Innocents Abroad: Teachers in the American Century
by Jonathan Zimmerman (Nepal 1983-85)
Harvard University Press
$45.00 (hard cover), $23.00 (paperback), $12.60 (Kindle)
Reviewed by David Espey (Morocco 1962-64)
TAKING HIS TITLE FROM Mark Twain’s nineteenth-century account of American tourists in Europe and the Mediterranean, Jonathan Zimmerman surveys the experience of American teachers abroad in the 20th century.
The title is both apt and misleading: American teachers abroad were, as Zimmerman shows, quite innocent (or ignorant) of the world – especially the Third World, as the former lands of European empires came to be called. And yet, unlike Twain’s innocents, American teachers had to live and work in the kinds of places that tourists briefly and casually passed through. Teachers’ encounters with foreign cultures changed them; their developing realization of what the word “culture” means, in the anthropological sense, is a major focus of Zimmerman’s book.
A century, especially one like the twentieth, is a long time. It has been called the “American Century” – Zimmerman borrows the phrase coined by Henry Luce, indefatigable American booster and guiding spirit of Time Magazine. The book begins with a group of American teachers embarking for the Philippines in 1901, after the American takeover of the islands from the Spanish. It criss-crosses the century, sampling the experiences of American teachers (most of them missionaries and later Peace Corps Volunteers) as World Wars I and II, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the fall of the Soviet Union come and go. The book also turns like a kaleidoscope, visiting and revisiting teachers’ experiences in Hawaii, China, India, Korea, Iran, Tanzania, Nigeria, the Congo, Kenya, Chile, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Puerto Rico, Poland, the Virgin Islands, and Somalia, to name just a few. There is even a brief mention of Morocco, where I was a Peace Corps teacher in the early 1960s.
What enables Zimmerman, a Professor of Education and History at New York University, to control such a large canvas of time and space is his focus on the classroom and the experience of teaching – from philosophy to methods to discipline. What makes the prose so readable is his use of primary sources – teachers’ letters and memoirs primarily, but also quotes from educational administrators, both American and foreign, as well as historians, social scientists, and occasionally celebrities like Teddy Roosevelt.
The book is organized thematically rather than chronologically; a quote from a missionary teacher in Korea of the 1920s may be paired with a line from a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria in the 1960s. In Zimmerman’s words, the first part of the book, American Dilemmas, “describes how the teachers grappled with . . . instructional methods, school curriculum, and educational equality.” In the second half of the book, American Critiques, he explains “how teachers came to distrust or even reject popular American conceptions of teachers, of church-state relations, and of American foreign influence itself.”
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers may react to the book as I did. I was uneasy at being compared implicitly to missionaries. “All Americans are missionaries,” says one of the historians quoted in the book. But the Peace Corps Volunteer – especially in the early days – might be considered a kind of secular missionary. Zimmerman notes how Peace Corps/Washington would send visitors to training sites, to argue with Volunteers about capitalism vs. communism. (I remember our visiting “communist,” who pretended to be a true believer, in order to sharpen our skills at debating the virtues of capitalism and democracy.)
The book’s discussion of teaching abroad elicited my own memories of teaching [in Moroccan secondary school] come flooding back. The condescension of French administrators (“How can he teach English? He can’t even speak proper French!”) The struggle to teach without books. (“Repeat after me. ‘This is a desk.’ “) The insistence by the Peace Corps that besides teaching – or doing whatever job we were trained to do – we keep busy in every way possible: “Dig latrines! Start a film club! Learn Arabic as well as French! Coach a team! Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a 24-hour-a-day job!” (I remember a British volunteer teacher, responsible only for his job of teaching, being both puzzled and amused by the frenetic expectations the Peace Corps imposed on its volunteers.)
Zimmerman evokes these kinds of memories as he treats the issues of professionalism and teacher education, the American penchant for including sports and health education in the curriculum, the debate about the value of academic vs. vocational education, and the naïve assumptions about America as the exemplary culture. One accomplishment of the book is to put the phenomenon of the Peace Corps into the larger historical context of 20th-century empires and the exportation of American education.
Missionaries, as characters in colonial and postcolonial literature, are rather sad, ineffectual figures – often failures whether they are arrogant or meek. Zimmerman ignores fiction and documents the experiences of actual teachers in the classroom. His voluminous research shows in the 64 pages of single-spaced notes that follow the 223-page text. He relates the homegrown educational controversies in America to those experienced by American teachers abroad. Should mission schools accept government funding or observe the American tradition of Church-State separation? What constitutes professional preparation for teachers? Should black and white students – or even males and females – be educated together?
Zimmerman also comments ironically on the competition between Protestant and Catholics for heathen souls. (When I was teaching in the Congo in the 1960s, after my time in the Peace Corps, I could see the effects of this competition among my students. They were Methodist, Baptist, or Catholic, depending on which denomination had gotten to their tribes first, and their religious affiliation seemed as important to them as their tribal identities.)
Zimmerman shows how in the course of the 20th century, the erosion of Christian certainty among the more intelligent and sensitive of the missionary teachers parallels the erosion of confidence about asserting American values in traditional cultures. Many of those teachers returned to the U.S. with misgivings about their own cultural superiority. That’s another change many Peace Corps Volunteers could identify with.
Zimmerman closes by returning to later work by Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897), an account of his journeys to East Asia, India, and South Africa. The book appeared “on the eve of American’s own imperial war in the Philippines, which Twain would condemn for its duplicity and brutality.” By that time, Twain had shed much of the innocence of Innocents Abroad.
My generation of volunteers, for example, left the U.S. when segregation was legal in many states, Vietnam was a vaguely distant ex-French colony, and President Kennedy was still charming the press corps. We came back in the wake of the assassination, Civil Rights demonstrations in front of the White House, and the beginnings of the Vietnam War. ( I remember witnessing the first stirrings of anti-war protest in a conference of returned Volunteers organized by Peace Corps/Washington in early 1965.)
Zimmerman was in New York on September 11, 2001, and he concludes his book with some reflections on these lines from a speech by President Bush. “As long as the United States of America is determined and strong, this will not be an age of terror; this will be an age of liberty, here and across the world. (Applause.)”
For many of us who returned from the Peace Corps in the 1960s and watched the war in Vietnam unfold, the sense of déjà vu in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is inescapable. (For me that sense of déjà vu was particularly intense, since I got back from a year of teaching and lecturing in East Asia just a few days before 9/11). We remember another provincial Texan, President Johnson, making similar speeches while leading the country into a military venture that became a debacle in part because we didn’t understand the enemy whom we were fighting.
Zimmerman sees a similar kind of innocence in the speech of President Bush quoted above, an ignorance that can become a dangerous kind of arrogance.
The danger, Zimmerman explains, lies in presuming that “certain universal concepts — especially the basic equality of all human beings — [is] distinctly or even uniquely American. We mock and constrict this common human identity by linking it to our own narrow national aspirations.” Teaching abroad, his book shows, often led Americans to a deeper understanding of cultural relativity and the imperfections of their own society.
The book presumably went to press before the ignorance and arrogance of the Bush administration turned the Iraq adventure into the fiasco we are witnessing. Perhaps working abroad, preferably in developing countries, would have been an instructive experience for our current leader and those of his advisors who have led us innocently into another unwinnable war.
David Espey teaches in the English Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been a Fulbright Lecturer in Morocco, Turkey, and Japan.