Margaret Mead Weights In

One of the seminal books on the Peace Corps was published in 1966 and entitled Cultural Frontiers of the Peace Corps. It is a collection of fifteen essays by social scientists who visit Peace Corps projects to observe and write about Peace Corps activities. It was edited by Robert B. Textor, who was then an anthropologist at Stanford and a consultant to the Peace Corps. Textor is important in Peace Corps history and mythology if only for drafting the original memorandum that detailed the “In, Up & Out” personnel policy of the new agency. I’ll discuss that in a later blog, but now I just want to reprint a quote from the Foreword  written by Margaret Mead who at the time was in Aghios Nikolaos, Crete. This was July 1965, very early in the life of the Peace Corps.

Mead writes in summing up her views of the Peace Corps: “…the Peace Corps is not an exercise in applied social science in the usual sense–as technical assistance missions should be, though often they are not. The Peace Corps is in fact an ethical enterprise, a way for an excessively fortunate country to share its optimism and generosity with parts of the world that, at a moment in time, are in need of what the Volunteers can best offer. Important as technical skills are, essential as job satisfaction is if the Volunteers are to make a solid contribution, these skills and the organization that makes job satisfaction possible are only vehicles for an activity that is important because it involves whole- hearted devotion. In this enterprise, social science skills–like the technical skills of pedagogy, engineering, nursing, architecture, agronomy, and so on–have a special part to play. But their impact is greatest when they are incorporated into the mental equipment of intelligent, educated men and women.  The strength of the Peace Corps lies in the way in which exceptional men and women, Volunteers and staff, have combined with many unexceptional and often quite unsuitable participiants at every level to make a success of a magnificent new conception.”

Recently I was interviewed by a writer doing a piece on the Peace Corps for the New York Times and he brought up the topic that has been the Achilles’ heel of the agency since day one, and that is: shouldn’t PCVs be more like AID workers?

I told the reporter that everyone who finds the Peace Corps wanting in one way or another should just off and invent their own form of foreign assistance, or join up with the UN Volunteers, or go with the World Bank (they’d get a much better living allowance, that’s for sure). But please leave the Peace Corps alone.  PCVs have been doing well enough on their own for close to fifty years, thank you. Let us keep limping along by ourselves. When we get to the finish line, we’ll turn around and wait for the other aid workers to arrive.

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  • Hello John, Aren’t you making a critical mistake in equating what happens with the PC Administration with the capabilities of PCVs in the field; essentially slamming the door on any suggestions for change and improvement, even as changing times mandate rethinking ? Or slamming the door on any examination of whether the recent graduates of 2008 are the same as those of 1962 ? Which they are not, in my opinion, any more than conditions in the world are unchanged from 1961. John Turnbull NMPCA Santa Fe

  • As a PCV in 1962, I was hearing the same arguments about what Peace Corps Volunteers really should be about, or qualified to do, etc., So, for me, this isn’t a new argument. The Peace Corps has changed in dramatic ways since March of 1961. To cite just two ways: 1) Training is done in-country and it much better than when we were all hosted at American colleges and universities. 2) More than 64% of the PCVs serving overseas in the Peace Corps are women. I am not quite sure of the figure from the early 60s, but my guess is that the number of women in the Peace Corps then was close to 20%. What the ‘development types’ want is another kind of agency–I’m not sure they will find the qualified applicants–but if they do something will be lost. We will wait and see what is gained.

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