National honor gives history teacher at Hickman, MJC a summer job in Congress

Teacher Sees Life Under The (Capitol) Dome

Modestan Richard Vanden Bosch awarded James Madison Congressional Fellowship, spends four weeks as research staffer for Rep. Jeff Denham. Vanden Bosch teaches social studies at Hickman Middle School and U.S. History at Modesto Junior College.
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Modestan Richard Vanden Bosch awarded James Madison Congressional Fellowship, spends four weeks as research staffer for Rep. Jeff Denham. Vanden Bosch teaches social studies at Hickman Middle School and U.S. History at Modesto Junior College.

Time off means time to learn for Modestan Richard Vanden Bosch, an American history aficionado who returns to his Hickman Middle School classroom with more to teach after working on Capitol Hill as the 2015 James Madison Congressional Fellow.

His experience also will add depth to the lectures he gives this fall at Modesto Junior College, where his two night classes in U.S. history have wait lists.

Each summer since 2001, Vanden Bosch has traveled to take part in 35 foundation or grant-funded study sessions, from Colonial Williamsburg, Va., to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

In 2014, he spent a week or more studying the Reconstruction period at Columbia University in New York City, the Missouri-Kansas Border Wars at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, “Liberty, Institutions and Economics Progress” in Arlington, Va., and “Slavery and the Constitution,” in Orange, Va.

What has broken down is the discourse. We’ve become a country of sound bites.

Richard Vanden Bosch, history teacher

This summer, he went to New Orleans to dig into the issues of the Yalta Conference, assigned to present the Russian point of view. Looking at their losses in World War II – 23 million people compared to 400,000 U.S. casualties – and Russian historical documents gave him that insight, he said.

“It gives you a different perspective. It forces you to get into their vantage point and understand why they did what they did,” Vanden Bosch said. “Education is about seeing both sides.”

That clear-eyed view served him well through a four-week fellowship in one of the nation’s most intensely partisan institutions, the U.S. Congress. Vanden Bosch researched topics from statehood for Puerto Rico to the Iran nuclear disarmament treaty for Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, courtesy of the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation.

The foundation was established by Congress in 1986 to improve teaching about the U.S. Constitution in junior high and high schools. “The foundation was created to educate educators,” as Vanden Bosch puts it. He was the only educator nationwide granted the Congressional Fellowship in 2015. In 2003, he earned the state-level James Madison Fellowship for California, a summer study of the U.S. Constitution at Georgetown University.

“The access was incredible,” he said – walking into committee hearings before they were opened to the public, seeing bills tweaked and transformed, reading historic documents, talking with experts at the Congressional Research Service.

Because Vanden Bosch lives in the 10th Congressional District, Denham became his fellowship assignment. The teacher’s own political views were irrelevant, a professional detachment he sees as essential for educators.

I don’t want you to think like me. I want you to think.

Richard Vanden Bosch, history teacher

“I think it’s important my students don’t see my political agenda,” he said. “The myopic view some people have of historical issues, I think, does a disservice to students.”

For four weeks, he digested material and presented it for use under Denham’s Republican framework. Had it been a Democrat, he would have lined up other talking points. “I’m OK either way,” he said. “One side does not have the corner on truth.”

What he will tell his students about life under the dome is that those elected to Congress keep up a grueling schedule. “I don’t think people realize how hard they work. (Denham) is constantly moving. It’s an incredible schedule he has,” Vanden Bosch said. In part, that is due to the moderate leanings of California’s 10th District, which make no sure bet for either party. “Any district that’s a swing district, you have to be more visible,” he said.

(Politics) really is about making sausage, and it’s not perfect.

Richard Vanden Bosch, history teacher

For the Iran treaty – “I actually read it,” – Vanden Bosch consulted experts. The technical and legal language was a slog. The safeguards are there, as is a worrying delay in enforcement. But in the end, he said, “How much do we trust our own government? That’s what it all comes down to.”

On Puerto Rico, he said, 61 percent of the residents want statehood, but it could not come before the 2020 census and the issues to iron out are complex. Daunting complexity hampers many topics Congress tackles, discussions streamlined and simplified for news spots.

“If this republic is going to last, we have to learn to understand issues and not just a 30-second sound bite from the doggone TV,” Vanden Bosch said. “You have these talking heads, and they have an agenda. People are busy. They think they’re too busy to get educated.”

What it comes down to is, he said, “We have to stop talking so much and listen better.”