Twelve reasons Hawaii should lead in social studies education

Mara Miller

HONOLULU—Many have written about our continued need for keeping current levels of social studies requirements for the public schools (that is, for the Board of Education to vote down Policy 4540)—in the The Hawaii Independent, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, and Honolulu Civil Beat.

I agree with it all. But I think the focus on these proposed changes to our current curriculum are drawing attention from Hawaii’s real needs, which are to strengthen social studies education. Here are 12 reasons why Hawaii should be a leader in social studies education—not a blind follower of models developed by other states.

1. We already do—in some ways.

Our state’s current social studies program shows exceptional achievement, as evidenced by our participation in History Day and National History Day (through the Hawaii Council for the Humanities), Kids Voting Hawaii, We the People, etc. There is a national trend to increase requirements in social studies. Hawaii is already at the top. Like the states with the best curricula, Hawaii requires a “civics” class (called here Participation in Democracy).

2. Hawaii is well-positioned for this leadership role because we are already a national, and even international, leader in cross-cultural living and knowledge.

For our own sakes, we should capitalize on our experience, our position, and our expertise. We should do this for our survival, our happiness, our health, our prosperity, and the pleasures of doing it.

Two sets of events over the past six months underscore the complexity of Hawaii’s ties to just one country— Japan. After the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March, we, like the rest of the world,were first mesmerized by the images, then galvanized by our compassion to mobilize aid. We were also shocked and horrified by the destruction of the nuclear plant that quickly followed. Many of us in Hawaii have ties of ancestry or marriage to Japanese people. Many others of us have dedicated decades of our lives to studying Japan, learning the language, teaching its culture, trading with its companies, and so on. Hawaii has some of the strongest Asian studies institutions in the world, including the East-West Center, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the University of Hawaii and its several area studies centers, including the Chado Urasenke Tankokai (Tea Ceremony) Hawaii Association, the Sawai Koto Kai, and on and on. Many more of us belong to professional and business associations of Asian-Americans and connecting to people in Asia.

Yet (at least judging by television news, admittedly not always the best gauge) we were terrified
at the possible implications for ourselves as well. Would the earthquake set off a tsunami here as well? Given the prevailing winds, would the radioactive cloud from Fukushima reach us? Were the vegetables and other products we were importing still safe to eat and drink? And eventually, how would this affect Japanese tourism, a notable component of the state economy?

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told us in his 1932 inaugural address. And half the time that’s true. But which half? We need scientists to help us determine this—and as Scott Robertson, professor of Computer and Information Sciences at UH Manoa has been writing lately, scientists increasingly depend upon social studies and intimate knowledge of other cultures to do even their most basic work. Increasingly, yes. But this has always been true, at least for modern science. The philosopher and mathematician Leibniz recognized the need for international scientific communication through organized societies, and they began to be organized, in the late 1600s.

The choice between social studies or math and science is a false one.

We sometimes feel we must choose for our students between social studies and other subjects. But the choice between social studies or math and science is a false one. We need social studies—specialists in economics, government, communication, ethics, philosophy, and of course language and the arts—to help us overcome our immediate ignorance, interpret the overwhelming amount of information, and finally decide what to do. These, of course, are continuing loops as we discover new areas of ignorance, provide new answers, and implement new courses of action over and over throughout the months.

More recently, we commemorated on August 6 and 9 (as we always do) the lives lost in the United States’ atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the Second World War in 1945. Many in Hiroshima at the time had thought their city was spared until then, and would continue to be spared, because that area had sent so many emigrants to the United States. Not so many years ago, the Smithsonian Institution tried to exhibit the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, within a nuanced exhibit that tried to convey, within the military and political contexts, the moral and political complexities of that act. The result was an assault from many sides.

Hawaii has been living with the moral, social, military, and political complexities of the bombings and the war itself for decades. It is one of the few sites in the country to commemorate the atomic bombings and their deaths, and to have a permanent site dedicated to this purpose (the Nagasaki Peace Bell).

