I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1980s, and I thought a lot about imperialism. The truth is that I wanted to get out of the country, and I didn’t want to join the military, and I was too poor to be able to afford travel. In one sense it was selfish, but in another sense it created an opportunity for me to cross borders that would have ordinarily been barriers. That seemed like a good thing.
I think imperialism works through ignorance as well as power. As a volunteer, I might not change the world– or the Philippines where I worked– but I might be able, simply by going, to embody a more complex view of my culture, if not my country, to a people who I knew had every reason to mistrust both. I still think that this is true and that programs like the Peace Corps do more good than harm.
I also learned that cultural domination was a very slippery thing. The U.S. has done horrible things in the Philippines; it’s probably doing horrible things there now, especially in the Muslim south. The Filipinos, though, are people, and like all people they are more complex than we often give them credit for. American culture does have a heavy hand, but the Filipinos are by no means passive vessels.
Filipinos transform American power in ways that are both dramatic and very subtle. I was thinking about this today, both because this month marks the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, but also because I find myself in a similar position now, in that I work in an industry, for-profit higher education, that to some seems as dubious as the Peace Corps seemed to many of my friends 25 years ago.
“The Fear and Frustration of Faculty at For-Profit Colleges,” is a dramatic, if perhaps exaggerated, example of the suspicion many feel. This argument bothers me, first, because it suggests that the not-for profit sector has some sort of moral high ground, as if it had somehow escaped the corruptions of education under capitalism. Just a moments research illustrates that this is not true.
These critiques too often treat students in the same fashion that many critics of imperialism treat Filipinos: as passive victims. I want to a public school– the University of Texas at Austin– that made me pay tuition to teach, as a part of my graduate program, creating a debt that I have yet to repay. This school made all sorts of promises about full-time, tenured teaching positions, that were not true.
Maybe it was stupid of me to believe the pitch, but they are the same arguments being made now in colleges across the country, in for and not for profit schools alike. U.T.’s solid academic reputation, to my dismay, was of little help. I had to find my way without much guidance, but I wasn’t a victim. I would like to see lots of things change in my industry, but I think my students are more than victims too.