We can say that there are two general types of education: one, education for criticism, and the second, education for submissiveness. There is no third.


With these words, spoken in 1996 by the philosopher, educator and democracy campaigner Futa Helu, begins Tongan Ark, the documentary by New Zealand filmmaker Paul Janman on the last years of Helu’s life and the extraordinary experience of Tonga’s ‘Atenisi Institute.

Selected as a young man to attend a newly established high school in Nuku‘alofa that was expected to produce the elite workers of the Kingdom’s public service, Helu went on to study philosophy, literature and mathematics in Sydney and founded ‘Atenisi upon his return to Tonga, in the early sixties. The name of the institute – the Tongan word for Athens – signals the model that Helu had in mind from the very beginning, and his wish for ‘Atenisi to become a place for education and debate but also for challenging the institutions of the state. However, Helu didn’t intend for this intervention to amount to a grafting of classical Western ideas onto Indigenous ones, but rather as a prolonged reciprocal negotiation of cultural and intellectual traditions and values.

To put it more simply, ‘Atenisi was never conceived of as a Western outpost in a traditionalist and backward Pacific country, and whilst it did play a significant role in the movement towards democratic reform of the state, it has been equally critical of the pressures exerted on Tongan society as a consequence of globalisation. Being the only liberal arts university independent of both the government and the church has seen ‘Atenisi come under attack both before and after Tonga’s constitutional reforms. Firstly, when Helu’s role in championing democracy resulted in the institute’s graduates being banned from employment in the public sector; and secondly, when the increasing demand for educational institutions to produce workers as opposed to critics or thinkers threatened its ability to attract students and sustain itself.

Both of these types of pressures – political and economic – have continued to mount and to imperil ‘Atenisi’s very existence, a state of precarity that is captured in Janman’s film by punctuating the narrative with shots of the institute’s sparse and run-down facilities. It takes so little for a leaking roof, a muddy forecourt or a warped gutter to become visual metaphors, which Helu’s lyrical reflections on Heraclitus’ theory or ruin and renewal charge with further meaning. More prosaically, the fragile financial and physical state of ‘Atenisi, its being held together by the pride of its community and the patient obstinacy of committed visionaries, are an index of the state in which the particular idea of education that the institute embodies – the idea of education for criticism – lies beyond the shores of the Pacific island kingdom alone.

It is a remarkable and important story, beautifully told, and I hope that Janman’s film will get proper attention during the next festival season in Australia, where I’m confident that it wouldn’t fail to resonate deeply. When I saw Tongan Ark – at a New Zealand Film Festival screening in Wellington last August – it was accompanied by members of the ‘Atenisi Foundation for the Performing Arts, including Helu’s superbly talented daughters Sisi’uno and ‘Atolomake. The group’s performance, which blended traditional Tongan music and dance with operatic singing, was as powerful and moving as it was effective in conveying a sense of the depth of the cultural work carried out at ‘Atenisi. It was Helu himself who introduced opera into Tonga, after studying it in Sydney. Its appropriation and integration with Indigenous art forms isn’t a process that is entirely smooth – at one point the film captures Helu’s impatience at the disinclination of a graduation day audience to listen in polite silence to the performance of European music – but is also one that undermines simplistic notions of Western cultural primacy, just as Helu’s appeal to Greek antiquity was a move that complicated a linear approach to historical progress and modernisation.

To end the screening with a live performance by ‘Atenisi students also highlighted the exuberant vitality of Futa Helu’s legacy. Janman spent two years teaching at the institute and his interviews with students are among the film’s best moments. They remind us that long before it was a university, ‘Atenisi offered night classes, then a high school program, and that to this day – alongside the aspiring scholars attracted by its reputation – it enrols school dropouts, social misfits, the irregulars of Tongan society. Their voices as recorded in the film are mature, confident, hopeful, defiant. The story of ‘Atenisi is now their story.

For more information about Tongan Ark you can visit the film’s website. I first learned about ‘Atenisi from the blog of Scott Hamilton, who has written extensively about Futa Helu and the institute. I recommend in particular this introductory post and this more recent one detailing some encouraging developments since the making of the film.

The website for the ‘Atenisi Institute is http://atenisi.edu.to/

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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