Best History Book Ever: Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

Everyone should read this book. Its full title is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and it is exactly that, but it also somehow manages to be both a work of philosophy and a very entertaining read.

Harari writes with a clarity and wit rarely seen in academic writing, or any kind of non-fiction. Reading it is a delight, but that is not the main reason why you should do so.

Even if it were a struggle to wade through, it would be worth it for the content. In this book, millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of human history are analyzed, organized, and woven into a fully comprehensible tapestry, enhanced by an original perspective.

Multiple times, during the course of reading Sapiens, I found myself thinking, or even saying to someone nearby, “I guess I knew that, but I never looked at it quite that way.”

If you, like me, are a devoted fan of history, this book won’t provide you with much new information, but it will give you a new perspective on what you know. If you think history is boring and history books are unbearably dry, this one will very likely change your mind.

In any case, every human should have some idea of what the history of humanity has been, and this is by far the best overview I have ever seen. If you read every new history book, or if you have never read even one, read this one!

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Kimberly Kalaja’s Night Moths on the Wing

I keep thinking about a play I saw performed nearly a month ago, at the OC-Centric New Play Festival. It is called Night Moths on the Wing, and it was written by Kimberly Kalaja, a playwright originally from California but now based in New York.

The plot revolves around a prisoner of war and his guards and interrogators, and it does contain surprise twists, and funny moments as well as frightening ones, but it’s not the plot that I keep thinking about. It’s the way the play explores questions of loyalty and trust, and of deceit and manipulation.

Maybe it’s because those are the themes being so relentlessly thrust upon us during this election season. Every day there are new articles written and discussed concerning whether or not the candidates are worthy of voters’ trust, and what they may or may not have lied about and why.

Through dialogue that is by turns amusing and arresting, Kalaja demonstrates how easily and how thoroughly people can mislead each other, and how vehemently they can hold on to beliefs they’ve been fooled into having. The play is a compact and compelling examination of two fundamental questions: who is trustworthy, and what is true.

They are questions that we all could stand to examine a bit more closely, and works of art such as this play can aid in that process. It has certainly had that effect on me.

Wherever you are, if you have the opportunity to see Night Moths on the Wing, or anything by the eloquent and thought-provoking Kimberly Kalaja, I recommend you take advantage of it.

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Full Transcript of Michelle Obama’s Amazing Speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention

I won’t say Michelle Obama’s speech last night was the best speech ever, because there were many great ones that happened before I was born, and a few when I was a very small child, that I have seen or heard on recordings, but it was the best one I have ever seen live, as it originally happened. It was dignified and passionate, full of love but brooking no self-indulgent nonsense, and it painted a picture of the United States of America I know and love, the one I feel lucky to have been born in. We have definitely done a lot of things wrong, as a country, but we were founded on a great ideal of equality and fairness, and despite struggle and setbacks and various kinds of hypocrisy we have progressed closer and closer to that ideal, and the majority of us want to continue to do so. The First Lady’s speech expressed perfectly why and how we keep going in that direction.

I am posting the full transcript here mostly for myself, because I want to be able to reread it anytime I want, but it will also be here for anyone else who might be interested. I will also post a link to the video at the bottom, because if you haven’t seen Mrs. Obama deliver it, you really should treat yourself to that experience. Enjoy.

Michelle Obama’s speech:

You know, it’s hard to believe that it has been eight years since I first came to this convention to talk with you about why I thought my husband should be President. Remember how I told you about his character and conviction, his decency and his grace, the traits that we’ve seen every day that he’s served our country in the White House.

I also told you about our daughters, how they are the heart of our hearts, the center of our world, and during our time in the White House, we’ve had the joy of watching them grow from bubbly little girls into poised young women, a journey that started soon after we arrived in Washington, when they set off for their first day at their new school.

I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just seven and ten years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns. And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, “What have we done?” See, because at that moment, I realized that our time in the White House would form the foundation for who they would become, and how well we managed this experience could truly make or break them.

That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight. How we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel, or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.

With every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us. We as parents are their most important role models. And let me tell you, Barack and I take that same approach to our jobs as President and First Lady, because we know that our words and actions matter not just to our girls, but to children across this country, kids who tell us, “I saw you on TV, I wrote a report on you for school.” Kids like the little black boy who looked up at my husband, his eyes wide with hope, and he wondered, “Is my hair like yours?”

