lecturers soldier on and produce research seemingly against all odds.

A particularly poignant article in the New York Times depicted a lecturer who died destitute after a promising beginning to her career – she landed Visiting Assistant Professor positions, which are all too often carrots that dangle with nothing beyond them. Some are asking how the tenured and tenure-track faculty can sit by and watch the situation go on. Others say don’t blame tenured and TT faculty for the plight of adjuncts, blame admin. Fair enough. But the two-tier nature of the university system seems to ignore the fact t

writing notes idea class

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hat most lecturers have the same degrees as the tenured professorate, and if they aren’t, or cannot develop into, senior members of the academic community, it is precisely because they have become the epitome of the “overworked and underpaid” cliche. As one lecturer put it: “how can I inspire my students if I’m not making it myself?”

I originally wrote this piece for my new website – Letters: The Life of the Mind – check it out!




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How to become an intellectual

Yes it’s a very pretentious title, but a student of mine has been asking me to write a blog on this topic, so I enlisted my friends – undisputed intellectuals – to help me come up with a list of steps, so here they are:

1. Read: Richard Nixon, when asked how to succeed, said “Read, read, read.” I wouldn’t suggest taking all of his advice but this is a good one.

2. Read seminal texts: Reading alone won’t help if what you’re reading is 50 Shades of Grey. Many reading lists are available including mine16634 and depending on your goals they can add structure to what could be an overwhelming task.

3. In the movie The Squid and the Whale, Jeff Daniels’s character calls his wife’s boyfriend a “philistine.” His son asks what that is, and Daniels responds, pretentiously, “You know, someone who doesn’t read good books and watch great films.” Use other media to force feed knowledge into your brain: classics comics, audio books (you can’t read and drive), blinkist, documentaries, Alain de Botton’s School of Life and of course art films are all fun ways to build your knowledge base.

4. Recognize that you will never master this – it’s an ongoing  process and your education is a work in progress.

5. Focus on six areas to be a general intellectual: Philosophy is first, then literature, and then in no particular order, history,  art and art history, science (a cliff notes level understanding at least), and current events.

administration ancient arches architecture

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6. Mid-Pacific history teacher, former archaeologist and Low Brow Salon member Serge Avery had this to say:

students today could use a primer in how to be a thinker/critic/intellectual.  My contribution is that I try (as do you) to model that in the classroom and push the students to push past their comfort zones and wade into the heavy stuff. The moment we history teachers go for the sound byte for the sake of speaking the millennial language -we’ve shortchanged them.  [Prestigious American prep school Phillips] Exeter is not moving to tweeting about history-they still have Harkness discussions’ll-learn.

I like the idea of writing some sort of “thinking manifesto” for students in the 21st century-something you give to students upon entering your class or school.
Serge also recommended the following as a way to begin “thinking about thinking:”
Chris Lydon discussed this very topic with a Stanford proffesor who basically has a radio show salon for intellectuals called Entitled Opinions.
Then check out Entitled Opinions

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