‘Umi Perkins, PhD

‘Umi Perkins, PhD

an intellectual site from hawai’i?

Surely we’re known for beach culture, and for the most part, rightly so. The beach, football and surfing make up a good portion of leisure activities for local people in Hawai’i, and in particular among native (that is, Indigenous) Hawaiians, of which I am one. Reading, less so. As I write this, I’m at my daughter’s canoe race surrounded by very fit paddlers. Nearby is one of only two real bookstores in a city of nearly a million. But there also exists a subculture, focused of course around the University of Hawai’i at Manoa where I teach, that possesses a rich inner life and engages in interesting discourses on everything from climate change to Eastern philosophy (UH Manoa is one of the very top programs in that field). But even more, this subculture debates history, and how Hawai’i factors into global history. This engagement goes back to the days of Hawai’i’s independent monarchy when the Hawaiian Kingdom was by most accounts the most literate country in the world.

Hawai’i’s last King, David Kalakaua, was a renaissance intellectual who spoke six languages and circumnavigated the Earth in 1881. The Kingdom had over one hundred newspapers in which lively debates were waged. These newspapers produced perhaps the largest archive of Indigenous writing in the world, estimated at one million pages. The Herculean task of translating these texts is underway, despite a paucity of Hawaiian language speakers – the result of a ban on Hawaiian language in schools in 1896.


There’s also something of an intellectual tradition in Hawai’i’s private schools. Hawai’i is home to Punahou School, ranked in the top 25 schools nationally at one point, which educated President Barack Obama, AOL Time Warner’s Steve Case and EBay’s Pierre Omidyar. Iolani School produced Chinese nationalist Sun Yat-Sen. Hawai’i also has probably the most successful school for Indigenous children, the $12 billion Kamehameha Schools (where I also teach Hawaiian history) and the oldest school West of the Rocky Mountains, Lahainaluna, from which I graduated.

So in contrast to Hawai’I’s reputation (and economy) as a leisure center, we have currents of an intellectual tradition that predates that. More importantly, if an intellectual can be, as Gramsci states in our epigraph, anyone, then certainly they can come from anywhere. By tapping into global currents of intellectual life, we can enliven our local communities and, as per our mission, build a thoughtful citizenry.