Were You A Peace Corps Elite?

A few days ago, while on vacation, I read in The New York Times where the late senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has a book coming out of his letters. The book is entitled, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary. Public Affairs Press is publishing the book next month. The book was edited by Steven R. Weisman, a former reporter for The New York Times who is now the editorial director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Excerpts from this book appeared this week in New York magazine.

In his private–and not so private letters–Moynihan takes a whack at quite a collection of individuals and institutions. He didn’t like Hillary Rodham Clinton’s smugness, thought Spiro Agnew was a demagogue, and complained to Brooks Brothers about the holes in their socks. And then he wrote that the Peace Corps was full of elitists.

Well, that got my attention.

You’ve got to like Moynihan. While working for Nixon in the White House he received $5 from a man in Georgia who told Moynihan to get a haircut and complained that President (Nixon) was destroying “the white people of the South.”

Moynihan replied, “It would not be appropriate for me to use the money for personal adornment or otherwise, but I do mean to add it to my annual contribution to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.”

Anyway, back to the Peace Corps. In his letters, he described the Peace Corps as “a rip-off by the upper middle classes. Fortunes spent to send Amherst boys for an interesting learning experience in Venezuela,” paid for by “men equally young pumping gas on the New Jersey Turnpike.”

I’m not sure how Moynihan paid his way through college. He grew up in Hell’s Kitchen on the west side of Manhattan, a place so completely Irish, he said, that he didn’t really learn he was Irish until he joined the Navy. It was a tough place, Hell’s Kitchen, and I believe Moynihan’s father owned a bar, and that Pat worked there as a young kid before he went out to make his way in the world.

I have to check to see when that letter mentioning the Peace Corps was written by Moynihan, but before I joined the Peace Corps in 1962, I already had a variety of teenage jobs, from country club caddie to pumping gas, (in the Midwest, not New Jersey,) paid my own way through college, not Amherst or Ivy, but a mid-west Catholic college, and served a tour in the Air Force. No one would be wild enough or wrong enough to call me upper middle class or elitist, coming as I did off a family farm in Illinois.

In fact, when I page through the pages of the old mug book of the 275 plus PCVs who served with me in Ethiopia from 1962-64 I am struck how middle-American we all were, how few of us graduated from elite schools, and what a cross section of Americans we all were.

It is also interesting to note that the former Peace Corps Volunteers who have gone onto become directors of the agency did not attend ‘elite’ colleges. Carol Bellamy (Guatemala 1963-65) went to Gettysburg College. She is from New Jersey and I asked her once what her father did for a living and she said he had been an electrician. Mark Schneider (El Salvador 1966-68) went to Berkeley; Ron Tschetter (India 1966-68) went to Bethel University in Minnesota; and Aaron Williams,  (Dominican Republic 1967-70), our current director, went to Chicago State.

Not of these (with the possible except of Berkeley) rate as Ivy or near Ivy.

Pat Moynihan got a lot of things right in his life, but he was all wrong about who joins the Peace Corps.


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  • Daniel Patrick Moynihan calling anyone elitist is a bit like George Bush calling everyone stupid.

    I’m delighted to learn, however deductively, that Utah State University is an elite school. I’ll adjust my resume…

  • Attitude is the touchstone re elitism, therefore the good Senator was an elitist despite his upbringing. And I know many from Peace Corps days who attended so called “elite” schools who were right there in the trenches.

  • How in the world has the word ‘elite’ become a word we all want to run from? If ‘elite’ means ‘top of the heap’ why is that bad? I like to think of the Peace Corps as a ‘top of the heap’ organization, and therefore ‘elite.’ The same goes for some of my other affiliations ranging from The National Endowment for the Arts, the USMC, Procter and Gamble, and (must I admit it?) Yale University. Oh well, we’ll just have to find another word that we can use to show that at least on occassion we, too, have been ‘top of the heap.’

  • Not so quick. I would like to add m y comments because I think that Moynihan is correct..

    “Fortunes spent to send Amherst boys for an interesting learning experience in Venezuela,” paid for by “men equally young pumping gas on the New Jersey Turnpike.”

    First, my background. I was an Army brat, my father was born on a dirt farm, no running water nor electricity to illiterate, non-English speaking “resident alien” Slovaks. He was an excellent athletic and recruited by Ivy League alumni who went looking for the “bohunks” for their college teams. My dad graduated from Ivy League University of Pennsylvannia, and became career military. The military was the place of choice for minorities, poor, and men like my father who came from “non-elite” backgrounds. It was integrated, a meritocracy and placed a high value on training and education.

