THE NEXT TIME someone remarks that they’ve “read all the great Peace Corps books” wait a beat and innocently ask, “What do you think of High Risk/High Gain by Alan Weiss?” . . . and then watch a blank look cross that person’s face. High Risk/High Gain is perhaps the most obscure, least known, and most unread of all the books written about the Peace Corps experience. Published in 1968 by St. Martin’s Press it has as its subtitle: “A Freewheeling Account of Peace Corps Training,” and that about sums up the personality of its author, Alan “freewheeling” Weiss. This book has been out of print for forty years.
Weiss joined the Peace Corps after graduating with a math degree from M.I.T. He was from Chicago and went to Columbia University in New York City to train for Nigeria and his book is about that “sick circus of training,” as he termed it, that he went through in the summer of 1963. The book ends with Weiss leaving Manhattan for Africa.
Much of Peace Corps training in the early 1960s was like the movie Animal House. Everyone was a little crazy, especially the psychiatrists and psychologists who hovered around all of us trying to make sure Peace Corps Trainees were the “right stuff” for service.
It was Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C., that came up with a measurement standard for Trainees’ overseas success. Potential “Super Volunteers” were classified as Low Risk/High Gain. Trainees destined for failure were classified as High Risk/Low Gain. Alan Weiss discovered in his training days that he was High Risk/ High Gain.
I did not know Weiss in the Peace Corps but I have friends who did, and whenever they gather, stories about him are retold as they remember with fondness his life in Africa. Alan was the kind of PCV who drove APCDs crazy, but he was also the rallying point when other PCVs from his group gathered in Lagos.
Weiss didn’t last long as a Volunteer. A year into his service his girl friend arrived from Chicago. At the conclusion of his book, summing up his Peace Corps history, Weiss writes, “in the fiery heat of the West African dry season, Saltonstall [Country Director of Nigeria] would inform me, friendly and considerate, that I was in violation of a Peace Corps regulation about importing women from abroad, and say, regretfully, that while he would do whatever he could to help me stay in Africa, he would have to ask for my resignation.”
His book today is valuable because he captures the “craziness” of those early years of the agency when the Peace Corps hierarchy and Peace Corps training sites [mostly colleges and universities] joined up to prepare A.B. Generalists to work in the developing world.
It is valuable, too, because it is funny and outrageous and sad and the true story of more than one training site in the early years of the Peace Corps. In time, I hope, more than a handful of RPCVs, historians, and just those curious about this phenomenon called the Peace Corps will realize Alan Weiss got it right. Alan Weiss died before he could realized what a contribution he had made to the total Peace Corps story. Do yourself a favor and find the book. And if you can find it, hold onto your copy. In time, who knows what a valuable piece of prose you’ll have in your library.