Cynical Optimism

As part of my preparation, I’ve also been hunting down some more negative reviews of Peace Corps. I had read Village of Waiting a while back, and posted my review of it. Here are a couple other more negative articles I just read, for the sake of full disclosure: here and here.

But of course, even reading this, I plan on going into PC. I wholeheartedly accepted my invitation and look forward to the next couple of years, difficult though they may be. And perhaps even ineffective as they may be. Why?

First, much idealism is misplaced. People don’t often do great things – and those that do, are often assassinated or endure years of imprisonment in the meantime. Doing something small is the best that we can hope for. This is a lesson I learned hard from university teaching, even here in the US (and while we usually don’t have the problems of corruption that one sees endemic in much of the rest of the world, Marquette had all the problems of overadministration and fruitless bureaucracy one could hope for). So there is nothing to complain about when one finds that only small projects succeed, or that most of a classroom is unruly.

Second, human beings take as much power as they can get and do whatever they can with it, to either cover up mistakes or to benefit themselves. Of course I hate what people do with power. But when I’m truly honest with myself, I’m not sure that I would do better in their position. It’s part of being civilized apes. This is the actual world we live in. And we only succeed by responding to the world as it actually is. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and so on are only remembered as great because society around them sucked and they took that suckitude seriously. If we can’t find something to do in the midst of corruption and ineptitude, then we can’t actually do anything to help the world when and where it is needed most.

Third, failure is instructive. If I spend two years not getting through to anyone at all, then I plan to document and study those two years the best I can. I am a researcher and I plan to use that skill. I have benefited from hearing about the problems I will most likely face. I plan to make my problems clear to others so that they can build the next step. Two years of “failure” would just be two years spent figuring out a solution. Since we all only make small contributions to the world and since all real change takes time and preparation, such a study is just as important as anything else. After reflection, I have learned much from my failure as a university professor, perhaps much more than I would have from a year of success.

Fourth, there are three main goals of Peace Corps. Only one is development of the community. The other two are teaching people here in the US about the culture I’ll be entering (a primary function of this blog), and teaching people in that culture about the US. I hope to leave a mark on the community – that would be fantastic. But something is still gained by learning about how another section of the world lives and works. Culture isn’t all music and dancing. Sometimes it is alcoholism and poverty. But in learning that, I can decide to do something about these issues in the rest of my life. Following one’s passion on its own is silly and self-indulgent. Follow where your interests, your ability, and some need intersect.

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2 responses to “Cynical Optimism

  1. Michael I always enjoy reading your posts. You will not face failure as long as you stick to why you are there. It is not power that leads to failure it is taken that power and trying to change people to agree with you. The power can be good or bad but once we try to force people they rebel. It is the way we are. So if you stick to why you are there you will reach many. And as I said in a previous blog you may not see the change but it did happen. So when your time is up and you come home. There will be so many lives you have affected and so many people that will remember you all of their lives.

    • Well, there certainly are stories of posts that are recalcitrant to change, and to classrooms that go into chaos when they find out that the teacher won’t whip them, or sites that just weren’t set up effectively for a volunteer to get anything done. Sometimes a butterfly flaps its wings and a tornado happens; sometimes a tornado starts to form but the resulting gust only flaps a butterfly’s wings. When you have lots of variables, people, institutions, it can go either way – revolutions happen that are forgotten to history, and small kindnesses produce some of the greatest revolutionaries. Change in the world isn’t up to me, so I don’t want to pin my hopes on it; but I can pull something out of any situation that I can use in making myself a better instrument.

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