Peace Corps and After

David Riesman suggests that the greatest impact of the Peace Corps may be in the United States when Volunteers return home from their two-year stint.

One of the great educative experiences in the Peace Corps is that of being faced with impossible tasks. It should be understood that the Peace Corps is no exotic junket, made socially defensible by primarily physical strenuousness. What it does do is put people into positions of awesome and complicated responsibility.

My experience with Volunteers is quite limited, and I cannot speak at all authoritatively about how they in their own great variety respond to the variety of demands the Peace Corps puts on them. I am sure that there are casualties: young men and women for whom the experience is one of unalleviated failure who return more defeated than they went, as ill at ease in Ethiopia as in America. Others learn to handle the inevitable failures better, partly because they have the happy prerogative of amateurs not to be required to succeed from the start and partly because Peace Corps service is seldom a single assignment, but rather an assortment of successive assignments. In the best case, Volunteers get experience in mastering new situations and in learning rapidly. In terms of developed needed lifetime habits of learning, I am inclined to think that it really doesn't matter much what one learns in this way, provided one gains increasingly the sense that one can learn and that one can go on learning and that one can do all sorts of things which seemed, to one's definition of oneself, out of the question. Being abroad for many Volunteers has liberated them from their earlier definition of what they were capable of.

Paradoxically, such definiitons can become especially constricting in precisely those American colleges and universities that have in recent years become the most academically oriented and demanding. For, in these institutions, students may feel that they must continue to play from strength, and to go on doing as impressively as possible the very kinds of things that in high school they had learned to do well enough. In a highly competitive setting, students may fear to try out things that they haven't done before, or haven't done welll. In other words, the better the educational institution, the more likely it is to give students the feeling that they are incompetent or mediocre, and that they are not really very brilliant--unless they are fantastically talented. If they are only moderately talented, say in the top one-tenth of one percent of the population, they are likely to come out with the feeling of being only first-rate second-raters. The Peace Corps and like experiences (ACCION, AFSC, PAPAL Volunteers, etc.) may give such students a second chance for self-confidence.

I suppose this is more the by-product of Peace Corps experience than a reason many students have to enter the Peace Corps. A more common but perhaps not unrelated reason is the increasing restlessness which one can observe among able and sensitive students, many of whom have been pursuing their studies under considerable pressure from about the sixth grade onward. At Harvard College, about seven-eighths of the students go on to some form of graduate or professional work; but at present, close to a fifth of the students drop out at some point for a term or more. They may take a job or wander about, possibly get their Army service over with, and then ordinarily they return with stronger motivation and refreshed energies, to graduate and to go on to the next step in their careers. Partly they seek to break the routine of study in this way, but many also want the opportunity for encounters with other kinds of people, other ways of life. Sometimes, of course, for both the students and non-students, the desire to press, extend, and expand oneself takes the form of experiments with drugs, drink, and fast driving, sexual conquests, and other understandable but seldom self-fulfilling ways.

Voluntary service, at home or abroad, is something quite different from these other adventur,es with implications that can last a lifetime. This is especially true among the relatively well-off Americans who have been denied the opportunity to extend themselves to the limit, other than in academic competition.

Thus, the students who work in mental hospitals, frequently while continuing their studies, meet an alien culture right here at home, which can be as terrifying and illuminating as any cross-cultural experience. Likewise, those who teach in a Freedom School in Mississippi or in a nearby slum may face dangers considerably greater than they would face in an overseas project. In all such enterprises at home and abroad, students can try themselves out in areas which are not primarily academic, areas where qualities of cooperativeness and human solidarity may be as relevant as ambition and keenness of mind.

I am not suggesting that voluntary service is anti-intellectual. On the contrary, I think that the Peace Corps Volunteers I have known have as a result of their experience abroad become more intellectual, and have often found themselves academically by discovering capacities and interests in themselves they did not know they possessed. Thus a group of Volunteers I recently had an opportunity to see at a Completion of Service Conference in Bogota felt they had become more introspective, more confident of their intellectual powers, and more determined to pursue further eductaion on their return.

These Volunteers, like most of those engaged in community development, had had to find their own jobs. Many had become self-trained anthropologists in villages whose complicated networks of influence, malice, and rare benevolence no one had mapped yet, and where any small mistake could have catastrophic consequences for the Volunteer and his project and perhaps for the whloe cadre of Volunteers. Even those who go out to apparantly more structured jobs, as teachers do, may discover that the schools to which they have been sent haven't been built yet, or have fallen in, or are embroiled in the kinds of struggles over authority that are not unknown in schools systems elsewhere. A change of government in a host country can topple a program, and indeed any one of a thousand things can go wrong, even in the most well-endowed society, and probably do go wrong in the areas where Volunteers work.