And make no mistake about it, this November, when we go to the polls, that is what we’re deciding, not Democrat or Republican, not left or right. No, this election, and every election, is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives. And I am here tonight because in this election, there is only one person who I trust with that responsibility, only one person who I believe is truly qualified to be President of the United States, and that is our friend, Hillary Clinton.

See, I trust Hillary to lead this country because I’ve seen her lifelong devotion to our nation’s children, not just her own daughter, who she has raised to perfection, but every child who needs a champion: Kids who take the long way to school to avoid the gangs. Kids who wonder how they’ll ever afford college. Kids whose parents don’t speak a word of English but dream of a better life. Kids who look to us to determine who and what they can be.

You see, Hillary has spent decades doing the relentless, thankless work to actually make a difference in their lives, advocating for kids with disabilities as a young lawyer, fighting for children’s health care as First Lady and for quality child care in the Senate. And when she didn’t win the nomination eight years ago, she didn’t get angry or disillusioned. Hillary did not pack up and go home. Because as a true public servant, Hillary knows that this is so much bigger than her own desires and disappointments. So she proudly stepped up to serve our country once again as Secretary of State, traveling the globe to keep our kids safe. 

And look, there were plenty of moments when Hillary could have decided that this work was too hard, that the price of public service was too high, that she was tired of being picked apart for how she looks or how she talks or even how she laughs. But here’s the thing: what I admire most about Hillary is that she never buckles under pressure. She never takes the easy way out. And Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life.

And when I think about the kind of President that I want for my girls and all our children, that’s what I want. I want someone with the proven strength to persevere. Someone who knows this job and takes it seriously. Someone who understands that the issues a President faces are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters. Because when you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command, you can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out. You need to be steady, and measured, and well-informed.

I want a President with a record of public service, someone whose life’s work shows our children that we don’t chase fame and fortune for ourselves, we fight to give everyone a chance to succeed, and we give back, even when we’re struggling ourselves, because we know that there is always someone worse off, and there but for the grace of God go I.

I want a president who will teach our children that everyone in this country matters, a president who truly believes in the vision that our founders put forth all those years ago: That we are all created equal, each a beloved part of the great American story. And when crisis hits, we don’t turn against each other. No, we listen to each other. We lean on each other. Because we are always stronger together. And I am here tonight because I know that that is the kind of president that Hillary Clinton will be. And that’s why, in this election, I’m with her.

You see, Hillary understands that the President is about one thing and one thing only. It’s about leaving something better for our kids. That’s how we’ve always moved this country forward – by all of us coming together on behalf of our children, folks who volunteer to coach that team, to teach that Sunday school class because they know it takes a village. Heroes of every color and creed who wear the uniform and risk their lives to keep passing down those blessings of liberty. 

Police officers and protestors in Dallas who all desperately want to keep our children safe. People who lined up in Orlando to donate blood because it could have been their son, their daughter in that club. Leaders like Tim Kaine, who show our kids what decency and devotion look like. Leaders like Hillary Clinton, who has the guts and the grace to keep coming back and putting those cracks in that highest and hardest glass ceiling until she finally breaks through, lifting all of us along with her.

That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters, and all our sons and daughters, now take for granted that a woman can be President of the United States.

So don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this, right now, is the greatest country on earth. And as my daughters prepare to set out into the world, I want a leader who is worthy of that truth, a leader who is worthy of my girls’ promise and all our kids’ promise, a leader who will be guided every day by the love and hope and impossibly big dreams that we all have for our children. 

So in this election, we cannot sit back and hope that everything works out for the best. We cannot afford to be tired, or frustrated, or cynical. No, hear me. Between now and November, we need to do what we did eight years ago and four years ago. We need to knock on every door. We need to get out every vote. We need to pour every last ounce of our passion and our strength and our love for this country into electing Hillary Clinton as President of the United States of America.

So let’s get to work.

Here is a link to the video and the official text the White House released to CNN.

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Scottish Tweets to Trump Demonstrate Wordsmithing to Rival Shakespeare

There are so many insane and important things happening in the world this year, and I haven’t yet been able to distill any of them down to something I can say articulately in a blogpost. There is one small piece of it all, though, that I find so delightful that I feel I must share it.

