Trying to find the ‘perfect’ Peace Corps Volunteer was a difficult task from day one of the agency. Shriver said early on, “there is no perfect Volunteer, unless you believe in the hazy concept of a perfect American.”
“Peace Corps Volunteers,” he said, “look like any Americans you might pass in the supermarket or like a neighbor who lives down the street. The average 24 years of age for men, 25 for women. The things that make them different from the average don’t show–their good will, their sense of adventure, their willingness to sacrifice for others and to work hard under difficult conditions.”
In the early days it was thought that Shriver’s ‘perfect’ PCV would be skilled technicians or people with two or three years of experience in an activity which would be of use in the developing world. But it quickly became apparent that experienced technicians would not be available in large enough quantities to satisfy the demand.
“For every blue collar sought,” said one Peace Corps recruitment brochure in the early days, “twenty shetland sweaters appeared.” Deluged with what was called, B.A. Generalists,” the Peace Corps selected them–(one was chosen for every ten that applied)–trained the B.A. Generalists in a skill and a language and turned them loose in the great big, awesome developing world –with remarkable results.
“We discovered,” said second Peace Corps Director, Jack Vaughn, “that the ’60s: the generalist–the liberal arts graduate with a decent education and lots of ambition was the ‘perfect’ PCV. At best, he resembled the Renaissance man–ground in spirit and judgment rather than versed in science. The highest skill for the Peace Corps Volunteer usually is his attitude.”
This attitude of the Volunteers surprised the cynics who said that young Americans were too soft to live out of the frontier of ignorance, poverty and disease. As one management expert who made long range studies for the Peace Corps of the Volunteer’s effectiveness put it: “Who else but the educated young generalist from the established middle class can take two years off, learn a new trade, work like hell, maybe live in a dump and not get paid much? He is the missing link in all our economic development efforts overseas. He or she is the missing link of our development efforts”
The PCVs may go abroad as the missing link in an economic development program —“middle level manpower” as they’d called in the government and the academic worlds–but they also go as students. Collectively, the Peace Corps experience has been the greatest eye-opening, mind stretching education any generation of Americans has ever had.
But individually, the Peace Corps experience has often meant two years in an isolated village high in the mountains, or lost in a teeming city slum to which thousands of people have migrated to escape the hopeless life of the village. Loneliness is the only return on his or her contribution and this contribution, as Sarge once said, “measured in the whole spectrum of the world’s difficulties, will probably cast only a sliver of lights—and that sliver may go unseen.”
Still the Volunteer’s contribution cannot be measured solely in terms of children taught, bridges built, roads laid, communities developed, people inoculated or crops harvested. “In 28 languages,” Jack Vaughn wrote in the early days, “the word for ‘stranger’ and ‘enemy’ is the same. But communications on a person-to-person level, the peoples of the world may one day eliminate the word and its negative meaning from their vocabularies. Communications, after all, can breed understanding. And understanding can breed peace. I like to think that is what the Peace Corps is all about.”
So, lets keep talking. And that’s one thing a B.A. Generalist is really good as….endling talking!