What about The Death of Idealism
by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)
Meghan Kallman did do some research. Of the 240,000 + PCVs & RPCVs she managed to get 140 Vols to interview. She also sent a questionnaire to approximately 2,000 RPCVs. So, she had information on the Peace Corps from 1/2% of 1% of all PCVs over the last 59 years.
That done, and the few books she listed as having read, plus, I’m sure, her brief touring of three third world countries, visiting PCVs and Peace Corps Staff made her, she believed, qualified to write a book about the Peace Corps published by a major university press. Good for you, Meghan!
She did quote one of the architects of the agency, Harris Wofford . . . once. She also quoted Shriver . . .once. No one else among the founders who created the agency in 30 days did she talk to, read about, or study. To me, that’s like talking about architecture and tossing off, “Oh, and there was this guy Frank Lloyd Wright but I didn’t have time to read about him or his ideas.”
She does have 34 pages of notes (quite a few of her own writings cited) but doesn’t list any RPCV books that she read. She did read a few articles written by RPCVs. Also, she quoted Alexis de Tocqueville. (I’m not sure where he served as a PCV.)
So, you might ask: What did you think of the book, John?”
First, I am pleased that a young academic was interested enough to write about the Peace Corps. I give her credit for taking on that topic. It would have been better if she had been a PCV herself. But no one is perfect.
I am pleased that the book got her out of the classroom. (As a former VP at one of the colleges where I worked famously said, “Look, there’s a professor who can walk and talk at the same time.”)
Having been up-close and personal with the Peace Corps since 1962, as a PCV, Washington Staff, Associate Peace Corps Director in Ethiopia, then twenty years later back as manager of the New York Recruitment office, and also editor of six books, plus a novel about the agency, I do have a lot of opinions, many of which conflict with Meghan’s views.
The hardest thing for an outsider — like Meghan — is to recognize the shifts in the agency. The Peace Corps changes with every new generation. There is no “one” agency. What might be taken as “idealism” in one decade does not register with the next one.
I was a product of the “silent generation” and what Kennedy announced in his Cow Palace Speech had nothing to do with idealism. All anyone has to do is read his brief address. He was telling us that American diplomats were unprepared for their foreign service assignments. He was saying that “a peace corps” would educate Americans, help the United States, and place better-qualified people in the Foreign Service.
I happen to be at Kennedy’s midnight address to the students at the University of Michigan. Out of the Air Force, back in graduate school, and working for a radio station, I was covering the event as a newscaster when Kennedy “challenged” the students to get involved with the world beyond the United States.
Kennedy would later tell Harris Wofford that he wanted 100,000 Volunteers to serve in the Peace Corps each year. Why? Because, as he told Wofford, they would return home with a better understanding of the world and make more intelligent foreign affairs voting decisions.
The Peace Corps for Kennedy, Shriver, and the architects of the agency wasn’t about idealism. It was about service and education. Our education.
PCVs over the decades didn’t change the world or save the world. They joined the agency for a “grabbag” of reasons.
I wanted to be a writer. I wanted something to write about. Others went to avoid the draft, to have an adventure, to follow the woman or guy they loved or joined because they didn’t know “what the hell they wanted to do with their lives.” Other older Americans joined because they had turned 65, had retired as teachers, and now wanted to do something different and see the world before they died.
I never met anyone who, as if it were a religious oath, joined the Peace Corps to save the world.
That said. The Peace Corps changed us. Most of us were changed for the good, but not always. Certainly, we came away from the experience thinking we were the ones that were profoundly changed. That is true. But I have also heard endless stories from host country nationals who look back at their Peace Corps teacher, Peace Corps friend, Peace Corps co-worker and tell me of some event or incident, some classroom session, some encounter that changed their life as well and they are a better person, have a better life, because once a long time ago, they met an American who was in the Peace Corps.
The agency was never about idealism. It was never about changing the world. It was about all of us going into a foreign country, not with an army rifle, but a handshake, and asking a stranger if there was anything we might do to help them.
Let me close with one story about a PCV. It says what we were all about, years ago and today. It sums up our innocence, goodwill, and can-do attitude.
It happened in Chile back in 1961, in the first days of the agency, in an indigenous village 40 miles from where this Volunteer was stationed. The PCV was Tom Scanlon.
The village was up a long, winding road which Tom traveled four times to see the community leader.
Each time, the leader avoided seeing him. On Tom’s final try, however, the leader relented.
“You’re not going to talk us out of being Communists,” he told Tom.
“I’m not trying to do that,” answered Tom. “I only want to talk to you about how I can help.”
The leader stared at Tom and then answered.
“In a few weeks, the snow will come. You’ll have to park your jeep 20 miles from here and come through five feet of snow on foot.” He paused then and stared at Tom, then said, “The Communists are willing to do that. Are you?”
When a friend visited Tom several days later and asked him what he was doing, Tom just replied, “I’m waiting for snow.”
That’s the Peace Corps. That’s what we all were and what we are today. Give us a job and we’ll try to do it.
Why don’t you join, Meghan, then you’ll have a real book to write.