Tonga reputably has the highest per capita number of PhDs in the world; this indicates the high value placed on formal education by Tongans. At the same time, many Tongans, especially those living in New Zealand, are amongst those seen as ‘failures’ of the education system. With the latter concern particularly in mind, this thesis sets out to examine what a group of successful Tongan graduates attribute their success to. The graduates are alumni of Tonga High School (THS), a state school in Tonga, which has competitive entry criteria. The main participants attended the school during the decades of the 1950s through to the 1990s.
The two guiding thesis questions are:
1. What do successful Tongan graduates of THS attribute their success to?
2. What role did THS play in the success of these graduates, if any?
Tonga is the only remaining Kingdom in the Pacific Islands. This developing nation has placed a lot of emphasis on education since the first school was established by missionaries in 1828. The education system is based on Western school models and curriculum, but the main medium of instruction in contemporary times is the Tongan language. “Success” for Tongans today, and a main selection criterion for participants, means the person has combined academic achievement with a strong Tongan way of being.
Academic qualifications (MA only, or a PhD), are complemented by being a useful person, a role model, and a contributing member of society. Such an individual not only follows, but demonstrates respect for and knowledge of traditional Tongan culture, language and values. When appropriate, successful people can also live comfortably in Western spaces, Western education, society and life.
The questions were addressed using an ethnographic qualitative approach. The thesis is underpinned by critical theory, language acquisition theories, post-colonial and indigenous theories, Pacific research theories, and a Tongan Tala ‘o Tonga theory and methodology. Critical theory is mainly informed by the late Pierre Bourdieu’s work in the sociology of education. His “thinking tools” of capital, habitus, field, sense of the game, symbolic violence, and selection of the elect, originally applied to understanding social reproduction in French education, culture and society, are used as the meta-theory in this study.
Bourdieu’s theories are contextualised to form a Tongan Bourdieusian framework, ‘Otua mo Tonga ko hoku tofi‘a to include important Tongan factors of success. Qualitative data collection methods included a paper survey, ten individual interviews, a focus group interview and archival research. The central argument is that the graduates attributed their success to both their kaliloa (socialisation within the home) and their learning experiences at THS. The graduates’ tālanoa mei he kaliloa highlights the central role of the Tongan family in their education. Family imparted Tongan language, culture, knowledge, values, lotu and ways of being which became part of each participant’s strong habitus; they were strong motivators and a foundation for their Tongan identities. THS’s English language policy, Western uniform, Western curriculum and overseas teachers were instrumental in nurturing and equipping the graduates for further education abroad and success. The thesis is presented in eight chapters. The early chapters introduce Tonga and THS, survey relevant literature, and discuss methodologies and methods.
The findings are presented in two chapters, followed by their discussion and analysis. The final chapter weaves together the findings from the entire study, and addresses the implications of this research for Tongans in education, and for Tonga.