Decline and defiance at the Athens of Tonga
We turn left, past the Royal Tombs at the centre of Nuku'alofa, into the southwestern part of the city, then turn again down a narrow unpaved road. The speed limit in Nuku'alofa and many other parts of Tonga is forty kilometres an hour, but on roads like this one motorists must travel even more slowly, as their vehicles stutter over potholes the size of large kava bowls. We are less than five minutes' drive from the famous kauri timber tower of the Royal Palace, and from the streets of expensive houses - old colonial villas renovated and rented out to Western diplomats, and the ugly concrete piles of cashed-up nobles - which adjoin the palace, but the homes that line this road are squat wooden things that mould has painted grey and dull green. An unskinned pig turns on a frontyard spit, and the smell of charcoal blows through the air, along with the sounds of a flute and a violin.
When we reach the end of the road, we find several marquees sitting on a piece of rough turf, in front of an ungainly two-storey building. In the shade of one of the marquees, a group of mostly palangi men and women sit in the darkly flowing robes and elaborate hats that make academics look a little silly at the best of times, and especially silly in the middle of a hot day on a tropical island. Under another marquee, two young Tongan women are singing in impossibly high-pitched Italian voices, to the accompaniment of the instruments we first heard earlier.
The largest of the marquees holds sixty or seventy Tongan observers - grandmothers wearing necklaces made of chocolate bars, fathers in dark suits, mothers in dark dresses, dabbing their brows with tiny handkerchiefs, and clusters of little girls and boys conversing in giggles and whispers. Nearly everyone has donned a ta'ovala, the mat Tongans wrap around their waists on formal occasions. We have arrived at the 2010 graduation ceremony of the 'Atenisi Institute, Tonga's oldest, most influential, and most controversial university.
As the singers and musicians take their seats, one of 'Atenisi's most distinguished graduates, Dr 'Opeti Taliai, steps forward to address the graduands, their families, and 'Atenisi's staff. Taliai gained his first tertiary qualifications at this tiny campus, and later acquired a PhD in Anthropology from New Zealand's Massey University. After teaching overseas for years, Taliai has returned to 'Atenisi to take charge of the institution's Pacific Studies Programme.
Taliai announces that he has "thought carefully" about how to make his address. He says that he "cannot begin" without "paying tribute" to his "first professor" and "intellectual light", but when he tries to name this teacher his voice breaks, and tears fill his eyes. 'Atenisi's simple PA system seems to echo Taliai's distress: the microphone crackles, and the amplifiers on the hot turf suddenly sound like they are filled with crickets.
As I wait for Taliai to continue his address, I notice that many other people here - academics in their uncomfortable costumes, graduands, the mothers and fathers of graduands - are also wiping their eyes, and coughing, and trying to compose themselves. The death last February of Futa Helu, the founder and long-time Director of 'Atenisi, continues to sadden Tongans who have studied at this unique and frequently fragile institution.
Born in 1934, Helu was one of a generation of young Tongans sent to foreign universities by Crown Prince Tupou IV, who wanted to use them to modernise his country's economy and Tonganise its civil service. Helu studied a range of subjects at the University of Sydney in the second half of the '50s, and eventually fell under the influence of John Anderson, the Scottish-Australian philosopher and political provocateur.
A Trotskyist in his youth, Anderson migrated to the political right in the postwar period, but he never abandoned his contrarian love of controversy and his opposition to superstitious and repressive strains in Australian culture. In place of the religious orthodoxies and narrow-winded nationalism he delighted in attacking in his seminars, public lectures and newspaper articles, Anderson advocated a faith in reason and science. Anderson was a philosophical as well as a political controversialist: he rejected the work of virtually all modern philosophers, and championed instead the notoriously obscure pre-Socratic thinker Heraclitus.
When Futa Helu made his long-awaited return from Sydney to Tonga, both his relatives and Tupou IV expected the talented young man to accept one of the more senior jobs in the Kingdom's civil service. But Helu refused to take a government job after his return to his homeland. Instead of mixing with Tonga's elite, he formed a kava circle which met in an unglamorous part of Nuku'alofa.