If you haven’t yet seen the fine array of creative and hilarious insults people in Scotland have been tweeting to Donald Trump since his would-be-inconceivable-if-he-didn’t-always-do-things-like-this appearance at one of his golf courses there on Friday, treat yourself and check them out here, and here, and especially here. Some are NSFW, but all are not to be missed.

The creativity ranges from the adding of colorful endings such as “nugget”, “womble” and “splat” to choice four letter words, to long form expressions such as, “you couldn’t be more out of touch with reality if Nessie bit you on the arse”, to wonderful words I’ve never heard of, such as “numpty” and “twonk”. The best ones, though, combine simple, ordinary words in innovative ways.

I have narrowed down the ones I’ve seen to three favorites. #3 is “you mangled apricot hellbeast”. #2 is “you bankrupt traffic cone”. #1, for its originality and vividness, has to be “you weapons-grade plum”.

Normally I wouldn’t promote insults. I believe very strongly in civility and decorum and taking the high road. Two things have combined in this case to cause me to make an exception. The first is that the things Trump said were so egregiously ignorant, insensitive and irresponsible that they would end any diplomat’s career, especially combined with all the other egregiously ignorant, insensitive and irresponsible things he has said. It is unfathomable that such a person could possibly become the President of the United States of America, and it is very difficult to continue attempting to treat with any vestige of respect someone who affords no one else that courtesy. The second is my love for the English language, and the pure joy I feel in seeing anyone use it so brilliantly. I just can’t resist!

Thank you, Scottish tweeters, for making my day week!

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How Genealogy Debunks Myths About History, #2: Nuclear Families

Many people seem to think that single parent families and blended families were a rarity until the increased prevalence of divorce in recent decades. Genealogy tells a different story. In researching my ancestors and those of other people, I have indeed found very few that were divorced, but I have also found very few children who grew up with both parents, and many who grew up in blended families.

People tended to die much younger in previous eras, and the surviving spouse often remarried. Many women died in childbirth or as a result of complications from it. The combination of fewer safety protections and lesser medical knowledge meant people were much more likely to die from accidents and common diseases, even well into the twentieth century. People do tend to be aware of these facts, but they often don’t extrapolate from that knowledge what it meant for family structure.

When I am researching a family, the first thing I do is try to find it on as many censuses as possible. Because misspellings and inaccurate birth data are rampant on census pages, matching a family on, for example, the 1900 census with the same family on the 1910 census can be a challenge, but it can usually be done. It is easier with larger families, because even if a few members are not on both lists, you can still be fairly certain it’s the same family.

It is not at all unusual to find a family headed by a widow or widower, even in the last publicly available US census, from 1940. It is also common to find families in which one or both parents have married at least twice, often having children with each spouse. This means many children grew up with stepsiblings and half-siblings. Many had periods in their lives when they had just one parent, and many grew up with stepparents, some with a succession of them.

I have also frequently found families not living together. A couple may be listed as married but living in separate houses. Sometimes all the children are with one parent, and sometimes some are with each. Sometimes some or all of the children in a family are living with grandparents or aunts and uncles. Poorer families are often split up in multiple houses, with even young children working as domestic servants or farm hands.

From what I have seen in genealogical records, there have always been many single parent and blended families. I have not come across any era in which the vast majority of families consisted of a couple who had only ever been married to each other and just that couple’s children. It might have been the ideal, but it does not seem to have been the reality.

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Life in Three Languages

While going through old files, I came across this little poem I wrote for the annual Thanksgiving celebration when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Macedonia. It’s no great literary work, but it means something to me and I kind of like it, so I thought I’d post it. The three languages are English, Macedonian, and Albanian. I needed to use all three every day. The Macedonian is written in more or less phonetic transliteration from the Macedonian alphabet, which uses Cyrillic letters. The Albanian is in the actual Albanian alphabet, which, obviously, uses Latin letters. People really did call me Erika od Amerika/Erikë nga Amerikë (Erika from America).

Life in Three Languages/Zhivot vo Tri Jazetsi/Jeta në Tre Gjuhë

Erika from America
Is what they call me here.
Ludjeto tuka dobri se.
Jeta ime është shumë mirë.

