Wofford Welcomes Specter into the Democratic Fold With Peace Corps Tidbit

In today’s (May 12, 2009) issue of Roll Call, Harris Wofford–architect of the Peace Corps and Senator from Pennsylvania from 1991-95– has an open letter to Sen. Arlen Specter welcoming him into the Democratic fold. “Over the yers I’ve appreciated your advice,” Wofford writes Spector, then adds with his typical humor, “even when I didn’t take it.”

Wofford then goes onto link Arlen’s shifting political parties to an old Peace Corps story. Harris recalls: “The current preoccupation with motives reminds me of a moment in the shaping of the Peace Corps in 1961 when Sargent Shriver assembled an eminent group of psychologists to develop a selection process for Peace Corps volunteers. We added respected Harvard University sociologist David Riesman.

“After listening to the experts propose tests designed to weed out volunteers who were not dedicated altruists and select only those whose motive was purely service, Riesman spoke up. “Stop it, you are trying to select saints,” he told the group. “Saints don’t need a Peace Corps, and the Peace Corps doesn’t need saints. It needs adventurous, intelligent, mixed-motive Americans who are ready for extraordinary challenges.”

So, I guess that’s why we got selected into the Peace Corps. We weren’t saints!

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  • Considering how fundamental this subject is, I’m surprised at the absence of comment.

    Who succeeds in the PC was something I’ve spent a lot of time pondering, in the early years when I served, and ever after. Admittedly the 1960s were a much different era, in almost all respects.

    What I concluded (as suggested above) is that the best PCVs seemed to have a mix of both altruism and self-interest. They were the ones who seemed to last.

    We had the super-altruists, who put a gloss on things, and confronted with realities, tended to become disillusioned. For instance, discovery #1 in Africa was that African kids rarely were fascinated with education, but instead were anxious to memorize their way to their “O-level”, and a job at the Post Office. Like every classroom there were the intellectually-curious, and they numbered about the same as in the USA, a small minority. There was nothing so discouraging to a PC teacher as when he/she was striving to inspire intellectual interest, and some kid would interrupt and ask “Is this on the syllabus ?” Altruism could fade pretty fast.

    On the other end, we had the purely self-interested, seeing what they could get from the PC experience. These seemed to lose interest within the first year. Among them also were a handful of folks avoiding the military draft, but I didn’t see all that many.

    Two years is a long time, at that stage in life (thinking of those in their early 20’s). I think for most of us, our thinking ranged back and forth from feelings of genuine First Goal accomplishment (and Second Goal learning), to feelings of exasperation (“What am I doing here?”), to feelings of near-desperation (“My life and career are slipping away, while I’m trapped here.”) We had to evacuate one such latter case, and everyone first, understood, and second wished we had spotted it a lot sooner. I’m glad I had the opportunity to witness it early-on, and be prepared, when similar feelings gripped me.

    What I found, in myself and others, was that with a mix of purposes, while one was down, you could emphasize the other, and generally keep a balanced frame of mind, and a decent disposition. It would be interesting to interview a bunch of RPCVs, and see if there is a predictable experience curve. I suspect there is. And then see how this correlates with overall memories years afterward.

    So, when young people ask me about reasons to serve, I’m not at all reticent about telling them that they SHOULD presume to gain something. After all, the Second Goal, is an obligation, and in my mind it takes many different forms. In this respect, in the early, Cold War days, the PC had it’s ideology, and part of that for African PCVs included the phenomenon of Apartheid South Africa, and a near-prohibition on travel there. All of us PCVs, in the best Second Goal tradition, wanted to learn about this first-hand, and the PC finally gave up discouraging us. (Hard to rationalize when ALL of the embassy staffs were down there regularly on R&R.) I hitch-hiked across South Africa, meeting all sorts of people, and seeing their interactions and circumstances, learning what could not possibly have been learned otherwise. And Sudafrikaners were interested in me, too.

    Many years later and based on that first-hand observation and experience, I became something of a expert on the subject, and frequently was asked to speak on the later Independence Movement, in all it’s aspects.

    In the 1960s the PC thought about Second Goal simplistically as learning about frying cassava, telling them about hamburgers, and perhaps careful forays into religious and social beliefs. Second Goal emphatically did NOT include learning about political goings-on other than what we might read in the gov’t-approved newspapers, and PCVs got bounced for making friends with opposition-minded Africans. Today South African independence is old news, and I give speeches about cassava, comforted knowing that the PC earnestly, and finally, approves.

    John Turnbull NMPCA Santa Fe (Ghana-3, Malawi-2, ’63, ’64, ’65)

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