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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