Erika od Amerika
Jas se vikam ovde.
Njerezit janë mirë ketu.
Life is good this way.

Erikë nga Amerikë
Është emri im tani.
I mi se dopadja.
Now, it sounds like me.

Sometimes, if I’ve had a difficult day,
I miss my family, my friends, and my beach,
No naskoro podobro e,
Dhe mund të qesh sërish.

Ponekogash, malku teshko e.
Ndonjëherë, është pak vështirë,
But no matter how much I sometimes complain,
The truth is I really like it here.

Mnogu blagodaram
For this life I’m living.
Jam mirënjose shumë.
This is my Thanksgiving.

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College and Career Readiness is the Wrong Goal

There’s a question I’ve been mulling lately. If the people who say that AI and related technologies are going to put most people out of work, and that a successful human future requires the decoupling of employment from income, are right, what kind of education system best serves the people of that future?

I think what would be best for them would also be best for us, now. It would be one in which “college and career readiness”, if it even exists as a concept, is a byproduct of a good education, not the purpose of it. It would be one in which students learn how to learn, how to evaluate information, and how to coexist with other people. They would learn that human beings created civilization in its many forms, and that they, as human beings, share in the ability and the responsibility to maintain or to change it.

It would also be one in which the STEM subjects, the arts, athletics, and the humanities are all considered equally important, and not necessarily separate from each other. All of them expand our capabilities. All of them build neural connections. All of them can benefit society in different ways.

I would like to stand up particularly for the humanities. With the exception of what has come to be called Language Arts, they seem to be considered expendable. I understand why STEM has become so glorified, and I fervently believe every child should learn to create art and music and should participate in some kind of sport, but understanding ourselves as humans is of at least equal importance.

Many people who choose to study math or science say they did so because of the clarity, or objectivity, or the definitive right answers. Of course, when you advance in those subjects you realize those things are illusions, but they seem real to a beginner, and they are beautiful, in their way. Those were the exact reasons I chose not to focus on those subjects. They seemed sterile, too perfect, lifeless.

I did not struggle with math in school. In fact, I was very good at it. It is a testament to the cultural perception of the humanities as lesser that I feel compelled to say that. The easiest thing I ever did in my life was high school geometry. I was the bane of my teacher’s existence because I rarely paid attention in class (I was definitely not “engaged”), and yet I had something like a 105% average. I more or less enjoyed learning calculus in high school. I thought it was kind of cool, but also kind of boring.

I chose the humanities because they are messy, and imperfect, and subjective. I love the fact that there is never a definitive answer. I find it fascinating that people can have such different perceptions of the world, and that they can find it so difficult to understand each other. I love languages, cultures, religions and philosophies because they are expressions of human beings in all our diversity. I love literature because stories are so quintessentially human, and history because it is a collection of stories. I love the humanities because I love humans, individually and as a species, and I will never completely understand them. They (I suppose I should say we) provide a challenge that will never end.

Recently, I came across this article about a study showing that learning philosophy improved the math and reading skills of elementary school students. By philosophy I don’t mean learning about philosophers, but considering existential and ethical questions about truth, justice, loyalty, etc. I am not surprised at these results. This kind of questioning is the basis of critical thinking, which is fundamental to deep learning.

I am not attempting to discount the importance of STEM. By all means our kids should learn to code. I am learning a little myself. I am just suggesting that in a world in which technology is advancing at such a rapid rate, and changes on the scale of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions are happening on fast forward, consideration of who we are and what kind of society we want to have matters as much as what roles we will have in the new economy.

If we didn’t need our education system to sort our children into jobs, what would we want it to do? What would an educated person look like? Might she be able to distinguish truth from fiction? Might he be able to consider points of view other than his own? Would she know what’s actually in the Constitution and what isn’t? Would he know how the three branches of our government are supposed to interact, and understand why?

We wouldn’t all agree on the answers to these questions. The process of creating and maintaining a public education system is necessarily messy and political (calls to keep politics out of education are foolhardy; what is more politically charged than decisions about what and how to teach our children?) and difficult. It will never stop being so, but isn’t that all the more reason to take the challenge seriously?

