Our shrinks, Thea and Ben, had us all take the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory). The results of this test were used to help decide whether we had strong and stable enough personalities to perform our jobs in Iran and to withstand the anticipated culture shock. Even as far back as 1965, the MMPI was a venerable instrument, and testing psychologists were confident in the validity of its results. However, each of the 500+ questions was presented without context and often appeared to be a one-line joke. Imagine a lecture hall full of 75 bright twenty-something trainees, a little stressed to begin with, obediently undertaking this task for their beloved shrinks and coming across a true/false item such as: “I frequently have black tarry stools,” or “Strange people follow me home.”
When I was only midway down the first column of questions, a hearty guffaw rang out somewhere behind me. A minute or so later, a woman in the front row cracked up. More laughter followed from my left and right. Being a slow reader, I hadn’t figured out what was triggering these reactions until I came upon one of the more ludicrous items and couldn’t keep from giggling. The laughter fed on itself throughout the two-hour test as each of us understood that the others also thought many of the questions were hilarious. By the end, many of the trainees were treating the whole exercise as a lark and making sotto-voce comments, which broke up those sitting nearby. (“Strange people follow me home . . . Do they want me to count my boyfriend?”)
The two shrinks proctoring in the front of the hall appeared increasingly uncomfortable. After collecting the answer sheets, they were challenged more directly. One outspoken male test subject stood up and inquired pointedly, “What do you expect to learn from this test?” Thea tried to explain the purpose and a little of the methodology, but her explanation was greeted skeptically. Her interrogator asserted, “These questions won’t reveal a true psychological profile. About every fifth item is transparently checking paranoia, but test takers can easily see this and provide the non-paranoid response.” Thea’s reply that paranoiacs would assume the paranoid response to be normal did not carry any weight. “They may be paranoid,” declared the questioner, “but they’re not necessarily stupid.”
A small group of trainees crowded around the shrinks to register their skepticism and extend the discussion while the rest of us drifted outside and attempted smart-ass remarks about “black tarry stools” and other incongruous nuggets from our shared test experience. The thrust of the trainees’ unscientific criticism of the MMPI was that the instrument was invalid; it could not possibly give meaningful insights to our or anyone’s psychological stability.
Ironically, the federal government is now forbidden by law from forcing any employee (presumably Peace Corps Volunteers included) to take the MMPI, but the prohibition is not on the grounds that the test can’t measure psychosis. This kind of testing was successfully challenged on the grounds that asking people to answer true/false items such as “God frequently talks to me and tells me what to do” intrudes on an employee’s right to privacy.
All of us in this training group were going to be English Teachers when we got to Iran, and being highly motivated, we immersed ourselves enthusiastically in our studies. We were well educated and academically accomplished, but few of us had any teaching experience. The Peace Corps classified us as “BAGs” (BA generalists) and felt that we could be made into effective teachers after participation in the twelve-week technical studies component of our training. The principal weakness of this condensed teacher preparation program was the lack of practice teaching, especially in some approximation of the difficult language, cross-cultural and school conditions we expected to find in Iran.
The University of Texas decided to remedy the problem by sending us all to Mexico City for two weeks. The education office of the Federal District in Mexico agreed to assign each of us to a junior high school English teacher for this period. After a couple of days observing classes, the Mexican teacher was to watch and critique us as we taught his or her full schedule. It was an imaginative plan, but it involved some tricky political issues. Most notably, Mexico considered itself at a higher level of development than the countries where the United States was sending Peace Corps Volunteers. Unlike Honduras, Peru or Chile, Mexico had not asked for Peace Corps help and was sensitive to any implication that it should have. Our staff warned us repeatedly not to mention the words “Peace Corps” while we were in Mexico. If asked, we were to conceal our true status by saying to government officials and everyone else that we were “graduate students in education at the University of Texas.” The teacher training coordinator implied that any break in the charade could jeopardize the whole operation.
To get to the border at Nuevo Laredo, we traveled in two buses, and after a four-hour wait for the completion of customs formalities (which would have been a lot shorter if we had been culturally sensitive enough to provide a small bribe, or “mordida”), we entered Mexico. For many of us, it was the first time outside the United States. We experienced the excitement of foreign travel and the fascination of interacting in a new culture, but for us, it was the “wrong” country. 200 hours of language lessons and I couldn’t even say Buenos dias! Two months of lectures on the Achaemenid Empire and ancient Persian archeological sites and I knew nothing about Aztecs and the Temple of the Sun. However important the student teaching was going to be for us, the cultural context of Mexico was something of a distraction.
The buses let us off at the dated but still elegant Hotel Regis in the center of Mexico City, convenient since we would scatter every morning to schools in all areas of the sprawling metropolis. Summoned to the ballroom, we were welcomed by various Mexican education officials. Sra. Lopez, the energetic woman in charge of language education for the Federal District, got us quite excited about our upcoming assignments. During a break, she asked for volunteers who had political science, United States history or economics majors, and who perhaps had some debate experience, to meet with her at the side table. Several of us from the Jim Wright seminar responded.
“What do you know about U.S. foreign policy?” she wanted to know. “Can you hold your own in a discussion about the merits of Socialism and Capitalism?”