Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on language, culture and education in Hawaii, written by a number Native Hawaiian educators.

Education and the state of our public schools in Hawaii predominate our political discussions in election years and for good reason. There really are no issues, from global climate change to energy and transportation, to creating sustainable economies whose solutions aren’t deeply connected to and dependent on the quality of public education.

While many parents worry that their children must be given the best tools to allow them to compete in an increasingly unpredictable economy and thus choose from an ample array of private schools, it is the success or failure of public schools in Hawaii that will determine the fate of these islands and our people.

We need to acknowledge that not everyone who wishes to have a private school education has the money for it and that understanding alone often obscures the relationship between education and the needs of society. Some people believe that one is entitled only to the education that one can afford, and that government, which provides the funding for public education, is not obligated to provide the teachers, facilities and educational research to create a truly challenging and enriching education that is free to the public.

If that philosophy were wholly adopted, it would tend to maintaining class distinctions between people over multiple generations. From time to time, that was the philosophy of powerful people in Hawaii. During the territorial years, spokesmen (they were hardly ever women) for the sugar industry claimed that a high school education diverted young people from laboring jobs in the plantations. We might be outraged today, to think of this, but it should be noted that the government officials and especially plantation owners in the 1920s and ’30s were at least pinning their notion of public education to the society they saw and one they hoped would not change.

Students from ʻEhunuikaimalino in Kona worked with 808 Urban to create a mural at Keauhou Shopping Center depicting the moʻolelo of Kalapana to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the kula kaiapuni system Kanaeokana

But if we in 2018 are looking at life in Hawaii as it really is, beset by new climate conditions that may be swamping the tourist-friendly coastal areas in the next decade, or ever more dependent on rising numbers of tourists (how many is too many?) we probably know that our society is not going to look anything like it has looked in our lifetime by the time that our grandchildren are sending their children to school. The popularity of private schools in Hawaii may have something to do with our collective recognition that employment and housing at the very least will be more competitive for our children, and a private school diploma gives them a head start.

Does that mean that public education is merely what is left for parents who cannot pay for private schools? If that is how we view it, then we have little faith in the schools, teachers, nor even in the children that we send to them. And that would be consistent with our frugal attitude toward teachers’ salaries and renovating facilities. Why spend the money?

The Key To Rebuilding Hawaii

But what if, instead of treating public education as society’s left-overs, we saw our public schools as the key to rebuilding Hawaii as we and our families go through the challenges that we already foresee? Might it be that government-funded public education should be pulling out all the stops to prepare our young people for the mid-21st century where greater community reliance, innovation in food production, conservation and social cohesion allow us to meet the difficulties that lie ahead. Perhaps if we thought of public education as crucial to our survival as a people we would put the resources into it that it needs.

The Kingdom of Hawaii thought that education was the key to the survival of the Hawaiian nation. Both of Kamehameha’s ruling heirs dedicated themselves to education, and Kauikeaouli, Kamehameha III declared, “He aupuni palapala koʻu; ʻo ke kanaka pono ʻo ia koʻu kanaka. (My kingdom is a kingdom of literacy, and the good man is my man.)” Kauikeaouli made more than mere declarations. After the Mahele thousands of acres of School lands were set aside within the government lands to provide a revenue base for the kingdom’s school districts and imposed a yearly tax on the subjects specifically for school support.

Perhaps if we thought of public education as crucial to our survival as a people we would put the resources into it that it needs.

And the Hawaiian Kingdom, as small and backward as it may have appeared next to France, Britain or the United States, went from almost total illiteracy to 100 percent literacy between 1820 and 1880, eclipsing all three of those powers in terms of its commitment to an educated citizenry. Some American and English classrooms may have been slightly better provisioned with books and larger libraries than our own kingdom schools, but the Hawaiian Kingdom took public education as seriously or more seriously than countries that financially, were much better off.

Our political leaders, including every monarch from Kamehameha III to Liliʻuokalani believed that the key to the survival of the nation lay in education and they were willing to commit serious funds to support it. Kalākaua sent 17 young men (and one woman) to attend universities abroad in places as distant as Japan and Italy, and Liliʻuokalani proposed to use her own crown lands to found a Hawaiian university. It is telling that when each of these monarchs were disempowered by coup d’etats engineered by plantation owners and missionary descendants, their educational programs were among the first to be dissolved.

Elementary school students from Ka ʻUmeke Kāʻeo Public Charter School work at Haleolono Fishpond in Keaukaha. Kaipo Kiaha/Kanaeokana

We have lost a serious advantage that our ancestors once took for granted, that education maintained the excellence of our people from generation to generation and allowed them to live well in these islands. The shock of contact with the outer world and the realization that we would need to change to survive did not deter either our leadership or our people and we eagerly sought education as the way to continue. Even through the agonies of disease and depopulation we never lost confidence in our ability to survive and prevail.

But then our government and our lands were taken from us, our leaders imprisoned, our sovereignty over our education removed and through much of the 20th century, Kānaka Maoli were viewed as social failures, our language almost extinguished and many of us destined for welfare or prisons. And while Hawaii went from an agricultural territory to a highly urbanized state, from a few thousand visitors a year to more than eight million, our public education apparatus has not kept pace. Decrepit facilities, teacher shortages, and most importantly, a sense of inferiority has come to define public schools in Hawaii.

Our World Is Changing

While we face an uncertain future as the price of homes and real-estate continue to climb, as our dependence on imported food seems greater than ever, as we acknowledge the fragility of our water sources and wonder whether higher temperatures and increasing storms may further erode our quality of life, are we vigorously transforming our schools to meet the needs of a future already upon us? Should we not, like the Kingdom’s leaders who, by the 1830s required universal literacy, require that our public education confront this future and seek literacy in island geography, engineering, hydrology, agriculture, forestry, marine sciences and coastal eco-systems, public policy and planning?

What about literature, languages and history? Hawaiian language newspapers for more than a hundred years described ancient fishing and food cultivation practices, observed weather and climate, described the actual routes of streams and the habits of fish and wildlife and the conservation practices that had been routine to our ancestors. Our songs and dances code descriptions of places whose names today would otherwise be forgotten, and their particular geographies ignored. Are there subjects more relevant then these for preparing our people to sustain a good life in these islands? If there are we should include them as well.

We are in an election year, and as in every election year we hear the promises of change. But the truth is, our world is changing and the essential question is how are we prepared for it? Our rational selves must tell us at some point that the focus, direction and quality of the education of our people is more important than any one political issue — rail included. It should be clear that there is not a single vital issue in our lives from the cost of living, to the pollution of our seas that can be addressed without public understanding and collaboration. Let us make government support of our public schools more than just an obligation, but a mission and enterprise for the governor and every legislator we elect.

This series was produced in concert with Kanaeokana, a network of over 80 organizations and individuals whose mission is to collaboratively develop and strengthen a Native Hawaiian education system — built on a foundation of strong ʻōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian Language) and ʻike Hawai‘i (Hawaiian Knowledge and practices).

Kanaeokanaʻs Advocacy committee surveyed 2018 Hawaii Legislature and Office of Hawaiian Affairs candidates about their position on education issue. Learn more about where this year’s candidates stand on education at www.kanaeokana.net/vote.

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About the Author

  • Jonathan K. Osorio

    Jonathan K. Osorio is a scholar of 19th century political and social history in Hawaii and wrote a book, “Dismembering Lahui,” about the colonization of Hawaii. He is an advocate for Hawaiian self-determination, Hawaiian language immersion schools and protection of the land from military abuse and urbanization. He is a professor at the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies.