Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 2000
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History doesn't have to be boring
A bowlful of culture in Vietnam
Shopping tips from a "street anthropologist"
Dissolving barriers to e-commerce

History doesn't have to be boring

There's a joke ruefully bandied about by some educators who are critical of the way U.S. history is taught (and not taught) to American public schoolchildren. It goes something like this. Question: What name do two-thirds of all high school history teachers answer to? Answer: Coach.

It would appear that there is at least a kernal of truth to the joke. The vast majority of social studies teachers in U.S. middle and high schools--more than 80 percent according to 1997 figures from the U.S. Department of Education--did not study history in college as either a major or a minor. Increasingly, the job of teaching American history, particularly in financially strapped low-income, urban schools, goes to the newest, least experienced teachers. "There's a feeling that anybody can teach history," says veteran teacher Susan Dangel, a researcher at Hopkins's Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS).

Compounding this bleak situation, according to critics like Byron Hollinshead, former president of Oxford University Press, is a dearth of well-written history textbooks. "The textbooks are absolutely terrible--not at all readable," he says. Drafted by committee, and requiring approval by state standards committees, they "are dumbed down to the lowest common denominator and wind up being a compilation of facts and dates meant to be regurgitated for tests, and then [forgotten] forever more." Says Hollinshead, "The end result is foreordained: history is boring."

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that some two-thirds of American 17-year-olds don't know that the Civil War occurred between 1850 and 1900, or that nearly 40 percent are unaware that the Brown decision held school segregation unconstitutional.

Into this void of historical illiteracy--what scholar Vartan Gregorian has lamented as being "tantamount to self-inflicted Alzheimer's disease"--has stepped a 69-year-old journalist-turned-textbook-writer and an energetic group of researchers and curriculum writers from Hopkinss CSOS. Together they are breathing new life into the study of our nation's past, inspiring teachers and schoolchildren from Maryland to Michigan and beyond to become passionate about the Civil War and civil rights.

Joy Hakim is a former schoolteacher and newspaper reporter, and a mother of three, who noticed that her own children were bored to tears by their history textbooks. She set out to write a series of page-turners. Her approach: tell history through stories--the compelling true tales of those who played roles large and small in Americas past.

As editors, Hakim relied on her prospective readers, paying 10-year-olds in her home town of Virginia Beach $5 per manuscript to jot notations in the margins: B for boring, NC for not clear; G for good. From them she learned, for instance, that sending a wire was confusing to kids, who couldn't understand why General Grant would give Lincoln a thin piece of metal to invite him on board ship.

CSOS team (l to r): Teter, Dangel, and Garriott.
Hakim took nine years to complete the 11-book series, A History of Us, which begins with prehistory and ends with the present. She uses a strong narrative voice throughout and is unabashedly unafraid to take a point of view ("Uncle Tom's Cabin is good reading, and not difficult, except that it is full of dialect, the everyday talk of blacks in the old South.... Anyone who reads Uncle Tom's Cabin and doesn't cry at the end has a hard heart"). Writing about Bill Clinton's presidency, for instance, she pens, "The ancient Greeks wrote tragic dramas about great leaders who had fatal flaws....Yet Clinton's fall was more soap opera than Greek tragedy. It was about personal gratification. It was also about lying. There was nothing heroic about it."

Early on, it seemed the books would never find their way into the classroom. Hakim was turned down by 15 publishing houses before her manuscript crossed Byron Hollinshead's desk and he eventually convinced Oxford University Press to take the series on. "I just couldn't believe how good it was," says the former president of American Heritage. I had done lots of editing in American history and I was learning things I'd never encountered before.

The History of Us was awarded the 1997 James S. Michener Prize for Writing. "Think of teaching and storytelling as entwined disciplines and you will bring coherence and inspiration to your classrooms," Hakim said, upon accepting the Michener Prize. "If we can train our students to pattern the world into stories, we can turn them into powerful, analytical learners."

