In the May 18, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer reviewed research on “Why children who are patient prosper.”

In an aside, he makes the following statement about one of the psychologists he is discussing:

A few years later, he was hired as a consultant on a personality assessment initiated by the Peace Corps. Early Peace Corps volunteers had sparked several embarrassing international incidents — one mailed a postcard on which she expressed disgust at the sanitary habits of her host country — so the Kennedy administration wanted a screening process to eliminate people unsuited for foreign assignments.”

I was struck by the comment for two reasons. First, the inaccuracy of the statement — the volunteer had written this:

The people cook in the streets.

The people eat in the streets.

The people do everything in the streets.

They even go to the bathroom in the streets.

Nothing in training could have prepared us for this!

No expression of disgust here.

Second, Lehrer’s comment reminded me of the powerful impact the postcard incident had on me. I used the postcard incident, sparked by my fellow Volunteer in Nigeria 1, as a metaphor in an article, Postcard Realities. The article is not directly related to teaching but it reflects the main theme of this Blog: seeing what we do and say from multiple perspectives.

Marjorie, my fellow Volunteer, wrote comments similar to what all of us had written on the message side of postcards. In fact, the beautiful sunsets on the picture side of the postcard provided us with the perfect foil to our own description of what we observed.

I have never seen a postcard in any place I have visited or lived in depicting a slum, a mosquito, gang violence or addicts shooting up, to name a few common sights in the world. So Marjorie, like most of us, wrote an alternative description of the picture side of the postcard on the message side!

To understand our teaching, we have to see how what we think we are doing — often like the picture side of the postcard — is different from the message side of the postcard — what we are actually doing.

I have attached a pdf of my article Postcard Realities.

John