Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Trouble with the Peace Corps

The trouble with the Peace Corps, no matter how admirable an expression of American "volunteerism," is clear from the heading of these essays from the esteemed journal American Diplomacy:

"How my Peace Corps experience changed me" essays [my highlight and underline]

The American obsession: Me, me, me.

"Let's talk about something interesting -- let's talk about me." 

Well,  I know this is politically incorrect, but I would suggest that the PC is, bottom line, a vast system of outdoor relief for mostly young, temporarily jobless well-educated Americans trying, above all, to "discover themselves" first and "helping/listening to others" second. Not that the two are necessarily contradictory, but when high-paying jobs are hard to get, I figure going abroad as a PC volunteer will look good on my resume when I get back to the homeland (except, of course, when I'm of a certain age and never expect to be fully employed again in this cut-throat economy now that I've lost my job).

The Peace Corps program, for all its achievements, should abandon its late-twentieth century paradigm, which is basically "us" supposedly teaching "them." Why not make it, in our interactive age, not just "us" enlightening foreigners, but foreigners enlightening "us."

And I don't mean "enlightening us" so that we may use those we supposedly "teach" as an instrument of narcissistic self-discovery or career self-promotion, but rather as a way of actually learning about persons other than ourselves.

Concrete examples of "them" helping "us" by showing "us" that there is more than "us" : Ukrainian college graduates teaching mathematics in American high schools. African teachers giving courses about Africa at American summer camps. Bloggers from Indonesia instructing underpriviledged kids in US inner cities about the internet. Mexican teachers offering classes in Spanish.

That would be a good message about who's actually enlightening whom.

Congratulations on your fiftieth anniversary, PC, but it's also time for you -- "us" -- to grow up!

1 comment:

PDWorldwide said...

In fairness, the question was posed by the editor of American Diplomacy: "How did your Peace Corps experience change you?" There were two reasons behind this question. First, a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) would be able to answer the question about himself/herself. It would be foolish to expect that they might know how their PC experience changed the people with whom they interacted--especially if they had lost contact with them over the years. Second, the presumption which John Brown has that PCVs went abroad with a messianic zeal to teach the world is a common one and we wanted to see what PCVs themselves learned from their experience living and working abroad rather than what they taught others. This is precisely John Brown's point. Perhaps a careful reading of what the PVCs actually wrote would "enlighten" our Blogger. Let the conversation continue!