    The peace time military would have taken that young man, pumping gas on the New Jersey Turnpike, trained him, promoted him if he showed leadership skills, and when he completed his service, he would have been given the GI Bill…access to his first home and a college education. The miitary also offers professional education in exchange for service for doctors, nurses, and the members of the military academies. The military believes in the value of education and equality and opportunity. Its institutional policies reflect its instiutional values.

    The same happens with a war-time military, for those who are not destroyed by combat. (I will pause while all of who you have actually served in the military will expound about what your experience really was….etc.etc.etc. and how much I may not understand). I know what war does to people, even the winners.

    I wanted to be part of something different. I had a tutition scholarship and worked my way through CU/Boulder, and then joined the Peace Corps in 1963. Women with college degrees whose salaries were not needed by their families were absolutely members of an “elite group.”

    Men who had a college education and could afford to forgo a salary for two years were members of an elite group.

    We were overwhelmingly white.

    Peace Corps did not focus on recruiting minorities, or as importantly the poor. Peace Corps did not and will not offer any kind of education/professional training in exchange for service as the military does. From the beginning, it was apparent that the developing world had need of professional trained medical personnel, teachers, engineers, etc. The developing world is dark, not white. The target populations of the developing world are poor. Yet Peace Corps concentrated on recruiting the white and the educated. This group by definition is elite even within our own country.

    I have come to believe that Peace Corps, dominated by the Shriver cult, thought that the way out of poverty was to change attitudes and that white wealthy Americans could best model those changes. I believe that Peace Corps operatives believed in the myth of the “culture of poverty.” I believe that the attitude of “giving something back” and even the sense of “nobless oblige” dominates the Peace Corps. I believe that Peace Corps filtered out any information from the field which did not confirm those cultural beliefs. I think Moynihan was right. I believe that the Peace Corps institutional policies reflect its institutional values among which is white elitism. I

  • His remarks are the sort of off-the-cuff comments of an arrogant intellectual and a heavy drinker (the “Irish virus”).

    In 1965, he wrote a book about the black matriarchy in the inner cities, but never acknowledged that it also existed in rural white poverty-stricken areas, like Appalachia.

    As Nixon’s advisor, he also said that the Office of Economic Opportunity was promoting revolution in America. Nixon became so alarmed that he tried to abolish it; though the Hill stopped him because even they realized that the poverty programs, like Community Action, VISTA, Migrant and Health programs, and Foster Grandparents, really worked.

    While attending a White House Conference on Poverty, he did astutely observe on the second afternoon of the proceedings that poor people and rest of us are alike, except they have less money than we have.

    But, he is typical of many individuals who are widely read or in power, and become obsessed with their own self-importance and make inappropriate and hurtful remarks.

  • Patrick was known to “take a few” so sometimes the poetic license is taken, like ” pumping gas on the NJ Turnpike.”.he is obviousally not referring to Rutgers, the NJ State University, also known as the other Ivy because it was a state not a private college, and the site of the first Peace Corps Training project ,June 25, 1961 ,known as Colombia I.

    On November 5, 2010 the University is placing a commerative plaque at the site of the training on the Rutgers campus , followed by a banquet of the first volunteers ..It was on June 26, 1961, Shriver (Yale) flew from Washington to Rutgers” to get a first hand look at the volunteers” he saw 62 male, mostly white midwestern farm boy university graduates ( Michigan, Illinois, Indiana,Wisconsin), one all black college graduate( Lincoln University) and six hispanics from California, and one Ivy (Dartmouth.)

    50 years later,it’s a different mosaic with over 50% female Volunteers …same Mission…

  • David Gurr,

    I believe that there is some truth to what Moynihan said about War on Poverty “promoting revolution.” The following is absolutely only my opinion, based on working in some of the the early OEO programs.