Intrigued by Helu's behaviour, and keen to find out what the young scholar had learned abroad, many Tongans paid visits to the new kava circle. They soon found that discussions over kava with Helu differed from the gossip, politicking, and joking that passed for discourse at many other kava circles around the Kingdom.
Helu's kava sessions were an attempt to recreate the spirit of both John Anderson's university seminars and the Socratic dialogues of the ancient Greek philosophers. Without being either pretentious or glib, Helu would introduce his fellow drinkers to exotic subjects like Greek tragedy, or dialectics, or Freudian psychology, and then challenge his interlocutors to relate these subjects to Tongan culture and history. In a small, isolated and conservative society like postwar Tonga, Helu's exercises in free thinking were something of a sensation. Soon his kava circle was crowded with guests, and he was being asked to tutor his fellow Tongans in a range of subjects.
Helu's renown as a pedagogist made it possible for him to found the 'Atenisi Institute in 1966. Along with a group of prospective students, the philosopher acquired sixteen hectares of swampy land on the western fringes of Tonga's capital, travelled to the forested island of 'Eua, felled a few tall trees, and then raised a series of classrooms and lecture halls. 'Atenisi at first focused on educating Tongans in subjects like English and maths, but in the early 1970s Helu began to experiment with the first-ever Tongan Studies programme. Tongan song, poetry, dance, and material culture was soon being taught by Helu and his small staff, in spite of the fact that almost all Tongan public schools considered such subjects incompatible with 'serious' education.
By 1977, 'Atenisi was offering some university papers, under an arrangement which allowed its most successful students to finish their degrees at Sydney University or the University of Auckland. 'Atenisi began to attract teachers from overseas universities, who accepted massive salary cuts in return for the opportunity to experience life at the institute. In the 1980s and '90s, a generation of 'Atenisi graduates gained Masters degress and Doctorates at Australian and New Zealand universities, and a number of them became notable intellectual figures in those countries. A performing arts troupe based at 'Atenisi toured the world.
'Atenisi's political significance came to rival its intellectual importance. Helu had learnt to distrust both religious and political authoritarianism from his mentor Anderson, and it was not long before he became a critic of Tonga's monarchy and its clerical establishment. He denounced the influence of the Free Wesleyan Church on Tongan schools, and criticised the tendency of some Tongans to accept automatically the decisions of their monarch.
In the 1980s and early '90s, 'Atenisi hosted a series of seminars designed to promote Tonga's fledgling pro-democracy movement. In 1992, Helu presented a set of proposals for democratic reform at a major conference at 'Atenisi; in response, the increasingly kleptocratic and authoritarian Tupou IV announced that no graduates of the institute would be allowed to work in the public sector (this spiteful and damaging prohibition would persist until Tupou IV's death in 2006). In the mid-'90s, Helu and the now-famous pro-democracy activist 'Akilisi Pohiva helped organise the Tongan Growers' Federation, which represented small farmers producing crops for export, and then guided that organisation into an alliance with the Tongan trade union movement.
Helu's duties as a teacher and an activist did not prevent him from producing a considerable amount of scholarly writing between the 1960s and the early years of this century. As an intellectual pioneer working in an isolated society, Helu felt obliged to consider an intimidating range of subjects, from philosophy to sociology to literature to psychology to educational theory. In the collection of Helu's academic papers, essays, and lectures issued at the end of the '90s by the Journal of Pacific History, a densely sociological consideration of 'Identity and Change in Tongan Society Since Cultural Contact' rubs shoulders with a careful study of 'The Thinking of a Psychotic' and a frankly celebratory paper on 'Laumatanga, Pride of Locality, in Tongan Poetry'. Helu's idiosyncratic worldview gives a unity to his diverse writings. He was an internationalist, who believed that cultures separated by space or time, or by both, could enrich each other, if only they were allowed to enter into respectful dialogue. Helu honoured Polynesian culture, and was acknowledged as an authority on Tongan song, poetry, dance, tapa, and genealogy, but he believed that the tradition of rational enquiry and argument he identified with the ancient Greeks needed to be imported into the Pacific. By giving his school the Tongan name for Athens, Helu expressed his desire for a dialogue between European and Polynesian intellectual traditions.
