One of the first books that I read back in September after being invited to serve in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua was a book called, The Gringo: A Memoir. It tells the story of a recent Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador and his (mis)adventures. One thing that struck me about his book was his criticism of the country staff, and I was worried that the country staff in Nicaragua would have a similar level of incompetence (luckily, my friend Mike Hendricks put that fear to rest when I met him for lunch in November. Mike and I went to college together and he completed two years of service in Nicaragua in November). The second thing that struck me from the book was what the author called “the pussification of the Peace Corps.”
Excerpted from chapters 5 of The Gringo: A Memoir, published December 2012 by Wild Elephant Press:
Before leaving for Ecuador, a friend back home introduced me to an older man who’d been a Peace Corps volunteer in Central America in the ’80s. In addition to serving there, he’d later lived in Ecuador for several years. One night in Boulder, we sat down over beers and he told me about his experience, including the horrors of what training was like in those days. He described a hard-core boot camp-like affair the Peace Corps used to weed out the weak. It even took place on a military base where they could see soldiers doing their own training on an adjacent field. (In those earlier days, training was held inside the United States, and upon swearing in, the volunteers flew to their country of service and went directly to their sites.)
In preparation for building latrines or digging wells in Central America, Peace Corps trainees had to repel down three-story buildings, take aerobic endurance tests, and do simulated drowning exercises. It was almost as if the Peace Corps’ intent, he said, was to get as many people to quit as possible. It was literally survival of the fittest.
When they weren’t being timed in the mile run or learning jujitsu or whatever else was included, trainees were constantly monitored by a team of psychologists. Holding a clipboard, they would come up to a trainee, stare at him or her for several seconds, jot down a few notes, then walk away.
Some trainees cracked. Perhaps they couldn’t take the physical endurance or maybe it was the psychological scrutiny, but in the middle of an exercise, they would announce that they’d had enough and it was the last that anyone would see of them. Most, however, passed. They made it through training, swore in, and departed for their country of service, where they practiced a grand total of zero of the martial expertise they’d acquired in the several weeks prior.
With that in mind, I went into training prepared to kick ass. In a matter of minutes, however, I discovered that training in the twenty- first century Peace Corps had about as much in common with boot camp as did a chapter meeting for the local Cub Scouts. The gradual pussification of the Peace Corps in recent decades had caused a 180-degree turn that took training from a genuinely rugged ordeal to something like college orientation, only lamer.
So, here we are in the giant concrete building for our training sessions, where we sit on campfire-style benches and start the day off with a group sing-along.
Here we are treated to a puppet show explaining what we should do in the event of a volcanic eruption (a serious possibility in Ecuador, which has had notable eruptions as recently as the late ’90s). Trainees laugh and clap and take pictures while the trainees-cum-puppeteers show off their best Elmo voices. Raucous laughter continues as a gang of talking sock hands describe how quickly we might suffocate on ash or lose our legs to highly viscous molten rock. It’s a real gas.
Here’s a series of interpretive skits to illustrate what we should do preceding an evacuation scenario (the exact type of event, in other words, that had led to my being there instead of in Bolivia). Inner Peace Mark demands that we sing our script to the melody of Bill Joel’s “For the Longest Time.” (We absolutely nail it.)
Here we are in small groups breaking into song and dance again to present reports of the mini projects we’ve done in our training communities. (The winning group got to perform in front of the ambassador.)
Here we are treated to an impromptu crazy dance party, before 9 a.m., and our language facilitators dress up like clowns and spray us with confetti and glitter. (I later find out this is somewhat of an Ecuadorian tradition, but still.)
Here we are standing in a large circle for a diversity session and taking turns explaining what makes us different. One trainee says, inexplicably, “I am Hispanic, though I have the good fortune not to look it.” Luckily, the Ecuadorian language facilitators don’t hear it, but the few Hispanic Americans in our training group do (and will remain perplexed and offended by the comment, even over a year later).
Here we are beginning the day with a game of Simon Says and the loser has to get up in front of the group and sing.
Here we are playing a version of hot potato for an information session on human trafficking.
Here we are making not an actual composting toilet, but a scale model of one, using nearby sticks and twigs.
Here we are baking cake with our language facilitator.
Here I am asked to dress in feathery chaps and a cowboy hat to help with an indigenous dance routine for a session on Ecuadorian culture.
And eventually: Here we are having our names pulled out of a hat and announced like we’re contestants on The Price Is Right. Here we are running over rose petals and through a tunnel formed by human arms. Here we are getting handed an envelope with our names written decoratively on the outside and our site assignments written on the inside. Here we are bursting through the tunnel toward a sign that says, “How Far Will You Go?” Answer: ten feet away toward a giant map of Ecuador taped to the floor where we stand on our cor- responding part of the country. Here we are catching our breath and brushing off the rose petals as we find out where we’ll spend the next two years of our lives.