    It set up what amounted to a competing government at the local level. Although there was much talk about “community action” and “power to the people,” particularly from the early Vistas, the control and the money rested with Washington. This caused frustration among minorities and poor when they began to realize that they did not have real political power. It also was frustrating to local elected officials because they could not control what was happening in their communities. In some cases, particularly in the South and Southwest, where minority poor had been disenfranchised, if the federal government had not had some kind of means of bypassing local government, needed services would never have been delivered to those who needed them.. However, the whole idea of community action where the “actors” could not access political power was a joke.
    That kind of frustration absolutely can lead to “revolution.” There was much talk about overthrowing “corrupt local officials,” but in the OEO programs, people were prohibited from participating in partisan political activity, which is the real source of power.

  • Wow, tthis poor boy from what was then and still today considered to be Washington DC’s worse neighborhoods, went from the “elitist” Peace Corps to the “elitist” Foreign Service. Is this a great country or what?

  • I’m impressed by this discussion and find truth in all sides (I must be a liberal).

    I have long thought that I got a lot more out of my Peace Corps experience than than I gave.

    Surely we are better off having a country some members of whose elite have served in the Peace Corps.

    It may be worth asking about the cost, but I do firmly believe that the kid pumping gas shouldn’t bear it. Moynihan surely knew there were other sources of money.

  • Here’s my take. I’m not sure what an elitist is. If an elitist is a smart, thinking person, then I see nothing wrong with being an elitist. If elitists think about how they can have experiences and do good things with their lives, then I see nothing wrong with elitists. If an elitist goes to a good school and then goes in the Peace Corps and lives at the level of a teacher or health care worker in a third-world country and helps people, I see nothing wrong with that. I think Americans should be happy to support such work. It pays off for everyone, including creating a much more positive view of America in other countries.

    Neither of my parents went to college. But I did, and I was happy to serve in Ethiopia for three years. Yeah, I graduated from Berkeley, but only after attending Long Beach City College for two years. I don’t feel bad about someone calling me an elitist these days either, as I see it as a sign that you carefully think about things and understand that we are an interdependent nation and world and to the degree we look out for one another, we look out for ourselves.

  • I think these comments validate Moynihan’s observations. Peace Corps recruiting, training, and programing does not reflect a belief that talent is equally distributed throughout the country regardless of income level or race/ethnic background. The requirement to forego two years’ salary is a huge barrier to participation for many people, regardless of talent, skill, or education. For fifty years, Peace Corps has failed to address the consequences of this barrier.

    Gaddi Vasquez was very concerned about the lack of minority members in the Peace Corps. He focused on recruiting in Junior Colleges specifically to attract minority Volunteers. I do not know how successful he was.

    I know nothing about Elaine Chao. I am familiar with the tradition, particularly for women in ethnic newly arrived communities, in which women are expected to get an education and then help support their families or work in the family business.

    Moynihan may also have been referring to the early Peace Corps staff, which appears to be heavily dominated by the Ivy League.

    I am surprised that the comments I have read here do not reflect an awareness of ourselves as representatives of a financial and educational elite. Am I wrong, that the comments seem to suggest that “if I could do it, anyone can.” I would think that RPCVs would be especially aware of culture, our own first and foremost.

  • George, I truely do not understand this comment.

    “It may be worth asking about the cost, but I do firmly believe that the kid pumping gas shouldn’t bear it. Moynihan surely knew there were other sources of money.”

    What other sources of money were there for someone who wanted to join the Peace Corps. I may well be ignorant of some program.

  • My experience of managing the New York Peace Crops Recruitment Office for five years in the ’90s was that college graduates who joined often carried tuition debts of close to 100K; they joined, and as PCVs did not have to pay back (immediately) what they owed.

    Having been successful PCVs many of them received scholorships for graduate school that were offered by universities ONLY to RPCVs. Graduate schools wanted RPCVs in the classrooms as they were 1) older; 2) brought ‘world experience’ to discussions.

    Also, in the ’90s, about 9-10% of all PCVs joined after the age of 50. Many, many of these PCVs were experienced teachers, newly retired, who saw the Peace Corps as their opportunity to travel, live overseas, and contribute their skills. The Host Countries loved them.

    The difficulty with community (and junior) colleges recruitment, while worthy, is that the PCV doesn’t have the age, maturity, or skills required for most Peace Corps assignments. Host countries are much more demanding today.

    Finally–from my own experience (way back in the dark ages of the agency)–I served with PCVs who did not come from money, and who had college degrees and little else. We also weren’t carrying the huge college debt that the majority of current student face today. It was a lot easier then to be a Volunteer.