Helu was an inveterate critic of the late twentieth century intellectual fashions of postmodernism and cultural relativism. He accused postmodernists, with their scepticism about 'grand narratives' of history and notions of truth, of being enemies of reason, and he believed that cultural relativism, with its claim that different cultures were intellectually and morally incommensurable, is an insult to indigenous peoples like the Tongans, who have shown themselves quite capable of interpreting and adapting Western ideas and practices.
But if Helu rejected fashionable postmodernists like Derrida and Foucault, he was also scornful of thinkers who promoted overly narrow conceptions of reason and science. Like his old teacher at Sydney University, Helu rejected the attempts of logical positivist philosophers and positivist social scientists to reduce the complexity of human life to 'verifiable propositions' and tables of statistics. Helu believed that the sciences included subjects like sociology and psychology as well as physics, and that the proper exercise of 'reason' depended on the sort of improvised, partially subjective judgments common to aesthetics and ethics, as well as on the calculative thinking of mathematicians and physicists.
Helu's enthusiasm for Heraclitus lies behind all of his thought. Like John Anderson, he saw the inventor of dialectics not as an isolated, somewhat eccentric thinker but as the unacknowledged father of many of the most radical and important ideas to emerge in the West. In the book he published on Heraclitus under the 'Atenisi imprint in 1996, Helu claims that the philosopher's emphasis on contradiction and change - an emphasis summed up in his famous maxim that 'one does not step twice into the same river' - makes him the father of intellectual projects as apparently different as Einsteinian physics and Freudian psychology. Helu believed that Heraclitus' recognition of the complexity and fluidity of reality was more important than ever, in the globalised, frequently chaotic world of modernity.
Helu's interpretation of Heraclitus represents a slap in the face for Martin Heidegger, who famously tried to enlist Heraclitus in his battle against modernity and science, and also contradicts the cautious approach to Heraclitus taken by most Greek philologists, who tend to emphasise how fragmentary the textual remains of the philosopher are, and how little we know about the details of his thought. Helu's reading of Heraclitus might resonate, though, with Marxist thinkers, who have, from Marx onwards, tended to honour the ancient Greek as the founder of their dialectical method of investigating the way human societies develop and change. Did Helu perhaps acquire his interpretaion of Heraclitus from the Marxist tradition, via John Anderson? Could a subterranean Marxist current run through the thought of the leading intellectual of this fiercely anti-Marxist nation?
Some of Helu's most distinguished students have carried on his intellectual project. Commentators sometimes talk of a 'second generation' of 'Atenisi scholars, many of whom live and work in Western nations like New Zealand. 'Okusitino Mahina, who taught for many years at the University of Auckland, is perhaps the best-known member of this 'generation'. Like Helu, Mahina is a wide-ranging and very ambitious thinker: he writes poems, polemics about the state of Tongan society, interpretations of Tongan oral history, and treatises on the Tongan language. Where Helu wanted to fuse aspects of European and Tongan culture, Mahina seems, in some of his work, to want to use Tongan intellectual resources to reinterpret the history of European thought.
In the PhD thesis he produced at the Australian National University, Mahina argues that the stories Tongans have used to record their long history possess an implicit 'philosophy' - that is, an epistemology and a method - which can be recovered, made explicit, and used as a perspective from which to interrogate and, if necessary, to criticise the ideas of the great philosophers of the West. In the anthology of Tongan Proverbs he produced earlier this decade for a New Zealand publisher, Mahina again presents his country's vernacular traditions as a vast intellectual storehouse.
It is hardly surprising that the death of Futa Helu should shake 'Opeti Taliai and the rest of the 'Atenisi community. But Helu's death is only one of several misfortunes to befall 'Atenisi in recent years. Competition from the Suva-based University of the South Pacific, which has far greater resources and offers its students a curriculum much more focused on economic advancement, has robbed 'Atenisi of some potential students.