But we are also always keenly aware of having ourselves been victims of direct Japanese attack in World War II—the only state with this claim. We have a museum dedicated to the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the bombing of the Arizona as well. Just as we have museums that celebrate the missions to Hawaii, the preceding, and continuing, Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures, the early economic immigrants from Asia, and the monarchy that sought to adjust to a modernizing and Westernizing world. Just as we have others that celebrate the rest of Asia and the Pacific and Europe and the Americas, and sometimes (one thinks of Doris Duke’s estate-museum Shangrila) their deliberate mix.

Here in Hawaii, we don’t deny either side of the complex realities that were WWII, or modernization, or “Westernization.”

Hawaii should be leading the way for the nation in social studies education.

3. Hawaii’s economy depends upon tourism and trade.

How do we “fix” Hawaii’s economic problems ensuing from losing so many Japanese tourists? One way has been to increase the number of tourists from China by initiating direct flights to Honolulu from Shanghai. The leaders in the tourism and airline industries, finance, and government who pushed this initiative through have all needed to rely on a very high level of “social studies” knowledge and understanding, that they long ago made instinctive.

We need to learn about other cultures’ solutions and communicate (and sometimes sell) ours to them.

4. But we should do it for the sake of other people and other cultures as well.

We all benefit when we all prosper.

The Modern era was defined by the prospering of some people at the expense of others by the exploitations of colonialism, industrialization, slavery, and so on. But more and more economists have been joining the humanitarian voices of religious and civil rights leaders (and the occasional rock star) to say we can change this.

The post-Modern period can come to be defined not by the exacerbation of these evils, but by distributive economic and political justice. We have institutional and other tools that didn’t exist, including the UN Millennium Project, massive foundations for economic and health-care justice, not to mention information and communications technologies. We can do this. Hawaii must take its part.

Harming our students, our children, is not only regrettable, disadvantageous, even stupid; it is reprehensible.


5. As a philosopher, I must say it: We must do it because it is right.

Social studies education is valuable (economically, politically, and militarily). And it is interesting—even fascinating. But it is also the right thing to do, for two reasons. First, because acting on the basis of ignorance when that ignorance is avoidable is morally wrong.

And harming our students, our children, is not only regrettable, disadvantageous, even stupid; it is reprehensible. By choosing for them greater social studies ignorance, we commit them to future problems we cannot even imagine. We harm them in ways that are beyond our resources to repair.

6. As mentioned, Hawaii is one of the most diverse cultures in the United States.

Helping our students understand that is a challenge, but also one of the greatest gifts we can give them. And a second great gift is to make sure they learn how to share their growing knowledge and perspective with their fellow citizens and friends. Both these gifts are strengths of our State’s current social studies programs.

We ought to do everything we can to expand these dynamic programs so as to include as many students as possible and from as many different segments of Hawaii as possible.

7. Social studies—including philosophy, history, and government—are crucial components of liberal education.

This means an education designed for people who are expected to take an active part in their own governing. People living in a democracy.

That’s us, folks. That’s our children, our students.

People today often think that a liberal education is one that’s designed to make students political “liberals.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Both meanings of the word “liberal” come from the Latin word liber, meaning “free.” (There’s another Latin word liber, meaning “book,” that is the source of our words “library.”) “Liberals,” as we call them, are people who are too “free” with their (or our!) money; it’s related to the old moral term “liberality,” a shade of generosity.

But a liberal education is one designed, literally, for a free man—in old Greek and Roman terms. These were the terms our Founding Fathers thought in. For them, a liber was a person who was entitled to take part in his government. That meant any person who was not a slave. Such a person deserved, indeed needed, a liberal education. And his society needed him to have the knowledge and understanding a liberal education gave. (The ancient and colonial liberi (the plural) were all men, and all white. But at least grammatically, if not at that time politically, the masculine form of a word could apply to women either in mixed groups or in cases when the gender was unknown to the speaker.)