There is a lot of talk these days about moonshots, and references to JFK’s speech in which he said we do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” a sentiment I certainly appreciate. Have you ever read or listened to the whole speech?

He said that America needed to be the leader in the space race, but not just for military or economic superiority. He said, “there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man,” but that part seems to have been forgotten, or at least confined to a quiet corner.

Keeping up with technology and making sure our kids will have sources of income are obviously matters of survival, so of course they should be at the top of our priority list, but so should making sure our world and our society are worth surviving in. The purpose of learning about what people have done and thought before is not to glorify them, or to dwell on the past, but to understand how we got here, and to learn from their good and bad decisions. One of the clearer lessons of history is that as the percentage of people with power and luxury shrinks, and the percentage of people in frustration and misery grows, violence and chaos and danger for everyone become more and more inevitable. Making our society functional and fair is, in the long run, necessary for our survival. The sooner we come to understand that, the safer we will be.

Another thing JFK said in that speech is, “I think that we must pay what needs to be paid. I don’t think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job.” Trying to find ways to make our education system work on less and less money is a false economy. There are ways money is grievously wasted in our current system, and that needs to be changed, but a good education always has and probably always will require investment. I know, I know. People don’t want their taxes to go to educating other people’s children, especially if they don’t agree with the way they are being educated. It’s a problem. It’s hard.

So what should the purpose of our education system be? I think it should be to help us create the best, most sustainably prosperous human civilization we can. That means working hard to make sure no one’s talents go to waste, and that all children are prepared, not just for colleges or jobs that may or may not exist, but for life as adult human beings. Creating such a system will be very, very difficult, and the process will never be complete, and that is exactly why we should pull ourselves together and do it.

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It’s 2016!

Amazing holiday travel experiences, followed by extended recovery from jet lag and a nasty cold I picked up, have kept me from blogging for all of January, but now I am well and ready to express my random thoughts again.

Most of my thoughts right now are ones of hopeful optimism. It’s a new year full of new opportunities. Hooray!

What I am most hopeful and optimistic about is that I think the vicious divisiveness of the education debates may be starting to change. I see indications that some of the education reformers who have allowed their fervent belief in their good intentions to blind them to the damage they have done may be opening their eyes, at least a little.

I am very excited about an undertaking called Education Reimagined. It grew out of work done by an organization called Convergence, which brings together people on opposing sides of important issues to try to solve big problems. In 2013, Convergence brought together 28 people with widely differing views on education to start their process. Over the course of many meetings over two years, the group managed to forge a shared vision, and a few months ago they launched Education Reimagined to promote it.

So far all they have done is put out a few newsletters and a lot of tweets, but I am looking forward to what they will produce in the future. In the meantime, theirs is a pretty great vision, and I recommend checking it out.


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How Genealogy Debunks Myths About History, #1: Marriage

My explorations in genealogy have led me to question a lot of conventional wisdom about the lives of people in earlier eras. One of the assumptions I had was that until fairly recently, most people married before age 30. There might have been the occasional confirmed bachelor or spinster aunt, but they were unusual. In the course of my research, however, I have come across many, many people who did not fit that mold.

Among the siblings of my great grandparents, for example, there are very few who fit the stereotype. Eliminating all who died as children or became priests or nuns, and all those for whom I am not certain whether or not they ever married, there are 22, 14 women and 8 men. All were born between 1865 and 1900, most in the 1870s or 1880s. Of those 22, only 5, 3 women and 2 men, married before the age of 30. 3 women and 3 men married for the first time in their thirties. One woman and one man did so in their forties, and one woman at the age of 51. 6 women and 2 men never married. Just 23% of my admittedly small and not particularly scientific sample married before age 30, 21% of the women and 25% of the men. 41% married later (36% of the women and 50% of the men) and 36% never married (43% of the women and 25% of the men).

Even if my ancestors’ siblings skewed my sample by being particularly slow to marry, those are some pretty surprising numbers, and in my experience these proportions are not particularly odd. In researching many families, not just my own, it seems nearly every set of siblings has at least one who never married, and it is not all that rare to come across someone who married for the first time in their 30s or 40s, women as well as men.

