To Heck with Good Intentions

Ivan Illich waivan_illichs quite the character.   This Austrian-born philospher / Catholic priest traveled to Mexico to work in a language school for missionaries.  However, he hated the idea of missionary work, and his purpose was to observe the effects of this auspiciously benevolent enterprise.

In 1968, Ivan Illich presented a keynote speech to a missionary conference entitled “To Hell with Good Intentions.”  In this speech, before a crowded room of societal do-gooders and staunch proponents of volunteerism, Illich denounced these missionary endeavors as damaging and ineffective.  Calling them “mission-vacations”, Illich criticized Peace Corps volunteers of well-off Americans to foreign countries as “salesmen for a delusive ballet in the ideals of democracy, equal opportunity, and free enterprise among people who haven’t the possibility of profiting from these” – page 2.

As a Fulbright English Teacher, I have often pondered about the use of sending U.S. idealists out in to the world.   After all, in the broad sense, who’s to say we are more than mere pawns in U.S. diplomatic strategies?  As Illich states, the largest us exports are money and guns, and the third largest export of U.S. idealists is intended to support the first two.  By spreading English and promoting American ways of life and politics, we take a semi-role of modern day colonists.  Our mission civilatrice preaches the religion of US capitalistic interests, and promotion of US culture often trumps meaningful understanding of foreign cultures.

Illich proposed having these idealists first volunteer in U.S. to find out what good (or lack of good) they are truly doing without the distortion of cultural differences and linguistic barriers.   Perhaps there is merit in sticking to the “think global and act local” mantra, and we should, as Illich entreats us, keep our travels as what they truly are – vacations.

It’s hard to think about the other side of the equation since I’ve been a lucky privileged white American for the majority of my life.  For all the positive reactions that are visible to American volunteers as guests, we can leave never thinking about any negative impacts culturally or psychologically that we may have caused.   So in a sense, based on the fact that I don’t know the full story of my impact due to cultural and linguistic barriers, I would have to agree with Ivan that I “failed” in the fully altruistic sense.   However, had I striven for a true cultural equilibrium, staying longer until I had learned enough of the the language and culture to view myself from a local perspective, then I would be able to prove Illich wrong.  Similar to immigrant Irishmen signifying through blackface or Willa Cather signifying through the workers, the only way for U.S. volunteers to take on a truly benevolent position abroad is to become the culture they are trying to help.

Illich, I. (1968). To hell with good intentions. Service Learning Reader: Reflections and Perspectives on Service, 1-8.

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