If you didn’t know this until know, don’t feel bad, you’re not alone. In spite of a Latin education in high school, a liberal education, and a doctoral degree in philosophy, I myself didn’t understand the significance of liber (“free”) to a liberal education until I started to work with historians at the Folger Library’s Institute for the History of Political Thought after graduate school. Why don’t we all know this? It’s part of our heritage from our Founding Fathers.

8. It increases tolerance.

In spite of Hawaii’s long history of people of all nationalities working and playing together, we still have crimes that reports make clear are triggered either by cross-cultural misunderstanding or by the kind of emotions (fear, anger, and mistrust) that come from being automatically threatened by people who are different than you—from being unable to read their signals accurately or counter aggressive or fearful signals effectively, from being too frightened to search out some common ground, or even to walk away.

Follow-up news articles, sometimes months later, after cases have gone to trial, reveal sometimes horrifying back-stories of misunderstandings that escalated until someone was dead, and someone else headed for the judicial system.

And we are losing far too many children to drugs and violence. Teaching them how to belong to their society, which depends upon understanding it, is crucial to helping them become engaged.

And there are countless other incidents that are unfortunate and avoidable, even though they don’t result in crime.

And we are losing far too many children to drugs and violence. Teaching them how to belong to their society, which depends upon understanding it, is crucial to helping them become engaged.

9. Knowledge of other cultures leads to knowledge of oneself, which is intrinsically valuable, and can save you time, money, and heartache as well.

Socrates (through his student Plato) put it more strongly: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But knowledge of other cultures is not the only means by which social studies education in Hawaii teaches self-knowledge.

In Hawaii, social studies includes psychology, women’s and gender studies, economics, critical thinking—all fields that contribute to self-knowledge.

And of course there is no more critical time for self-knowledge than the late-teen and early adult years. (Well, yes, there is: When you’re going through a divorce. When you’re elderly or terminally ill and know you’re dying. But you get my point about the kids.)

10. Knowledge of other cultures also leads to knowledge of one’s own community of identity.

I have often taught classes that seem to students excitingly exotic—Japanese Art History, Asian Philosophy, Contemporary Asian Craft, Religious Values in East Asian Art, Gardens and Sacred Space in Asia. What surprises them is that learning about these exotic cultures teaches them ways of understanding their own families and cultures.

11. Our need to meet these challenges means our students need to be prepared to meet these challenges.

And that includes working with other cultures. Our students will not be able to solve the problems they pose us alone, any more than we are. We need to understand the others whom we encounter. And ideally, we need to understand how they see us, so we can communicate what we want to and not just what they happen to hear. We need to be able to work together to solve these large-scale problems. Cooperation and negotiation are crucial. Successful cooperation and negotiation depend upon knowledge of others.

12. Finally, our students are asking us to.

Students don’t always know what courses are best for them—leadership by knowledgeable adults may be required to steer them into social studies courses. But in Hawaii, students have submitted testimony to the Board of Education requesting current requirements be retained, and have appeared on KHON television (through Aloha POSSE’s press conference) and then on the Aloha POSSE Facebook page asking our Board of Education not to change the requirements, telling us the adults are supposed to show leadership.

As Hawaii has seen again and again the past few months, the world becomes increasingly interconnected. The effects of industrial (or military) radiation and ocean and air pollution, of exploration and use of ocean resources, and, now, of information technologies and communication are inescapable.

The next few months will bring APEC, an additional 50,000 visitors from Shanghai whom no one could have expected a year ago, and the beginnings (we hope) of preliminary discussions both about a new presidential library here and about Japanese discoveries of rare earth metals in water that is disconcertingly close to us. We can no longer separate ourselves from the rest of the world even if we want to; no place can. Our students need to be prepared to prepare to meet these challenges.

Hawaii is already a national and international leader in cross-cultural living and knowledge. For our own and our students’ sakes, we should capitalize on our experience, our position, and our expertise—even, perhaps, for the sake of the rest of the world. We should do this for our survival, our happiness, our health, our prosperity, the pleasures of doing it, and because it is right.

Mara Miller, Ph.D., is a consultant and independent scholar in philosophy, art history, and Asian studies.

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