Genealogical research also contests the stereotype of the sad spinster, wasting away wishing for a husband. For example, one of the never married women in my sample, my great grandfather’s sister Augusta, played a major role in their father’s publishing business. She also lived well into her eighties, outliving all her siblings, and worked in the business at least into her sixties. Augusta’s first cousin Louise also never married, and, like many never married women I have come across in the course of my research, she traveled a great deal. She crossed the Atlantic so many times that I stopped documenting her trips.

I would be interested to know if other genealogy buffs have noticed similar patterns, or if they even started with the same assumptions. When we see statistics about marriage, they usually focus on averages. We tend to forget, or at least it seems I do, that average does not necessarily mean typical, and that most people are not average. One of the things I love about genealogy is that it forces you to look at individual lives instead of aggregates. It turns out the past had much more variety and nuance than statistics and stereotypes may lead us to believe.


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What Teach For America Could Learn From Peace Corps

In 1993, when I was a shiny new Harvard grad with no career direction except a fervent desire to help people, I joined Teach For America (TFA). It was a brand new organization then, modeled at least in part after the Peace Corps. The plan was to send smart, idealistic, young people to teach for two years in school districts that were difficult to staff. It has since succumbed to extensive mission creep, as Gary Rubinstein has eloquently explained, but that was the idea at the time.

My TFA cohort of Corps Members (CMs) met that summer in Los Angeles for training. My memories of it are a bit vague, but I remember living in dormitories, observing classes, and sitting in circles for self-reflective discussions. There was a little bit of student teaching, too.

When training was over, we were placed in groups and encouraged to spend a lot of time together. Four of us were sent to the same very small town in Louisiana. One of the other CMs and I shared a house, and the other two shared an apartment. We saw other CMs in our region often, to share teaching ideas and for emotional support.

The most difficult thing for me was the unexpected culture shock I experienced. I had spent a year as an exchange student in Thailand, so I knew what it was like to try to navigate a foreign culture, but I was unprepared for the degree of cultural difference there could be within the United States. I was overwhelmed by teachers yelling at students, parents encouraging children to fight, and most of all by blatant racism. I had never experienced any of those things, and I was at a complete loss. I ended up reacting mostly by feeling superior, trying to model kinder behavior, and being woefully ineffective as a teacher.

I tried a number of other career paths, didn’t particularly like any of them, and fell almost accidentally into teaching English as a Second Language, which I loved. In 2005, I joined the actual Peace Corps, and I was sent to Macedonia as a high school English teacher. I was surprised to discover that the way Peace Corps operates is almost the exact opposite of the way TFA does.

During training, each of us lived with a different host family. We had technical training for the jobs we would have, and lessons on language and culture. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) work under something similar to the Star Trek Prime Directive. They are never to interfere with, try to change, or disrespect in any way the cultures in which they are placed, even if they disagree with the values reflected there. This is reiterated constantly throughout training. We were taught to begin our time at our sites by being polite and observant, by listening more than speaking, by getting to know people in our communities and letting them get to know us.

Each PCV is assigned a Counterpart, usually a colleague, in my case a teacher at my school. The PCV and the Counterpart work together, and the Counterpart introduces the PCV to other people in the community. There are unlikely to be other Volunteers nearby. Peace Corps purposely does not send multiple PCVs to the same locations, so that they are not tempted to spend all their time with each other. The whole point is to integrate into the community, to come to know and befriend people there.

Trying to understand an unfamiliar culture is a long process with many stages. I had experienced something similar during my year in Thailand. After a few months, you tend to feel that you have a pretty good grasp on it. You start to explain it to people back home with the air of an expert. After a few more months, if you have continued to listen and learn, you realize that you have been wrong about almost everything, that what you thought were deep insights were just surface observations colored by biases you didn’t know you had. After about a year you begin to be able to understand how things really work in your community. There is a sort of running joke among PCVs about this: at the end of the first year of your two year commitment, you start to understand how things actually function; at the end of the second year, you may finally be able to provide some real help; just at the moment when you are becoming useful, they send you home.

