Peace Corps Writers
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By Fritz Fischer
Smithsonian Institution Press, $27.95
200 pages

Reviewed by Bob Cohen (Nigeria 1962–64; PC/Staff Liberia 1965–67, PC/W 1968)

I defy any RPCV who served in the 1960s to read this book without having strong reactions to it.
     Fischer has rummaged through PCV diaries, PC/Washington archives, and evaluation reports. His other sources are: Smithsonian Anthropology Archives, National Archives, and the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan.

New Frontiersman
His thesis is that PCVs of the ’60s rejected the “new frontiersman” image of the founders. And once in the field, “in the two most widespread job classifications in the Peace Corps — community development and teaching — rejected liberal development ideas and replaced them with ideas of task-oriented work and cultural awareness.”
     No doubt one can find some evidence to support this thesis, which Fischer does. He assembles his case with carefully chosen material from diaries and other documents.

Simplistic presentation
This reader finds Fischer’s presentation simplistic. Certainly PCVs didn’t go into the field self-consciously as “cold warriors,” nor, for all their youth, did they harbor illusions that they would see their efforts at “development” blossom under their eyes. From my own experiences as a PCV in Nigeria (1962 to ’64), a staffer in Liberia (1965 to ’67), and a training director stateside (1968), I did not see PCVs driven by “ideas” at all. They neither accepted nor rejected the intellectual framework that Fischer implies.

Small-scale goals
Those of us who found value in our work enjoyed it despite its frustrations. Because of the challenges, our rewards became more coveted. Our goals were necessarily small-scale. What was grand came from the intensity and adventure of our working sojourn.
     I dealt with nearly 100 PCV teachers in Liberia, most of who slaved at their work during the week, and gathered with other PCVs to party on the weekends. I was privy to much PCV soul-searching, and what little guilt I detected had more to do with personal relationships than with living up to an image the Peace Corps had supposedly created. Much of their agonies came from worrying how well equipped and trained they were to do their jobs, not from questioning the value of the job.

Flog the staff
Fischer manages to flog the Peace Corps leadership at every turn while exonerating PCVs in the field. PCVs’ accounts of boredom, frustration, anger, a mix of late adolescent narcissism and idealism, are not treated as normative, but as a failure of the agency itself.
     Even PCVs “good” traits, “adherence to individuality and individual thinking” were, Fischer says, “caused in large measure by the alienating training and operating procedures of the Peace Corps.” How about the power of their upbringing and education for the previous 21+ years?

Generalizations abound in this book, along with disclaimers about making generalizations. Two examples:

    “Just as it is difficult to generalize about them (PCVs) in any way, it is difficult to generalize about their political beliefs.”

    “Teaching made Peace Corps Washington and the volunteers uncomfortable because of its nature as well as its image.”

Limits of research
For every PCV who felt “uncomfortable” teaching because he felt he should be digging a latrine, my guess is that we’d find at least two who never felt this way. However, we would not be able to know this unless we had diaries from these others, as well as the ones who put them in the archives Fischer consulted. So perhaps, at bottom, what is unconvincing about Fischer’s conclusions may have much to do with the limitations of his source material.

Who had the real Peace Corps experience?
There’s lots of rich material in Making Them Like Us, and much to react to. Hopefully other young historians are waiting in the wings to grapple with the questions Fischer raises. Questions like:

    Was there a single PCV “experience” in the 1960s?

    How did the founders succeed or fail to translate their vision to fulfill the Peace Corps mission?

    How do communication problems between “central office” and “field” in the Peace Corps compare to those in business or the military?

While Making Them Like Us raises these questions, Fischer does not satisfactorily answer them. At least not for this ’60s PCV.

Bob Cohen, an educational consultant and cabaret singer, continues his Peace Corps involvement as a board member of Friends of Nigeria.

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