Mar 20, 2010

Saturday wall of text: what is the point of Peace Corps?

This is a question I suspect is on the minds of many volunteers in South Africa—what the hell am I doing here? It’s a difficult question in the abstract, not least because there are dozens of countries involved, each with its own training program, staff, and host country support. I’ll start with the training program—is Peace Corps sending adequately-trained volunteers to their permanent site?

From some conversations with volunteers that have served in other countries, I suspect the training program in South Africa is much worse than average. This is especially true of the language training, which I would compare to a semester or two of a decent high school language class—not remotely enough to carry on a normal conversation, barely enough to make your needs known. Volunteers in Spanish and French-speaking countries described their language training as much more difficult, immersive, and effective. The education section, while also horrible, I can’t really imagine being much better, given that teacher training is a thorny problem with no clear-cut solution.

So the Peace Corps training program is a bit hit-or-miss. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that South Africa is representative and Peace Corps has lousy training. Is there still a value in dropping basically green Americans into a village somewhere alone to sink or swim? There is.

Now, I don’t think the Peace Corps was created with the stated ideals in mind. I think (like most diplomatic organizations) it was created to serve the national security objectives of the USA, just in a gentler and less aggressive way than others (like the Army). I don’t think it’s coincidence that aggressive chest-thumping warmongers (like Bush II) tend to neglect the Peace Corps, while canny old-fashioned internationalists (like Bush I and Obama) tend to support it.

Yet I think that by placing idealistic, (mostly) young American throughout the globe the Peace Corps does a great deal of good, if almost by accident. Probably the most tangible benefit is a critical does of internationalism and language skills into our incredibly parochial country. When I said I was going to South Africa, people would say, “Well what country in South Africa?” or start making clicking sounds, or say “I hope you like eating grasshoppers.” After awhile though, they would get out maps and start googling things—learning a little about a subject that they would never have encountered otherwise.

A second, smaller benefit is placing a real live American in a village to dispel some of the myths about Americans. The reason I say this is smaller is that in my experience people tend to cling to their prejudices about Americans like barnacles. Where I might reach 30-40 people with this blog and my emails, people who probably don’t have a lot of preconceptions about the Tswana people, I’ve made maybe 3-4 close friends in the village who might actually believe what I say. The rest just keep thinking that I’m incredibly rich and know movie stars.

The third benefit is to the host country in the form of lives changed, kids taught, libraries or schools built, etc. I have seen volunteers with no training in international development doing astounding things with their communities and leaving having made a huge difference and been changed a great deal for the better. By getting out of the way, by letting motivated people improvise their own solutions for things, Peace Corps is one of the better development organizations.

A side note: I’ll be honest—I don’t think I’ll ever be one of “those” volunteers. The ones speaking their language like a native, intergrating fully into their community, etc. There are a lot of reasons for that: laziness, a host family that seems to be disappearing before my eyes, a bad case of jaded cynicism and hostility, and a dying village. I’m too stubborn to do anything but stay so long as I’m not really unhappy or in extreme danger.

Besides, I’m not unhappy. I do believe that this will be a valuable experience—I’m certainly learning a lot about the world and myself. (With as cranky and contrarian as I’ve become now and my festering dislike for all things sentimental, I shudder to think of myself at 50. Who will be able to stand that?) It just won’t be the transformative experience I was half-hoping for.

Anywho, I believe that even given its obvious shortcomings, Peace Corps is still a worthwhile organization. It's a huge plus for the USA, obviously, but even on the development side I believe it's doing some good. Development is an extremely challenging problem, and on balance Peace Corps is a net positive in a sea of shitty organizations.


  1. Good stuff! Teacher training, huh? I think one major problem is that a lot of times people assume the goal of education--today it's passing tests, same as RSA--and then act like they can't figure out which teacher is better when the teachers excel at different things! Give me 100 people with the same opinion about the purpose of public ed, and I bet those same 100 can figure out what kind of teacher they want.
    I've written a little about this in one pub and in my diss if you're interested. I think there is a "natural" component, but I think there's also experience, which is in a context for achievement. That is, the teacher needs to work at it for 5 yrs with an understanding of what the goals are for the classes, and with some appreciation for those goals--if not total appreciation. Or else intellectual/emotional equipment for the battering NCLB and OBE do to people who, as often as not, entered a field to change kids lives, and then are suddenly put into a socioeconomic context where their job has a lot more to do with tests than student flourishing.
    As a side note, one reason I was scared of PC is that Teach for America does intend to show up public education and the establishment of public school teachers. See, anyone can do it! Yes, but. The anyone is healthy, young middle-class people who do NOT plan to work at that school for the rest of their lives.
    I'm assuming I won't see ya this next week. Shame! If you ever cross the N4 you need to look us up. :)

  2. I'd be super-interested to see some research on the subject. As a science major, obviously I'm kind of blowing out my ass here. Battering is the right word for the NCS juggernaut, and I was surely blindsided. There's got to be some way to get ready for that at least a little bit.

    I know a bunch of people in Teach for America, and while that program seems to have its own problems (like insane amounts of secrecy) I don't think I would quite characterize it as trying to show up the public education system. Sure, they seem to think that anyone can be a pretty good public school teacher (setting aside their like 50% dropout rate), but so long as they just kill themselves at the job. It's definitely not a sustainable project, and not something to be "scaled up" to solve all education woes--it's ridiculous to expect someone to work 80 hours a week teaching public school; one should be able to have a life as well.

    But, as kind of a band aid on really bad schools, I think it's doing some good in a real-time sense. Their statistics are pretty impressive, anyway.