In April 1824, a meeting was held in Honolulu at which many of the highest ali‘i (chiefs), including the Queen regent, Kuhina Nui Ka‘ahumanu, and Prime Minister, Kalanimoku, “declared their determination to…attend to learning and have all their people instructed.”
The American missionaries had arrived in Hawai‘i four years earlier, seeking to impart a Euro-American and religious education to Native Hawaiians through literacy. Despite their zealousness, these efforts had been slow to take effect in the islands.
However, after the ali‘i decided to allow and support instruction, literacy among Native Hawaiians grew rapidly.
In another account from 1824 related by historian Ralph Kuykendall, Ka‘ahumanu called forward three young Hawaiian men who were part of her private school and told the missionaries that she had appointed them teachers on the windward side of Maui. She addressed the chiefs of the area, “commanding them to have good schoolhouses erected immediately, and to order all the people in her name to attend to the palapala and the pule.” Having a nation of leaders who wanted education for themselves as well as their people resulted in a rapid growth in the number of both schools and pupils in Hawai‘i. By the end of 1824, there were more than 2,000 students being instructed. Just four years later in 1828, the number of students was placed at 37,000.
In 1831, just five years after the standardization of a written Hawaiian language, the number of common schools throughout the Kingdom was about 1,100 and the number of pupils about 52,000, which was more than two-fifths of the entire population. Lahainaluna was also founded in 1831 as a station school to train teachers and serve as a model school to educate children.
By 1838, most of the adult pupils were themselves becoming teachers. An 1842 survey showed that out of 158 adult students then living, 105 were employed as teachers and 35 as officers of government.
The Hawaiian Kingdom formally established its first public education system on October 15, 1840, and by the mid-1800s, Hawai‘i was one of the most literate nations, if not the most literate nation, in the world.
Comparing the astonishingly rapid nature of literacy and education in the Kingdom of Hawai‘i to other nations at the time, it is evident that the ali‘i and government in Hawai‘i were extremely forward-thinking.
For example, in England, compulsory education only became mandated in 1876 with the passing of the “Sandon Act” which imposed a legal duty on parents to ensure that their children were educated. In France, creation of the l’ecole republicaine (Republican School) occurred in 1880, and public instruction became mandatory for all children under the age of 15. Unfortunately, the United States of America has several different histories of education due to the institution of slavery. People in northeast states were highly literate from the 1600s–1700s; Massachusetts enacted a compulsory education law in 1852 that was rooted in one that had been passed in 1647 while they were a British colony. However, Africans enslaved in America were forbidden to be educated in southern states, which also had a low literacy rate of Caucasian people in comparison to northern states. Indeed, Mississippi was the last state to enact a compulsory education law, which it did in 1917.
Although compulsory today, access to education remains fragmented in the islands and in the United States due to factors like structural racism and economic inequality. Yet, we can look to our history in Hawai‘i to find hope for the education of future generations: our ali‘i took measures to encourage the spread of the new educational opportunities and literacy in the Kingdom. Native Hawaiians themselves valued learning and mastery of knowledge and practice as cultural ideals, and so sought to apply themselves to lifelong education wholeheartedly.
An ‘ōlelo no‘eau (wise saying) recorded by scholar Mary Kawena Pukui summarizes the amazing period of learning that occurred during the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, and which can occur again in the future:
“Ua ao Hawai‘i ke ‘ōlino nei mālamalama.”
Hawai‘i is enlightened, for the brightness of day is here.
Hawai‘i is in an era of education.