Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Another First from Hawaii

Here's another first from Hawaii: America's first PhD program in a Native American language – Hawaiian.

Teaching and learning the dead Hawaiian language in school has been growing in popularity since the seventies or earlier, and it has been a staple in bachelor's and master's degrees for some time (there are an estimated 100 people in Hawaii who grew up speaking Hawaiian, but some 15,000 people who have learned it in school), but this is the first PhD program in Hawaiian, or in any Native American language.

The degree is also the first doctorate to be offered by the small University of Hawaii – Hilo Campus (founded 1970 as the youngest part of the much older and larger University of Hawaii on Oahu). It is a degree in philosophy and includes not only Hawaiian language and literature (Hawaiian "literature" consists mainly of oral poetry) but also studies in the revitalization of the language and culture.

The doctorate program is not just idealism. As more and more Hawaiian schools begin offering total-immersion Hawaiian language programs (in some high schools, students speak Hawaiian all day, not only in the classroom, but in the hallways), the study of the language and how to maintain it is becoming professionalized.

It seems like Hawaii is producing firsts one after the other nowadays. Only a month or two ago, the state instituted the most stringent anti-smoking ban in the US, making it illegal to even smoke within twenty feet of a doorway to a public building. Hawaii comes across as a simple, small-town kind of place, but I'm amazed again and again under that countrified veneer is an amazingly forward-thinking, can-do spirit.

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