I would be heading for the coast, which in Ecuador referred not just to the beaches, but to the entire western third of the country–a humid flatland squeezed between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean.
Luckily, training in Peace Corps Nicaragua is not this bad (although the big reveal of our sites was nearly as dramatic, but we tend to egg on Diego, our training manager, to make his PowerPoints as over-the-top as possible). I also don’t want to just criticize, since the President of Wesleyan did a number on criticism today in the NY Times, so I’ll talk a little bit about the philosophy of the Peace Corps here for a second, then I’ll get to my complaining about training.
The Peace Corps fancies itself a development agency, and we receive plenty of sessions on the Peace Corps’ approach to development and the roles of the volunteer in development. And this approach, as they call it, is community based. While other development agencies come in, do their work, and leave, we leave with the people for two years, while we work in development. And I can see how this makes a difference. We really do integrate into the community. A few weeks ago I was invited to a Quince Años fiesta for a friend of my host family. And at the party were two of my students. Not only did I get to celebrate with them, I also got to meet their families as well. I think it meant a lot to the kids and their families to relate on a very social level with this pelon chele that before then just showed up now and then in their classroom and taught them business topics.
The second part of the Peace Corps’ philosophy is non-formal education. Since we are entrenched in these communities around the world, they figure the best why to go about developing them is by developing the people, often in a non-formal manner. This means everything from educating adults, giving non-formal talks on topics such as personal finance, or organizing youth groups and teaching the youth through activities. The Peace Corps pretty much disdains traditional lecture-based classroom style education, and emphasizes, profusely, dynamic, activity based learning activities. And this is what the author referred to as “the pussification of the Peace Corps.”
A currently serving Volunteer, while giving us Trainees a talk on working with Nicaraguan teachers, recommended that we read a book called Pedagogy of the Oppressed by the Brazilian Paulo Freire. He had read it and he said that it was enlightening for him to understand how the impoverished internalize and rationalize their situation. He also mentioned that a lot of the Peace Corps’ official training material, such as our training guide called “Non-Formal Education,” was based, in part, on Freire’s philosophy. So I got myself a copy of the book for my Nexus 7 and began to read it.
The author makes no attempts to hide his overt Marxism. And that was what surprised me the most! The ideology of an agency of the United States government is explicitly based on Marxism. If the Republicans in Congress found out that the Peace Corps is a secret arm of Obama’s socialist agenda and that the majority of Peace Corps Volunteers are liberal women they would have an ape-shit field day.
But setting aside the politics of it all, Pedagogy of the Oppressed has a compelling message. Basically, it says that traditional teaching, where the teacher tells and the student is expected to learn, is oppressive, because then the student is only expected to know what the powerful want for them to learn, and this allows the powerful in society to perpetuate their oppression. Instead, teachers need to pose questions to students about their condition and what they want to know, so that together they can embark on a journey of learning that will liberate the oppressed and abate the desire for the powerful in society to continue to oppress. For any of my friends that also know Larry Aaronson, he told me that Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “is my bible for my pedagogy.”
So now we can see why over the years the Peace Corps has “pussified.” In defining itself as a development agency with its unique approach it adopted an educational philosophy that is soft. And surprisingly, I’m even finding myself compelled to parts of the philosophy and approach. Now don’t get me wrong, I found the interpretive dance explaining community mapping utterly useless (not kidding here folks), but well thought-out classroom activities with students that are compelled to the subject can be more beneficial than just telling students what you think is important for them to know. And if anyone wants to now start making fun of me for turning into a Peace Corps granola hippie in two months, I can give you some fuel for the fire: I’ve read this one Marxist text, I’m starting on One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse, a seminal Marxist text, I’ve got The Communist Manifesto cued up on my Kindle, and I have grown a beard (and I look good, too).
So when I set out to write this article I really just wanted to complain about all of the stupid training activities I have to do this week, but I’ll spare you. One of the activities is a presentation on the Peace Corps’ approach to development and how it will guide us as Volunteers. Ironically, I’ve basically just accomplished that in this blog post (or at least the exact opposite). Nevertheless, the Peace Corps has been pussified, and I can see why. Luckily, if all goes well I will be sworn in as a Volunteer and I will be able to put all of this behind me and just do my thing in León. I’ve also been thinking a lot about my time as the Head Counselor at camp. Whenever I would plan counselor trainings with Andrew and Ali my approach was cold. Give them the information, make them sit through it, and then let everyone get out of there. But now I see that alternative approaches, especially those in which the counselors determine and define what they want to learn, could be very beneficial.