Douglas MacIver, research scientist at Hopkins's CSOS, couldn't agree more. When MacIver came across Hakim's series, he knew it would be perfect to use in the Talent Development Middle School Program that he heads up. Launched in 1994 by researchers at Hopkins and Howard University, the program implements whole school reform in efforts to improve the educational experience for inner city, at-risk students.

Unfortunately, Oxford Press had provided little in the way of supportive curricular materials to accompany Hakim's books. Without lesson plans, and ideas for group activities, homework assignments, and tests, time-strapped teachers would be apt to let the books gather dust on the shelves.

So CSOS's Susan Dangel and Maria Garriott stepped up to the plate. Their task: to come up with hands-on, interactive lesson plans that would enlarge upon the historical information included in Hakim's books. They would pull together primary source documents such as songs, first-person accounts, political cartoons, and poems, all in an effort to bring history alive for at-risk middle schoolers.

Like Hakim, they field- tested their curriculum with students and teachers as they were crafting it. Early on, they found that teachers would need more than the one-page overview they had written to summarize each new chapter in history. These mini refresher courses for teachers now run more than eight pages long. Dangel and Garriott were also intent on including the voices of minorities, women, and children--in addition to more famous figures--in the supplementary materials they created. Says Dangel, "We want students to see history as ongoing with themselves in it."

Social studies teacher Feliz Muniz has found that their approach resonates with his inner-city seventh and eighth graders at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Philadelphia.

In one favorite lesson, his kids prepare for a mock trial of abolitionist John Brown by gathering evidence for either the prosecution or defense from Hakim's book War Terrible War and other sources. Before setting to work in small groups, they first view a picture of the fire-eyed abolitionist, Bible in one hand, rifle in the other. They also talk about Brown's gallows prediction that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.

As the class period winds up, they listen to a recording of John Brown's Body, the song that became the rallying cry for Northern abolitionists. For homework, he assigns them the task of writing a journal entry explaining whether Brown was a martyr or a madman.

Says Muniz, "I love it because [Dangel and Garriott] provide more than what you really need for a lesson. I [often] have to run over to the next day because of the amount of material. And the kids are very receptive to it."

Betsy Useem, director of research for the Philadelphia Education Fund, a school reform organization, gives the CSOS curriculum guides high marks. "These are wonderful, engaging guides. It's especially important for teachers who have very thin preparation [in history] to have this level of outstanding guidance," she says. Adds Garriott, "A lot of teachers are just stretched with their time. We've had teachers tell us, 'This is exactly what I would do if I had the time.'" Hakim says she is thrilled with what the CSOS team has put together. "It doesn't dumb down for students or teachers. It doesn't parrot my books. It extends them."

So far the CSOS duo, joined last winter by editor Cora Teter, have piloted their resource guides in a half-dozen urban middle schools in Philadelphia, as well as in a high-achieving middle school in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. This coming school year they will expand to schools in Detroit, Memphis, and Miami.

Meanwhile, Hakim and CSOS researchers are now collaborating on a new project: a series of science textbooks--with supplementary curriculum guides--written using the same storytelling approach. This time around, Hakim is looking to CSOS curriculum experts for guidance as she writes the books. "I'm a writer. Im not a scientist," she has said. However, she has an advantage: "I'm coming from the same place as a 10-year-old. Theres a lot of 'gee-whiz' in my approach." -Sue De Pasquale

Illustration by Charles Beyl
A bowlful of culture in Vietnam

In Ho Chi Minh City, noodle shops sell a traditional soup known as Pho Bo. Often, the beef is thinly sliced and there's an abundance of spices, including cinnamon. But other steaming bowls of Pho are served with very thick slices of meat. Here is where north and south Vietnam meet.

Thach-Giao Truong '00 focused her senior thesis in anthropology on the symbolism of Pho, a mainstay of the Vietnamese diet. Funded by a Hopkins Provost's Undergraduate Research Award and a summer travel grant from the Institute for Global Studies, Truong spent two months in Vietnam last year studying how the beef noodle soup relates to the cultural traits of the people who eat it. Food preferences, in anthropological terms, can distinguish between societies or subsets of populations. Part of what Truong found mirrors a continuing divide between north and south--a divide reflected in political, economic, and cultural differences between the regions (as well as long-standing stereotypes).

