Impressed With College Historians

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - March 26, 2008

I wanted to be in New York this week attending the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. But I couldn’t make it: A Honolulu-New York airfare and the price of a Manhattan hotel room for five nights came to more than this professor’s budget would allow.

Instead, a couple of Saturdays ago I attended the Alpha Beta Epsilon Chapter of Phi Alpha Theta’s 24th annual Hawaii Regional Conference.

“Huh?” you say. Let me explain. Phi Alpha Theta is the national history honor society, and every year for the past quarter century (minus a year) the local chapter, along with the University of Hawaii at Manoa History Department, have put on a oneday conference featuring outstanding papers by student historians attending local colleges and universities.

UH-Manoa historian Bob McGlone has been Phi Alpha Theta’s adviser for a couple of decades now, and he’s one of this world’s genuinely good guys. Ask any of his students. So when he called to ask me to serve as a judge, I started cleaning my reading glasses and sharpening my editor’s pencil.

I read five papers in preparation for the Manoa conference. In “Henry David Thoreau: A Plea for Social Reform,” University of Hawaii-Hilo’s Easten Cueva reminded me of Thoreau’s eloquence in his opposition to slavery and the Mexican War. And in his treatment of the Concord Transcendentalist, Cueva demonstrated a good measure of eloquence himself.

Then there was University of Hawaii-Manoa’s Chris Niemczyk on “Jefferson’s Governing Philosophy.” For the past quarter century now, revisionist historians have been doing their best to shred Jefferson’s reputation as an egalitarian by noting that he owned, profited from and never freed his more than 100 slaves.

“J-e-f-f-e-r-s-o-n,” they’ve written, “spells hypocrite.” There’s some truth in that, of course, but as Niemczyk argues - convincingly, for me - Jefferson was a Virginian of his time, and to do other than he did would have been extraordinarily difficult.

Another UH-Manoa student, Tia-Michelle Ubilas, treated the “The Educational Legacy of Queen Emma” - which was, of course, St. Andrew’s Priory School. Emma, like so many of the late 19th century Hawaiian ali’i, saw the desperate straits her people were in, and - like others of her class - saw education and the school she helped finance as a way out.

I also read “‘Shadows of Their Former Selves’ and ‘A Place in the Sun’: The Legacy of War and Martial Law for Hawaii’s Japanese Leaders.” The author, Kelli Nakamura, is a UH-Manoa graduate student who is closing in on her Ph.D.

Her paper dealt with the clash between first-generation Japanese victory groups in Hawaii who never gave up on the idea that Japan might win the war - and the sons of their members who, in proving their patriotism, took over leadership of the Islands’Japanese-American community.

Cassandra Bohe, a Chaminade undergraduate, looked at another “alternative narrative of World War II,” namely the “Spirit of Resistance: The Bataan Death March and the Filipino Experience in World War II.” The highlight of Bohe’s paper was a series of interviews she did with veterans of the Bataan death march, a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, and the Filipino resistance movement. When she allowed them to speak, her paper came alive.

Beside reading papers, I also attended three sessions. The one that stood out was titled “Memory, Monuments and Commemoration.” It grew out of Hawaii Pacific University professor Linda Lierheimer’s course on historiography. A young man named Trevor Tresselle, a former high school drummer himself, talked about “Our History in Music,” the role of drum and bugle corps in invoking patriotism: in competitions, at parades, at events sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. They’ve been doing it, according to Tresselle, since the Civil War.

At the same session, HPU undergraduate Kimberly Harkins talked about “Ground Zero: What It Means to be a Site of Memory.” “Ground Zero” refers to the attempts, both private and very public, to memorialize those who died in the attack on Manhattan’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The controversy over just how to do that - and the importance of it - continues.

In “Shadows in the Valley of Shining Light: The Destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas,” HPU senior Martha Randolph examined the Taliban’s well-publicized destruction of two statues of the Buddha - sacrilegious idols in the eyes of Afghanistan’s radical Islamic government of the time. Randolph argues “the destruction of stone statues had more impact (on world opinion) than (the Taliban’s) massacres of enemies, treatment of women, and savage punishment meted out to petty criminals.”

No, I didn’t make it to New York and the OAH’s annual meeting. But I listened to and read the work of some fine young historians on a lovely Saturday in Manoa Valley.

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