Mar 17, 2010

Meta blogging

Here's an interesting piece by Peter Hessler about Peace Corps in the New Yorker (h/t: Liz) by an ex-Peace Corps volunteer responding to these articles about Peace Corps by Nicholas Kristof in the NYT and by John Brown in the Huffington Post. The New Yorker piece is great, a pretty thorough look at an often-elusive program and the Kristof piece isn't too bad--it's mostly tangentially related, it's his proposal for a new volunteer program since Teach for America and PC can't meet the demand.

Brown, on the other hand, is an unmitigated wanker:
Mr. Kristof, who wants young Americans to teach English the world over, seems unaware that all too many of us here in the homeland (which is how we now identify our cry-the-beloved country in these sad post-9/11 times) are incapable of writing a coherent English sentence free of grammatical and spelling errors. And how many of us called-to-duty language missionaries currently living in said homeland, if volunteering to coach "debate teams" overseas, could actually be capable of crafting a logical argument, given our 24/7 we-can't-stop-loving-it culture of instant mindless gratification a la Tee-Vee & Twitter & uptalk?
You know what's better than sweeping negative generalizations about young people? Totally unsubstantiated, evidence free, crotchety, you-kids-get-off-my-lawn-style sweeping negative generalizations about young people. Bonus points for prescriptive grammar wankery, a pet peeve of mine.

It gets better:
As for the Peace Corps, its main drawbacks are twofold.

(A) Giving jobs to too many well-meaning but desperately-seeking-to-be-employed, résumé-driven, undereducated provincial American BA's with, all too often, little or no knowledge of foreign languages/cultures or substantial skills, personal or intellectual, even in teaching (or speaking) their own native language.

There are, of course, notable exceptions, including "senior citizens" in the program; but much of the Peace Corps is, I would suggest, an updated, "democratic" version of a vast system of outdoor relief for the upper classes.

In all fairness, these well-meaning, often naive, Peace Corps volunteers (I had the privilege of meeting many of them in my Foreign Service career), may be eager to learn about the outside world. But if they are parachuted to teach/"set an example" in other countries, they should know far more about them (and their own country and language) than Peace Corps "training" provides (and by the time they know something about where they are, they are shipped out).

(B) As suggested by the above remarks, most sadly and importantly, the Peace Corps is not a bilateral program. In essence, "we" (the U.S.) are telling "them" (the "foreigners") what to do (in a gentle way) -- a twentieth-century Cold War one-way-communications propaganda model, granted on a perhaps laudable human level.

There's a lot to digest there, and I even think that Brown might be on to something occasionally (particularly with the quality of the training, here in South Africa anyways). But aside from his sneering dismissal of volunteers, he totally misunderstands the goals of Peace Corps, which are primarily cultural. The three main goals are

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Two out of three are about sharing cultures! I think people from the Foreign Service would be prone to making this mistake. As Hessler said:
In particular, the challenges of a volunteer tend to be poorly understood by journalists and foreign service officers, who are typically accustomed to an immediate and extensive support system. They’re surrounded by translators, fixers, and well-staffed bureaus; they rarely know what it’s like to be alone in a strange country with a hard job to do. And nothing is more difficult than staying in a small community for an extended period of time.
Now, I've got another post gestating about the worth of the Peace Corps, but suffice to say I think it's a lot better than what Brown thinks.


  1. Wowie. I also agree with Brown (sorry to say) about the one-sidedness. I've had many people here ask me the natural question, do we invite people to America? No, we do not. What an opportunity that would be South Africans! And the aspect of training. If training elsewhere is anywhere like here, it is lacking in experts in language instruction and cultural instruction. And education system interpretation. You need full time professionals to do this stuff, and this seems to be a limitation. Anyway, yeah...

  2. Yeah, I'm not saying Brown was totally out to lunch. As my dad says, even a blind pig finds an acorn every now and again. Mostly I was peeved at his arrogant preening.

    I agree that America could benefit from foreigners doing PC-style projects in, say, Detroit or New Orleans. (Of course, given today's nationalist xenophobic right-wing, you could never get such a program started.) But I strongly disagree with Brown's contention that PC itself is basically imperialist propaganda. In my experience (and I don't think it's absurd to generalize), volunteers are taking away a lot more life lessons than we are giving to our host villages.

    Brown says we should know more about a host country than the training gives. I'm curious as to where he's going to dig up dozens of Tswana (or Zulu, etc.) experts willing to live in abject poverty for two years in the USA. As far as Tswana experts, I suspect that SA20 represents ~10% of those people in existence now.

  3. i agree. for the most part. but with training--i think an issue is that they don't provide full time jobs. we could have had, like, university trained language instructors, or professors, if it $$ weren't an issue. i also think it wouldn't be crazy-difficult to get education system officials more involved with training. in any case, people who are capable of giving expert opinions is really crucial to us doing a great job, and i can imagine how that is possible, and it's nothing like the training we've received. i also aspire to become a foreign service officer. let's hope no one reads these comments :)
    have you read the latest kristof response? eish. mostly i just disagree with him, big time :)

  4. Yeah, anything would have been better than the training we got...they could have saved a lot of time by skipping the education part entirely. I don't know how they could have done better myself, but Jaysus I can't imagine them doing much worse. At least they could have thrown us into the schools.

    Yeah, another reason for a pseudonym, right? I'll check out the Kristof response.