There are some things I would change about Peace Corps. For example, I would like it to become a mutual exchange program, in which people from other countries come here to help us too. There is an inherent power differential in an interaction in which WE (the powerful) help YOU (the powerless). If it’s a reciprocal relationship it is more like friends helping each other. Some people think the commitment should be longer, but many PCVs extend for a third year, as I did, or even a fourth, and the third of Peace Corps’ three goals is “to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans,” which is hard to do if you don’t come back to the U.S. Some think the commitment should be shorter, but that is a terrible idea. There are more minor changes I might also like, but I think Peace Corps is one of the relatively few organizations that are actually making a positive difference in the world.

As a PCV I witnessed many development projects by many organizations, and they generally followed the same pattern. The organization offers to provide something new (computers! wifi connections! training in new methodologies!) They spend a lot of money and take pictures to put on their websites, where they report the great success of the project. Within a few months or a few years, the computers are broken and there is no money to fix or replace them, the wifi is of no use because the electricity is always going out, and the new methodologies have made no appreciable difference, if they are even still in use. Those generous people never bothered to find out if their gifts would actually be useful, and they are long gone, but their “successful” project lives forever on their website, and no one outside of the community they “helped” ever knows what happened after they left.

This pattern will be readily recognizable by anyone who has worked for more than a few years in public education. I imagine people in all kinds of tough circumstances have suffered through multiple well-intentioned attempts at “help”. Something I learned as a PCV that I never had the chance to learn as a CM is that people who have lived a long time in a difficult situation know a lot more about it than people who have just arrived, and that if those people (let’s call them “veterans”) are cynical and jaded and seem to have given up, they may have good reasons.

That is not to say we should accept that cynicism as inevitable, just that rather than condemning people for it, we might want to look into the conditions that created it. I discovered as a PCV that the best way for me to be of actual help to the people in my community was to support them in trying their own solutions, to be more cheerleader than instructor. The most rewarding moment of my time in Macedonia was when some students, at the end of a project they created and managed, said that the best thing about it was, “You made us feel worth something.” They didn’t need my ideas. They had plenty of good ones. What they didn’t have was a sense of agency or confidence that their ideas were worth trying, and there I was able to help.

People don’t choose to be cynical and jaded. It is something that happens to them after repeated experiences of frustration, of not being heard, of no-win situations. It doesn’t mean they don’t care. It happens because they do. Hidden beneath what is really exhaustion may be brilliant ideas and the strength and wisdom to carry them out. Real solutions to a problem have to come from the people with the problem. People from outside don’t know enough about the situation, and their “solutions” will work at best temporarily, and more likely not at all. They may even make things worse.

TFA is an excellent example of good intentions making things worse. The TFA narrative is that the neighborhoods it serves have “failing” schools, implying that the teachers there either are not smart enough or don’t care enough to teach the students well. There is explicit talk about how terrible the culture is in those schools. The idea is that if you come in with a better culture, one of “high expectations” and “no excuses” and “rigor”, everything will be better. No one asks how the culture got that way. If there is a “bad” culture in a school, it is a result of bad conditions, not of bad people. I believe most people at TFA truly want to decrease inequity in our society, but their faith in their good intentions blinds them to the fact that they are actually maintaining or even increasing it. T. Jameson Brewer has documented this very well.

TFA and Peace Corps both take in young, idealistic people with a zeal for helping others (although Peace Corps is making admirable strides in recruiting more experienced Volunteers), but they train and place them in nearly opposite ways. TFA nurtures the idea that CMs are a select group, smarter, more driven, and more altruistic than most, and keeps them close together so they reinforce each other in those beliefs. Peace Corps, on the other hand, gently leads PCVs to understand that they know much less than they think they do, that difficult situations are more complicated than they initially appear, and that there is often wisdom underlying what may at first be baffling behavior. TFA encourages CMs to achieve, to make measurable change as fast as possible. Peace Corps encourages PCVs to listen, to show respect, and only then to contribute what they can to the communities in which they are placed. To put it in data-centric terms, the inputs may be similar, but the outputs are very different.

I find it sad that TFA has become one of the forces contributing to increasing inequity and the degrading of teaching as a profession. It started out with such promise. Perhaps there is still hope, though. On the TFA website, it says that about ten years ago it added “respect and humility” to its list of core values. So far I have seen no indication that anything is different, and I suspect that the size, wealth, and power of the organization will prevent its making any radical changes, but I am lucky enough not to have become cynical or jaded, so I still believe that anything is possible.


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