John Brown on Public Diplomacy: The World Should Be Teaching Us, Mr. Kristof

Well-meaning Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times:

"Peace Corps and Teach for America represent the best ethic of public service. But at a time when those programs can’t meet the demand from young people seeking to give back, we need a new initiative: Teach for the World.

In my mind, Teach for the World would be a one-year program placing young Americans in schools in developing countries. The Americans might teach English or computer skills, or coach basketball or debate teams. …

This would be a government-financed effort to supplement an American public diplomacy outreach that has been eviscerated over the last few decades."

Mr. Kristof, who wants young Americans to teach English the world over, seems unaware that all too many of us here in the homeland (which is how we now identify our cry-the-beloved country in these sad post-9/11 times) are incapable of writing a coherent English sentence free of grammatical and spelling errors. And how many of us called-to-duty language missionaries currently living in said homeland, if volunteering to coach "debate teams" overseas, could actually be capable of crafting a logical argument, given our 24/7 we-can’t-stop-loving-it culture of instant mindless gratification a la Tee-Vee & Twitter & uptalk?

"I mean, like you know, whatever" — such is, increasingly, our American contribution to serious world-wide discourse.

Well, OK, post-modern language/argument, without oh-so-boring grammar or logic, is maybe what we in the New World have to offer to our globalized planet. No problem. (Actually, I’m all for this Americanization, until I read, as I often do, a paper "written" by a computer-savvy US undergraduate that makes absolutely no, I mean absolutely no, sense, not even, dare I say, from a "post-modernist" perspective).

In my Foreign Service career, I found many distinguished foreigners who spoke English better than I did (and pray tell, Mr. Kristof, what is a "developing country"? Detroit, Michigan?). These distinguished foreigners had actually read, very carefully, English-language classics and knew the fundamentals of classical rhetoric, hence their ability to engage in serious debate. I thought they should be teaching me.

As for the Peace Corps, its main drawbacks are twofold.

(A) Giving jobs to too many well-meaning but desperately-seeking-to-be-employed, résumé-driven, undereducated provincial American BA’s with, all too often, little or no knowledge of foreign languages/cultures or substantial skills, personal or intellectual, even in teaching (or speaking) their own native language.

There are, of course, notable exceptions, including "senior citizens" in the program; but much of the Peace Corps is, I would suggest, an updated, "democratic" version of a vast system of outdoor relief for the upper classes.

In all fairness, these well-meaning, often naive, Peace Corps volunteers (I had the privilege of meeting many of them in my Foreign Service career), may be eager to learn about the outside world. But if they are parachuted to teach/"set an example" in other countries, they should know far more about them (and their own country and language) than Peace Corps "training" provides (and by the time they know something about where they are, they are shipped out).

(B) As suggested by the above remarks, most sadly and importantly, the Peace Corps is not a bilateral program. In essence, "we" (the U.S.) are telling "them" (the "foreigners") what to do (in a gentle way) — a twentieth-century Cold War one-way-communications propaganda model, granted on an perhaps laudable human level.

But today (I won’t say at a time of US "decline") we "altruistic" American taxpayers could certainly use highly-skilled volunteers from other countries, including math teachers from "developing countries," for our poorly performing public secondary schools, in exchange for our own volunteers, who would be far more skilled than many in our well-meaning Peace Corps currently are. In this way we would be honestly serving our own interests, while at the same time asking for the world’s cooperation, when and where we need it.

The world should teaching us, Mr. Kristof, in more ways than one. Not just the U.S. teaching the world. Time for a real deal.

John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer currently teaching at Georgetown University, never ceases to wonder about what "public diplomacy" is all about. He compiles the Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review Blog, Version 2.0

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of MountainRunner.

4 thoughts on “John Brown on Public Diplomacy: The World Should Be Teaching Us, Mr. Kristof

  1. I have to disagree on training provided in the Peace Corps. I was never a volunteer but I served at the US Embassy in Mongolia and the Peace Corps Volunteers in Mongolia received 12 weeks of intensive Mongolian language and cultural training (in Mongolia) before being sent to their assignments across the country. This was much more language and cultural training than almost anyone at the Embassy. We only had two Embassy officers who could speak even basic Mongolian, out of about 25 total American staff. It was also much more training than that provided by any other volunteer organization active in Mongolia (UN Volunteers, AusAid Volunteers).Peace Corps volunteers provide a human face to America to thousands of people across the world every day in interactions that are almost entirely positive. They are one of our best Public Diplomacy tools. Yes, they are not truly experts on the countries they work in, at least when the arrive, but they are friendly, helpful, engaged Americans in a world where America is too often demonized by people who have never personally met an American.
    Yes, it’s officially a one-way program, but many of those volunteers stay engaged in relations with their host countries after returning to the U.S. The Friends of Mongolia, an NGO set up by returned volunteers, is one of the most active organizations in the U.S. on Mongolian issues like education and civil society.
    The Peace Corps is one of America’s great signature organizations and a symbol of our idealism and friendship.

  2. In the same vein, I watched with much bemusement as IIP announced it was launching a ‘living book’ to dispel myths about America propagated by pop culture.How is it IIP fails to understand that it’s not America’s pop culture that’s giving it a bad rap – most of those myths are advantageous and we should fight hard not to dispel them – it’s elements of America’s real culture that are killing us:
    Texas Textbook MASSACRE: ‘Ultraconservatives’ Approve Radical Changes To State Education Curriculum

  3. My suggestion for the people in the U.S. is that you shouldn’t try to teach other nations how to live or how to do things; many folks out there perceive that as just plain arrogance and an invasion of their own turf. If somebody wants to learn something from another country – including yours -, he or she has generally the ability to ask for help or advice, so make it easier for others to ask and be willing to give to get something in return from which you can also learn. Assuming that you can only teach others instead of learning too from them is a gross mistake.

  4. i agree, this engagement should be bilateral so we can understand their culture. a lot of wars in the past are the results of misunderstandings. if you feel like getting a teaching career and wants to hone our children’s skills, try visiting they can write your resumes and get job interviews in no time!

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