History Lessons

For the past three summers, foreign teachers of American history have come to BC to learn their subject

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

When a colleague of hers retired earlier this year, Sawitree Charoenpong, a lecturer at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, was asked to take on the responsibility for teaching American history - a field with which she was barely familiar.

Fortunately for Charoenpong and her department, she was able to find the help she needed, through the Boston College Law in American History Institute, which recently completed its third summer session. Organized by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Law School with support from the United States Information Agency, the institute has trained teachers of American history from colleges and universities in more than 40 countries .

Law in American History Institute participants Francesc Valles of Spain (left) and John K. Fynn of Ghana work on an assignment in the O'Neill Computing Facility. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
The teachers examine key legal issues in American history and their impact on society, under the tutelage of faculty from Boston College and other institutions. The six-week program includes field trips to sites such as the Minute Man National Historical Park in Lexington, New York City's Ellis Island Museum and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

For participants, the institute has immediate, practical benefits, helping them to plan curricula in American history or American studies that will suit the needs of their institutions.

Institute organizers feel the program has increased Boston College's international visibility, while affording an opportunity to see American history through a different perspective. They also see the institute as a model for similar endeavors in the future.

"I think the institute has more than met the expectations we had for it," said Law School Dean Aviam Soifer, who hatched the idea for the institute. "It has been wonderful to see the friendships and professional relationships which have flowered as a result. Meanwhile, we have been able to create a program which is provocative and enlightening, and deals with issues which are critical for many societies."

"The institute carries Boston College's name out into the world," said A&S Associate Dean Carol Hurd Green, who directed the institute with Soifer. "But we learn a great deal from the participants, because they are highly trained professionals with their own expertise."

"We want to learn as much about America as possible, because that will help us become better teachers," said John Kofi Fynn, head of the history department at the University of Ghana and a participant in this year's program. "It is very interesting to see how the American legal system is at the foundation of American life. There is a strong emphasis on law and order in the US, and while it has not always functioned perfectly, this emphasis is well-laid."

This summer's institute, which ran from June to August, included 17 faculty from countries such as Bulgaria, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Poland and China. Soifer, Green, Prof. Christopher Wilson (English), Prof. Andrew Buni (History), Assoc. Prof. Carol Petillo (History) and Asst. Prof. Dean Hashimoto (Law) were among those offering lectures or leading discussions, on topics ranging from American 20th century foreign policy to the civil rights movement to legal, labor and economic trends in the 19th century.

For many participants, as Soifer and Green noted, the concept of a jury trial and other features of American law can be difficult to grasp, but the impact of landmark cases like Brown v. Board of Education , or controversies like the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, show how integral law is to the shaping of American society.

Participants said they also were impressed by the candor in the institute curriculum and in American scholarship as a whole - the willingness to explore the darker aspects of American history, such as discrimination against blacks or mistreatment of immigrants.

"The openness makes the content of the program very useful," said Tvrtko Jakovina, who is on the faculty at the University of Zagreb in Croatia. "It is more meaningful to be able to hear about things which do not necessarily fit in with the image of America."

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