EDITOR’S NOTE This is our seventh interview with the winners of the Franklin R. Buchanan Prize. The Association for Asian Studies awards the prize annually for the development of outstanding curriculum materials on Asia. Linda K. Menton, Noren W. Lush, Eileen H. Tamura, and Chance I. Gusukuma won the 2003 prize for the development of The Rise of Modern Japan. The authors of this outstanding work are all affiliated with the Curriculum Research & Development Group, an organized research unit of the University of Hawaii within the College of Education. Linda Menton is a Professor of Education, Noren Lush is a Social Studies Teacher and Curriculum Developer, Eileen Tamura is a Professor of Education in the Department of Education Foundations, and Chance Gusukuma is a Researcher and Curriculum Developer.
Lucien:Would you please inform our readers about the genesis of this project? Whose idea was it to develop a secondary school text on recent Japanese history? As you know, most high school social studies teachers spend about two weeks on Japan at best. How, if at all, did this rather sad fact influence your approach?
Linda Menton: The Curriculum Research & Development Group is a part of the College of Education at the University of Hawaii. Our mission is to improve education by designing, developing, and providing quality educational materials for students and teachers from pre-K to grade twelve. We work in teams of teachers, researchers, scholars, and other experts in mathematics, science, language arts, music, and the arts.
Several years ago, our social studies team initiated a project called Curriculum on Asian and Pacific History. We were concerned about the lack of information about Asia in traditional world history texts. And so were the teachers we worked with. When we surveyed high school world history teachers in Hawaii’s public schools and asked them what geographic and cultural regions they would choose to teach about, their highest priorities were China and Japan.
We knew, however, that despite teacher worries about the lack of Asia-related content in the curriculum—teachers told us they were spending less than four weeks or less of class time per year on Asia—we could not ask them to stuff more and more content into an already overcrowded history curriculum. So we wrote both our first book China, Understanding its Past, published in 1998, and The Rise of Modern Japan, to be used as flexibly as possible. Teachers could choose, for example, to spend one semester of a year-long world history course concentrating on Western civilization, and then use our materials for a semester-long study of Asia. Or they might use our materials to augment the truncated information on China or Japan in existing world history books. Our materials could also be used in area studies courses, in international studies courses, in language courses, or in programs like the Model United Nations.
One of the challenges we experienced developing materials on Japan was the perception on the part of potential funders that we wanted to do this because we have such a large Japanese American population here in Hawaii, that this was kind of a “roots” project. But this was never our intent. While it is true that some high school students in Hawaii may be somewhat more familiar with Japan than their mainland counterparts, especially in regards to foods, cultural traditions, and in some instances, language, their knowledge of Japanese history and culture is not significantly better than teenagers anywhere else in America. We planned from the very beginning to distribute our materials to schools on the American mainland, and to schools in English-speaking countries in the Pacific region that have significant ties to Asia, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Developing curriculum about Asia and the Pacific is a natural at the University of Hawaii. Hawaii really is the crossroads of the Pacific. We are equidistant from Asia and the US mainland. The University of Hawaii is home to the largest Center for Japanese Studies in the United States with its forty-five-member faculty; it also hosts a National Resource Center for East Asia and a National Foreign Language Resource Center that specializes in Asian languages. It has an excellent library and audiovisual resource collection on Japan.
Our challenge was bringing these different resources on Japan together to develop instructional materials for high school students. That is where the concept of really working as a team, of sharing expertise, became so critical. The fact that we work at a curriculum research and development center, where this kind of work is genuinely valued, made it possible for us to pull such a team together and write The Rise of Modern Japan. Grant awards from the US Department of Education’s International Research and Studies Program partially defrayed the development and publication costs of these materials.