Why Outsiders Have No Place to Judge Peace Corps

Found this through another person’s blog and I think it’s definitely worth a re-post. An article written by Peter Hessler in the New Yorker, appearing in March 2010. Definitely a good read for other Volunteers and anyone with any kind of interest in Peace Corps.

Here’s a one-word language test to measure whether someone really knows a foreign country and culture: What’s the word for doorknob? People who have studied a language in a classroom rarely know the answer. But those who have been embedded in a country know. America would be a wiser country if we had more people who knew how to translate ‘doorknob.’ ”
—Nicholas D. Kristof, in “Teach for the World,” a recent column for the Times

My first response to this column was: How the hell do you say “doorknob” in Chinese? I spent two years in China as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching at a college in a small, remote city called Fuling, and then I stayed in the country for another eight years as a journalist. (My book “Country Driving,” published last month, describes some of what I learned there, particularly about China’s new relationship with the car.) I always conducted my interviews in Chinese, but when it comes to doorknobs, I’m completely lost.

I’ve long believed that Nick Kristof’s internationalism represents a bright spot in American commentary, but there are limits to the routines of a journalist. And that was my second response to the column: What exactly does Kristof know about teaching in a developing country, or about the Peace Corps? After describing the Peace Corps as a program that was thrilling “a generation ago,” he proposed a new initiative that he calls “Teach for the World”:

In my mind, Teach for the World would be a one-year program placing young Americans in schools in developing countries. The Americans might teach English or computer skills, or coach basketball or debate teams.

The program would be open to Americans 18 and over…. The host country would provide room and board through a host family. To hold down costs, the Americans would be unpaid and receive only airplane tickets, a local cellphone and a tiny stipend to cover bus fares and anti-malaria bed nets. This would be a government-financed effort to supplement an American public diplomacy outreach that has been eviscerated over the last few decades.

A couple of days later, Kristof clarified his complaints about the Peace Corps in his blog: “The problem with Peace Corps is that the 27-month commitment is a major deterrent for young people…. And PC is often aimed at somewhat older folks rather than young college graduates whose lives are at a turning point.” By then, John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer who teaches at Georgetown, had weighed in with his own opinions about the Peace Corps. In the Huffington Post, Brown described volunteers as “résumé-driven, undereducated provincial American BAs with, all too often, little or no knowledge … even in teaching (or speaking) their own native language.” He explained:

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 [sic] 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).

Peace Corps volunteers are too old for Kristof, too young for Brown; they’re “parachuted” in but they stay too long. What is it about the organization that makes outsiders respond in totally different ways, and why, after nearly fifty years, does it remain so poorly understood?

For the rest of this article written by Hessler, click here. It’ll be worth your time.


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