Program highlights literacy’s rise in Hawaii

A program looking at the rise of literacy in Hawaii is scheduled Tuesday at Kauai Community College.

Between 1820 and 1832 the percentage of native Hawaiians able to read and write leaped from a handful, mostly ali‘i, to over 90 percent of the population. How this happened has mostly been credited to the use of western teaching practices of American missionaries.

Not long after the passing of Kamehameha I in 1819, the first Christian missionaries arrived at Kailua on March 30, 1820. Their arrival became the topic of much discussion as Liholiho, known as Kamehameha II, deliberated with his ali‘i council for 13 days on a plan allowing the missionaries to stay.

The missionaries promised a printing press and to teach palapala, or reading and writing. Because Liholiho had learned the alphabet prior to the missionaries’ arrival, he had a notion of the value of a printing press and literacy for his people. A key point in Liholiho’s plan required the missionaries to first teach the ali‘i to read and write. The missionaries agreed to the king’s terms and instruction began soon after.

During the first year of instruction, the missionaries struggled to learn olelo Hawaii and delivered their lessons in English. After one year of English instruction, several Hawaiian pupils developed such great skill they were selected to be teachers and taught English to fellow Hawaiians.

The role of innate skills developed within the native Hawaiian culture has been overlooked as the main source of this literacy achievement, said University of Hawaii Hawaiian studies doctoral student John Kalei Laimana Jr.

Laimana wrote “The Phenomenal Rise to Literacy in Hawaii in the Early Nineteenth Century” for his master’s thesis. His research of records and oral history interviews provides insight into the phenomenal achievement by Hawaiians reflected in their extensive writings published mostly in the 19th century in over 100 Hawaiian language newspapers.

Western methods of teaching brought by the missionaries were used elsewhere in the world, but without the astounding rate of literacy gained in Hawaii, Laimana said.

He believes there are important lessons to be learned in studying the 1820-1832 literacy accomplishments of Native Hawaiians.

Laimana is presenting his analysis of how this great leap in literacy came about within 12 years at Kauai Community College at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Laimana’s presentation is a collaboration of the Kauai Historical Society and Kauai Community College sponsored by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs “I Mana Ka Lahui” (Empower the People) workshops program.

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