Even more seriously, officials from Tonga's Ministry of Education have been threatening to remove 'Atenisi's university accreditation, and thus the ability of its ablest students to finish their degrees in Australia and New Zealand. 'Atenisi's small size, meagre resources, relaxed, Socratic methods of teaching, and lack of interest in pleasing the private sector all help make the university a target for intolerant bureaucrats. Like the teachers of New Zealand, who are fighting the imposition of incoherently philistine 'National Standards' at their schools, and the students of Britain, who have been taking to the streets in their tens of thousands to protest huge fee hikes, the 'Atenisi community has found itself at variance with a global tendency towards the homogenisation and corporatisation of education.
The crisis at 'Atenisi is easy to observe. Parts of the campus have begun to resemble the classical ruins of Futa Helu's beloved Greece. One building has lost its roof and most of its walls, others have lost the glass from their windows, and the series of ornamental ponds Helu and his staff created are weedy and stagnant. I am told that this graduation ceremony is the first for three years, and that it is only a third of the size of some previous events.
After wiping his eyes and clearing his throat, 'Opeti Taliai relaunches the address he has prepared for the ceremony. He praises Futa Helu's "self-sacrifice in the name of 'Atenisi", and notes the "charisma" which enabled the late leader to "attract many international scholars" to these few swampy hectares on the outskirts of Tonga's scruffy capital. Admitting that "some say Futa's methods breed economically impoverished scholars", Taliai attacks the direction of education in Tonga, claiming that other institutions reject the "internationalism" of 'Atenisi, and instead cater to local political and religious interests.
Taliai's complaints are amplified by Marilyn Dudley-Rowley, who is Visiting Professor of Social Science at 'Atenisi. In a speech which ranges from Tonga to the Middle East to her home in the United States, Dudley-Rowley attacks the influence of the "religious right" on the contemporary world. She remembers an essay on education Futa Helu wrote in 1990 to warn about the effects that religious fundamentalisms and 'free market' economic fundamentalism could have in a post-Cold War era. Dudley-Rowley believes that, in the age of the 'War on Terror' and out-of-control financial sectors, Helu's warning has been borne out.
Dudley-Rowley reveals that she served as an advisor to the 'humanitarian' arm of the United States-led 'reconstruction' effort in Afghanistan, but left her post after encountering "more war profiteering than peacekeeping" there. She sees 'Atenisi as a "bulwark" of critical thinking and civil liberties in a "unique corner" of a world threatened by unconstrained capitalism and imperialist military adventures. Dudley-Rowley vows to help "restore 'Atenisi to its former glory", and calls on teachers and students everywhere to "fight for their rights".
Dudley-Rowley's words make most of the graduation ceremony speeches I have heard over the years seem dull indeed. Sitting amongst the families of the young men and women waiting to graduate, though, I wonder whether the sociologist's attacks on capitalism and philistinism have really resonated. I can hardly hear parts of her address, as the PA system continues to rebel, and some of the Tongans around me chat and giggle. Are the noble ideas of Futa Helu and his academic supporters doomed to meet with indifference in this strange new era in Tonga, when democracy is a complicated reality rather than a beautiful idea, and when American popular culture is a rather more potent force amongst many of the young than either Greek philosophy or Polynesian poetry?
Suddenly, though, the people around me begin to applaud loudly, and cheer, and jump out of their seats. The speeches are over, and the graduates have begun to accept their degrees. After certificates have been handed over and hands have been shaken, Tongan pop music pours out of the speakers, and an extended family hauls an enormous tapa cloth onto the turf between the marquees. The cloth is spread out, and family members - children, muscular teenage boys, podgy Mums and Dads and Uncles and Aunts, and slow-moving grandparents - begin to dance around its great dark fish and elaborate flowers.
At the centre of the dancers is a young woman showing more of her body than one would normally expect to see in Tonga; older females spread some sort of oil - is it the sweet-smelling stuff made from sandalwood? - on her legs, and her arms, and her shoulders, and then attach money to the moistened skin. The tapa and the money are presents to 'Atenisi. Family after family repreats the ritual. I have never seen exuberance like this at a graduation ceremony in New Zealand, and I realise that Futa Helu's reverence for education persists, in spite of all difficulties, on these sixteen hectares near the edge of Nuku'alofa.