The two regions "often consider the [soup] of their fellow countrymen inferior," Truong wrote as part of her project. She points out that some northerners regard the south as a haven for lazy, big-spending nouveaux riches; others in the south describe their northern counterparts as more uptight, pretentious, and close-fisted with money. In interviews in noodle shops, she found southerners who criticized the original northern version, known as Pho Bac, citing its "stingy" servings of meat.

This fall Truong, a daughter of Vietnamese emigrˇs, plans to return to Vietnam for a year of study, focusing in part on how Vietnamese youths interpret their national history as that nation enters the global economy. --Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson

Shopping tips from a street anthropologist

In a whimsical, practical guide to shopping, author Kathy Borrus (MA '98) offers international tips on where to find the best rugs or vases, how to get a good deal home or abroad, the Do's and Don'ts of online shopping, and scams to watch for (The Fearless Shopper: How to Get the Best Deals on the Planet, Travelers' Tales, 1999). She also notes bargaining pitfalls to avoid in Third World markets and high-priced boutiques ("Haggling does not mean harassing. Being pushy, rude, or belittling merchandise will not win you points with merchants in any part of the world.")

Borrus earned a master's degree in writing from the Hopkins Part-time Graduate Program of the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences, where her thesis focused on travel writing. She says her real degree is in "street anthropology." As a former buyer and merchandise manager for the Smithsonian Institution Museum Shops for 20 years, she has traveled the world purchasing regional textiles and fine crafts. She is now a specialty retail consultant and freelance writer.

Among her tips: Pack a foldable suitcase to carry home unplanned purchases; watch merchants wrap your purchases in case they switch items; and save your receipts when going through customs in case the agent thinks it's worth more than your bargain price. She says her top tip would be, "Stay off the beaten path; investigate the local indigenous crafts to find something unique to the country." -JCS

Dissolving barriers to e-commerce

This fall marks the 10th anniversary of the reunification of Germany, and lots of people are talking about walls. Virtual walls, not concrete ones.

Internet-oriented commerce is fast becoming a worldwide phenomenon, but many European and other nations remain concerned about privacy, consumer protection, taxation, and employment issues. In Germany, a nation leading the economic surge in Europe, the future of e-commerce is especially problematic. Among other dilemmas, Germans are especially wary about divulging private information to centralized sources because of their nations history.

In hopes of fostering change, German and American business leaders, scholars, and policy makers later this year will discuss the future of e-commerce between Germany and the United States in a conference in Berlin sponsored by Hopkins's American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS).

"Ten years ago people were worried about the [Berlin] Wall, now everyone is worried about privacy on-line," says Jackson Janes, AICGS executive director. "And that's a good thing."

Based in Washington D.C., AICGS was founded in 1983 by American business and academic leaders, and over the years has acted as an independent forum for analysis and discussion of Germany's political, economic, and cultural development, as well as U.S.-German relations. The groups research reports and policy studies are tapped by legislators on Capitol Hill, and foreign service and business leaders in the States and abroad.

Last January in Berlin, an AICGS roundtable discussion touched on issues to be explored in a conference set for early November, including:

Government officials and consumers are worried about how best to apply consumer protection measures, especially laws governing the collection and use of private information. Such laws are stricter in many European nations than here in the U.S.

The issue of taxation has vexed state governments in the U.S. and authorities abroad. Who pays and collects taxes and import duties when point, click, and ship internationally becomes a norm?

There are concerns about how to enforce employment laws when telecommuting breaks down international boundaries. How do authorities monitor working conditions, minimum wage criteria, anti-discrimation measures, and other issues?

Jurisdictional issues further complicate matters. Which countrys laws on taxation, employment, consumer protection, etc., will apply? -JCS