    Unemployment is high among the “20 Somethings” today, and that is why two years in the Peace Corps–with full benefits and a readjustment allowance–is very attractive. Recruitment is running high for the agency. Women, especially, are finding it an attractive way to see the world. 64% of all PCVs are women. And that makes sense, as approximately 60% of all college students are women.

  • Thank you, John, for that insight. I did not mean to generalize, but rather speak to how barriers to particiaption do exist and their consequence for the demographics of the Peace Corps population.

    I would not be in total agreement with this comment of yours.

    “The difficulty with community (and junior) colleges recruitment, while worthy, is that the PCV doesn’t have the age, maturity, or skills required for most Peace Corps assignments. Host countries are much more demanding today.”

    And yet, the recent agency Assessment speaks, patronizingly, I believe, of PCVs who are young and have “no professional experience” and should be trained to acquire “low level skills.” This is how the agency characterizes the population which the agency expects to be Volunteers.

    Community colleges specialize in technical skills. It would seem to me that this is one area in which Peace Corps could be offering scholarships FIRST in needed technical areas, with service as a PCV AFTER the skills and education have been acquired.
    This is basically what the military does to accquire trained personnel for needed fields.

    Your observation about colleges and RPCV Fellowships and Scholarships is certainly accurate. However, this benefits the colleges, not the developing world. It is almost as if the developing world is used as an experimental lab where the soon to be PH.D. gathers a bit of real life experience and brings it home to the universities., where it can be properly “filtered.” I think that is backwards. I also think that this is the kind of observation which Moynihan was making.

  • Joey–I guess I wasn’t clear enough myself in what I wrote. I can see junior college graduates (now I’m thinking traditional age here) could be trained for the HIV work that the Peace Corps is doing overseas.

    But my major point is that the host countries are asking for higher and higher skills from the PCVs. They ‘prefer’ retired teachers, for example, and not 21 year old kids just out of college. They (host countries) aren’t looking to be “Labs” for Americans.

    Harris Wofford, back in the ’60s, was famous for calling the Peace Corps a ‘university in dispersion’ seeing the experience as educational FOR the PCVs. Kennedy told Wofford that he wanted 10,000 PCVs a year overseas because then THEY would come home and vote more intelligently on foreign aid issues. If you take the long view on the agency, you might agree with that. However, I haven’t see much in the way of wisdom within our foreign affairs coming from the 200,000 + we have produced.

    Most RPCVs will say they learned more than they gave. I think that is true. However, I wrote on this site months ago about running into a college professor from Ethiopia teaching in the U.S. who had been taught, and treasured, a PCV we all thought (when I was on the staff as an APCD) was a hopeless teacher. So, you never know what the ‘fall out’ has been from the experience.

    As for the recent Peace Corps assessment document. I read it and found it useless. I am quite sure it will disappear into some black hole filing cabinet within the building in D.C.

    The Peace Corps will never offer scholarships for junior college students. The money for the agency has never been spent in the US except for recruitment, and at this moment in time they can’t place the number of people who want to have one of those ‘toughest jobs you’ll ever love”…Americans who can’t find work themselves in the U.S.

  • John, I realize that you have far more experience than I both as a recruiter and as PC staff. I am just speaking from my observations and beliefs.

    Director Williams has been adament in asserting that the recent Assessment document has his unqualifed support and he will be implementing it fully. That is why the reference to “no professional experience” and “low level skills” is significant. Also, the report team did not query HCs about their needs. This did concern me. I think the assessment is an important document in that it reflects the values of this agency.

    Peace Corps at any point in its long career could have petitioned Congress for funding to offer scholarships to train technical and medical personnel in exchange for subsequent Peace Corps service. The model had long been established by the Public Health Service and the Military.

    Finally, it is not just recent college graduates who are looking for employment, but all kinds of people. Financial barriers to Peace Corps service remain. Talent is distributed equally throughout all levels of American society. Peace Corps policies do not reflect this belief, in my opinion.

  • Let’s get off the stick that the Peace Corps is saving the poorer peoples of the world from doom. We have been a mere drop in the ocean of aid needed to turn “developing” countries into “developed” countries. As far as I am concerned the Peace Corps is first and foremost a way for Americans to learn about other people and other people to learn about Americans. This can be done in rich or poor countries. You may be inerested in knowing that the DC public schools contract teachers from Spain to teach in DC schools. No, not Spanish,but all subjects.

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