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Back to Class: Cal Alums Say Volunteering at High Schools Makes Them Feel Young Again

August 29, 2015
by Peter Van Houten and John Fox

We have discovered the fountain of youth. No pills, no shots, no yoga, no prayers. We’re simply giving one-hour talks in high schools—Peter on World War I, John on U.S. taxation. The talks have been warmly received by students and teachers, and are enormous fun for us. Most remarkably, we’ve stopped aging. So we thought we’d pass this magic formula on to any of our fellow UC Berkeley alums who might wish to live forever.

Some background: The two of us met in Palm Springs a few years ago, where we and our Cal alum wives winter—Peter and Betty from Twain Harte, California; John and Gretchen from Amherst, Massachusetts. Peter has filled many roles for Cal over the years, including as a successful major recruiter of high school students, typically Hispanic, in the greater Palm Springs area. He has always had an interest in U.S. history, probably inherited from his mother and father, with a special interest in the first world war. World War I memorials abound at Berkeley—such as the California Memorial Stadium and the stone bench outside the entrance to the Campanile—reflecting the sadness caused by that tragic and transformative event.

After 20 years practicing law in Washington, D.C., John moved with his family to Amherst, became counsel to his D.C. firm, and began teaching a one-semester seminar on U.S. tax history and policies at Mount Holyoke College. John had become convinced that the monstrously complicated U.S. tax system was attributable in part to the failure of our education system to teach Americans how to think about a fair and sensible tax policy. His students were undergraduates from across the curriculum. Yet most of them thrived. Twenty-five years later, John now has turned to talks with junior and senior high school students who are studying U.S. government and economics.

 “Are you a sub today?” asked a student of Peter’s as he waited for the World History class to begin; he probably thought this old man would be a pushover as a substitute teacher.

Peter Van Houten
“No,” Peter explained, “I am here to talk about World War I—it’s a hobby of mine.” Peter could see the student’s eyes roll a bit; the plan clearly didn’t excite him. Yet students have responded positively to an interactive approach, such as having some act as spokespersons for the various countries involved in the war, explaining their countries’ hopes and fears in 1914 and what their goals were at the Peace Conference in 1919. Peter asks lots of questions rather than lecture, trying to draw out learning from other classes and getting as many students involved as possible. He was elated when one asked for a copy of his bibliography. “You made my day,” he said. She made Peter forget how tired he was when he finished his fourth class for the day.

John teaches a subject, U.S. taxation, with at least as great a potential for eye rolling.

John Fox
 “It is quite a challenge, to be sure, to capture the interest of these high school students in one hour about a complicated subject they know nothing about,” he acknowledged. “What clearly works best is to relate the subject to their personal lives: How do you think your public school is funded? Who pays the taxes? What justifies so little funding from the federal government? Who will pay the $2 trillion debt from the 2003 Iraq War after Congress refused to raise taxes to pay for the war?” Students learn why so few households of equal size and equal incomes pay equal taxes. He has two students play out the roles. In this way, students learn who benefits most and least from tax exclusions and deductions, that over half of all individual income isn’t taxed annually because of tax relief provisions, and the arguments for a simpler, fairer and more economically sensible tax system. And there’s more. Each class teaches him something new about teaching.

Peter Van Houten (’56, B.A., ’62, M.A., ’73, EdD) and John Fox (L.L.B, ‘60), say they like feeling that their talks stimulate students to think critically about history and government policies. They hope other alums will jump in too. To learn more about their “anti-aging experiences, “you may reach Peter at, and John at

One in a series of personal Perspectives. We invite writers and readers to submit their own essays—inspiration can come from California magazine or California Magazine Online stories, the news, or issues of the day. Read more:

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