In a society where some pepole desperately want and need them, while others fear and resent them, they have perforce to become diplomats without portfolio, in a language in which they feel awkward, among customs easily and unkowingly violated. They can take nothing for granted, not the promises of officials, nor the smiles of their co-workers, nor yet their own reaction to occasions of betrayal, disappointment, or misunderstanding of their work.

For all this they have been badly trained. It is unlikely that even the best training programs could prepare Volunteers for the chronic emergencies and unanticipated obstacles they are likely to face abroad. Perhaps the early Peace Corps training programs whose Outward Bound components and intense lecture schedules resembled Marine Boot Camps were more helpful by virtue of their strenuousness and difficulty. The Volunteers who endured them may have gained self-confidence that they could endure still other hazards. Moreover, Peace Corps training programs bring together Volunteers from a wider variety of backgrounds within the United States than most of them have encountered hitherto. Their first experience with "culture shock" may occur at the training site.

But for college-age Volunteers, the physical hardships turn out not to be a problem: if anything, the reverse, since such hardships provide a self-evident obstacle and one that is readily surmounted. The graver hazards are emotional and inter-personal. They may include the risk to one's psychic balance of living at once alone and in a crowd for two years; the risk to one's self-confidence in encountering one's first significant failure after years of success at home and in school; the risk to one's sense of values of coming to question, in a strange environment, the virtues of democracy, charity, accomplishment, perhaps even life itself. The Colombia Volunteers reported how hard it had been to overcome impatience and not to demand quick results.

How do you train Volunteers for this? Freud once remarked that children are prepared for the tropics and then sent to the polar ice cap. He was talking about children in the comfortable classes who were sheltered in the Victorian era from any knowledge of sex or aggression. Young people in our own society are less sheltered in these respects on the whole, but they are often sheltered by our relative affluence, efficiency, and cooperativeness from what it is like to live in a world of peasant distrust, misery, and fatalism. And yet Volunteers do learn. Many in the Colombia group had begun with a somewhat romantic belief that poor people, such as peasants, were somehow nobler and better than middle-class Americans, while others had begun with the more characteristic almost unconscious pride in their Americanism. Experience seemed to have tempered the judgments of both groups, leading the first to a somewhat greater respect for certain American qualities and the second to a greater sym- pathy for Colombians (and other non-Americans). Many had come to a kind of patience, a new attitude toward time. They had come to accept the fact that the Peace Corps had been in Colombia for three years and the per capita income was down and the birthrate was up (neither the fault of the Volunteers). As suggested above, many had discovered capacities and interests in themselves that they had not known they possessed. From looking at their pre-Voluntter experience as well as from talking with them, I gained the impression that a number of them had become more sensitive, more aware of themselves and others--for in community development, the principal instrument one has to work with is neither a shovel nor a tractor, but one's self.

Whether the Volunteers' two-year period overseas can also be made more fruitful intellectually is an open question. I've already suggested that a number of Volunteers enter the Peace Corps because they want a moratorium from academic life, and perhaps also from introspection. Can one imagine for such people a dispersed university that would not seem too institionalized, too much a reminder of what has for the time being been left behind? It seems conceivable to me that one could find roving intellectual ambassadors and bring them into touch with Volunteers at different points in their trajectories. Some Peace Corps Representatives do serve this function, and do so at once with stimulation and without undue intrusiveness. But one might also find a few professors who would be willing to serve as mentors who could periodically help the Volunteers assimilate their own experience, to the extent that they might care to do so. These could be anthropologists familiar with the host country, as in the case of the wandering anthropologist in Ethiopia who encouraged a Volunteer there, bored by routine duties, to record and exotic African language; or they could be men with a particular interest in American values, such as myself, who could talk to Volunteers as I did in Bogota concerning the America they were returning to. Any such effort to make the Volunteer experience more intensely reflective will run into resistance both from the pressure of daily tasks and from any Volunteer's own wish to plunge into activity. For some Volunteers, the keeping of diaries might be a way to keep in touch with what is happening to them when they are of touch with the ordinary channels through which they shared experience back home. But other Volunteers might find the keeping of diaries a contamination of their relations in the host country. Only experiment can tell what might be done along these lines.