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In Focus

Hawai'i's Bob Buss

By Phoebe Prioleau | HUMANITIES, September/October 2004 | Volume 25, Number 5

Bob Buss keeps a woodblock on his office wall to remember the Confucian virtue jen: it combines the sign for "man" and the sign for "two" to convey the notion of "human heartedness" and "man in society."

"Whenever two persons meet, something akin to humanities emerges between them," Buss says. "Empathy, you could say, is the start of the humanities, the start of ethics. If you're going to understand the rest of the world, you have to understand where other people are coming from."

A Minnesota native, Buss worked at the Hawai'i Humanities Council for twenty years as program director and History Day state coordinator before he was appointed executive director in 2003. He is passionate about Confucian and Buddhist studies, environmental ethics, and the philosophy of literature, and first came to Hawai'i to do graduate work in comparative literature at University of Hawai'i at Manoa. "Hawai'i is a really interesting place to be, in terms of Asian ways of thinking," he says.

Buss calls his new state "a mixing place" and points out that there is no majority culture. Nearly one quarter of Hawaiians belong to two or more races and 27 percent speak a language other than English.

Hawai'i's diversity is the result of the influx of immigrant laborers in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1848, a major land division act entitled "The Great Mahele" authorized the sale of land to resident aliens. Within a few years, the areas with sugar cane were in the hands of the Caucasian elite, or the haole class. They opened sugar and pineapple plantations and brought over workers from Japan, China, Portugal, Russia, Greece, and the Philippines. Called maka'inana, or commoners, the laborers were forced to dig irrigation ditches and harvest sugar cane in ten to twelve-hour shifts.

Buss says that prejudice, though not prevalent, has been a problem in the past and remains one.

"Hawai'i is a place where you can focus on the lack of racism, but you can see it all over as well," he says. "It's there, under the surface in some cases. Sometimes it will bubble up obviously, like in World War Two." He points out that few people know of the internment of several thousand Hawaiians of Japanese dissent on Sand Island.

Buss has found that studying history can be part of the solution to eliminate prejudice. Not, he is quick to say, the memorization of facts and dates, but the kind of history that "gets you excited intellectually."

He is enthusiastic about Hawai'i History Day, a contest which allows sixth through twelfth graders to enter works in four categories: historical paper, exhibit, media presentation, and performance.

"You've got to find some way to take your topic and personalize it," he says. "With History Day, the question is always so what? Why should we care about that?"

Buss wants to expand the contest and open it up to a larger student body. "We keep pushing so that it's not just the academically gifted that are part of History Day, so that it doesn't cherry-pick a couple of students here and there," he says.

Hawaiian language immersion classes will soon have a chance to participate. Although the projects must be in English, students can use Hawaiian newspapers as primary sources. Buss also plans to start a category for fourth and fifth grade students in collaboration with the We the People initiative.

"How do you get people to know the humanities, how do you bring great ideas to life?" he asks. "I think History Day has some potential there."

In his spare time, Buss enjoys hikes on active volcanoes with his Hawaiian wife Adella, an artist. He has hung one of her works on his wall alongside the woodcuta painting entitled Kwan Yin in the Garden that depicts Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion.

Phoebe Prioleau was an intern at NEH.