Ordinary Americans had rarely been trained systematically for service overseas. As assistant Secretary of State Harlan Cleveland pointed out in his study, “The Overseas American,” attempts at orienting Americans to overseas service had usually been casual and totally inadequatee. As a result many Americans living abroad, whether privately or as officials, had not had a real understanding of the society in which they found themselves. Fewer still had learned the local language. These were the errors the Peace Corps resolved to avoid when they began Peace Corps Training in the summer of 1961.
When the Peace Corps was established on March 1, there were few guidelines on how to train PCV effectively for service in the Third World.
Faced with this dearth of precedents, Associate Director Larry Dennis sponsored a series of Peace Corps Institutes which brought people together from Government agencies, universities, foundations, business, labor and professional and academic societies. These people brought their experience to bear on the generalized problems of training for overseas service. Conferences were next convened to discuss how to train Volunteers for service in particular nations of Asia, the Far East, Africa and Latin America.
Special conferences were also held to gather advice on how to train Volunteers in foreign languages, area studies, health orientation, physical conditioning. American studies, international affairs, community development and certain specified technical skills.
Just as with the selection program, busy men and women cancelled meetings to rush to the Peace Corps on short notice and to spend week-ends and nights in discussions about how to best possible training could be compressed into the shortest period of time.
For some projects (such as those in Ghana and Tanganyika), most, if not all, of the area specialists in the United States attended the general meeting, breaking up into night-long subcommittees to discuss particular points, and convening again to write outlines of suggested study programs.
At the same time, the Training Division catalogued the capabilities of all American universities. Training officers asked themselves, for example, what university or college would be best suited for training Volunteers headed for Thailand?
The ideal university for this project would need facilities for training teachers of English as a second language, technical and trade-industrial school instructors, university instructors in scientific and professional fields as well as entomologists and laboratory technicians; would have to be able to teach the difficult Thai language, provide an atmosphere conducive to the study of Thai culture, and have a strong American studies department.
Such an ideal place was located: The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. This University had had long and close ties with Asia dating back more than a century. Its campus included the center for Southern Asian Studies as well as the English Language Institute, the pioneer center at the time for the instruction of English as a foreign language. Approximately 40 Thai citizens lived in Ann Arbor–the great majority of them students at the University. Therefore, training demands were fully met.
This example of a ‘perfect place to train PCVs was repeated with various degrees of success at colleges and universities across the country.
But that all said, the Peace Corps, of course, had their own way of looking at Training. For example, how to teach English. In a 1997 interview I did with Warren Wiggins and he talked about how the early Peace Corps staff approached the academics.
“We were amateurs,” said Warren. “All the Charlie Peters, the Bill Haddads, the Woffords. We were a group of people who were amateurs in the business of being a government agency that ran volunteers.
“We paid no attention to the hierarchies of professionalism. For example, we wanted to teach English as a second language. We called in the national association of teaching English as a secondary language and said we needed training programs. They were all excited by this and said we needed to train for two years.
“We told them we didn’t have two years. They finally cut it back to 18 months and said they couldn’t be responsible unless the Volunteers had 18 months of training. We said four months is the max, and we’re going to teach a lot besides teaching English as a second language. They left and we never paid attention to them again.
“Being anti-establishment, amateurish, anti-professional was a big thing in the success of the Peace Corps, and in the building, if you will, of an institution. We were also value driven. We put values very high in every decision and anybody who couldn’t shape up left.”