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“To Hell With Good Intentions”?

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Four months ago, Nicholas Kristof (New York Times columnist) had what I thought was a pretty good idea: the United States should help create 40,000 schools in Afghanistan:

For roughly the same cost as stationing 40,000 troops in Afghanistan for one year, we could educate the great majority of the 75 million children worldwide who, according to Unicef, are not getting even a primary education. We won’t turn them into graduate students, but we can help them achieve literacy. Such a vast global education campaign would reduce poverty, cut birth rates, improve America’s image in the world, promote stability and chip away at extremism.

Education isn’t a panacea, and no policy in Afghanistan is a sure bet. But all in all, the evidence suggests that education can help foster a virtuous cycle that promotes stability and moderation. So instead of sending 40,000 troops more to Afghanistan, how about opening 40,000 schools?

Today, he’s proposing another education idea — one that I’m far less enthusiastic about: have the United States government create a “Teach For The World” program where young Americans would be sent to Third World countries to teach in a school for a year.

Reading that column immediately reminded me of the philospher Ivan Illich’s well-known 1968 address to American volunteers titled To Hell with Good Intentions.

Now, I don’t agree with much of what Ivan Illich wrote during his life. In fact, I probably have never even understood most of it. And he’s way over the top, I think, in his condemnation in “To Hell With Good Intentions” of First World volunteers wanting to go to the Third World to help.

His basic point, however — that First Worlders should stay home and fix their own countries — has a lot of validity. Instead of having our young people go “slumming” for a year — no matter how well intentioned — perhaps we, and the Third World, would be far better off spending those resources to train citizens of those countries to become teachers to their own people.

What do you think?

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

6 Comments

  1. Again, its a bit simplistic. I teach in an American school overseas, and I have been in Brazil for close to 11 years. I am only now getting to the place where I could discuss advanced math concepts and history in Portuguese. You would need at the bare minimum, 6-12 months of language before you even could think about beginning to teach. Add to that slang, expressions, local dialects, local customs and mores, etc, etc.

  2. “perhaps we, and the Third World, would be far better off spending those resources to train citizens of those countries to become teachers to their own people.”…. so true… and the guiding principle behind Education Beyond Borders [ http://www.educationbeyondborders.org ] where the Canadian teachers go over to work with the teachers in the third world… engaging and empowering them. MUCH bigger impact….

  3. Two thoughts:

    1.) Kristof’s article might actually highlight the limitations of TFA as a comprehensive reform strategy for the United States. (I steal this idea from Charlie Barone and Sherman Dorn)

    2.) It’s hard enough to fill some critical positions in our own country, so I wonder if it’s even feasible to find enough people for a Teach for the World strategy….

  4. Unfortunately I don’t think enough of our students are well prepared enough to educate others. Scary.

  5. ” His basic point, however — that First Worlders should stay home and fix their own countries — has a lot of validity.”

    I tend to agree. We should get our own house in order first. As for sending teachers to other countries. Teachers Without Borders is doing just that. Take a look. http://tinyurl.com/3z7one

  6. From the UK, I am currently working in a school in Peru and hoping to bring a different view on education with me. However, with the UK education system heavily criticised for its outdated methodology and failure to address the needs of the nations youth we must be careful to export the aspects of the system that have worth and not just replicate the problems in new contexts.

    As to volunteers staying at home to volunteer, I don’t see this as a big issue. It has been said that a strong indicator of whether a person is likely to volunteer in the future is that they have volunteered in the past. Therefore a positive overseas experience could very well encourage a person to look for other opportunities when they return home.

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