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Tuesday, March 28, 2006 | Inspired by a landlocked university deep in the midwest, University of San Diego Assistant Professor Jerome Lynn Hall has begun teaching a new undergraduate anthropology course, “Surf Culture and History,” this semester at USD.
Students in the class, Hall says, will gain a strong basis in cultural anthropology through a study of the history of surfing, a sport with roots hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.
Created as an exclusive right of the Hawaiian royalty, surfing was, at first, off limits to Hawaiian commoners and outsiders – taboos that broke down as America took control of the islands.
By the first decade of the 20th century, surfing had been transplanted to California, where it would develop in sync with innovations in Hawaii and later Australia, into the modern sport practiced by the millions of surfers worldwide today.
The class focuses not just on the riding of waves, but on the traditional Hawaiian values such as “Aloha” (welcome and respect) and Ohana (family), which have typically accompanied the sport.
However, Hall feels that the traditional values that once accompanied the sport are not being taught to today’s surfing youth, resulting in more selfish and less sharing, respectful acts in and out of the water.
“In the class we are focusing on more of the intangible traditions of the sport such as respect for the environment and respect for other surfers,” Hall said. “Surfers used to pick up trash on the beach and now they don’t. ‘Aloha’ and respect for elders and the traditions of the sport are needed back in surfing so we don’t lose the fun in it.”
Although the class was placed on the list of this semester’s offerings late, it has still drawn full attendance, meaning that it will continue in the future.
“The class seems like it will stay on the curriculum because we filled it up,” Hall said. “The word on the street is that it is a great class.”
Hall said that the approval of the class by the school’ s curriculum committee came as no surprise to him, due to a university climate that seeks ethnic diversity in its class offerings.
His students are studying the Hawaiian roots of the sport, along with other aspects of Hawaiian social life, at a university where five percent of the students are from the state of Hawaii.
Aside from lectures, the students also get some healthy doses of fun and entertainment with surf movie nights every other week, and three talks by legendary surfers Mike Doyle, Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, the real “Gidget,” and Paul Strauch, one of the original surfers to bring the sport to California in the early part of the 20th century as an original member of the Duke Kahanamoku Surf Team.
Cultural Anthropology, whether it focuses on surfing or Afghan tribesmen, is a highly useful skill for students to learn in today’s world of expanding global business, communication and conflict.
“The basis of how to do cultural anthropology is very relevant to problems and issues in the world today,” Hall said. “We seem to be taking less time in our culture to understand other cultures and we make many mistakes from it. We need to look at other cultures and try to understand as much as we can about them so that our interactions can be more productive.”
Aside from learning the basics of cultural anthropology, Hall also wants his students to learn and pass on knowledge of surfing’s traditional Polynesian roots and concepts, which he feels are missing from some aspects of the modern sport.
“Many of the older guys still really believe in the ancient Polynesian roots of the sport and now wonder why they are disappearing from the surfing,” Hall said. “We have to teach these traditions to as many young people and surfers as we can to save them.”
While the sport has most certainly gotten more aggressive since the 1950s and 1960s, actual instances of localism and violence are most certainly down since the late 1970s, the 1980s and early 1990s, thanks in no small part to legal action taken by surfers and the judicial system against those being violent in the line-up.
There is no doubt in my mind though, that the ever more crowded surfing breaks of the world definitely need more of the “Aloha” spirit. If not, ever-increasing competition for the same amount of resources (waves) will eventually lead to more aggression and hostility.