- April 10, 2013
- Posted by: Meg VanDeusen
- Category: Ambassador
Today’s post comes from Katherine Koller, a student with our partner organization Thinking Beyond Borders. TBB is a gap year program committed to changing learning in to action. This reflection stems from a group discussion held during her gap year.
As we passed Ivan Illich’s speech “To Hell with Good Intentions” around the room, each of us reading aloud a paragraph, slowly all expressions turned to what I can only describe as dazed. His speech began: “I am here to tell you, if possible to convince you, and hopefully, to stop you, from pretentiously imposing yourselves.”I wasn’t angry with the author; I wasn’t converted. At first I was simply numb to protect myself from the existential crisis that I feared would come upon further reflection.
I have to admit, it fazed me. I’m finding it incredibly difficult to organize my thoughts on this matter. I have far too many of them coming at me much too quickly.
I embarked on my gap year truly believing I’d be doing good. I don’t pretend to still believe this. Seriously, who have I helped on this trip? Ecuador: I replanted trees for farmers who had destroyed them in the first place, and would probably (one of them already did while we were there) destroy them again. China: I “helped” privileged Chinese students learn English so that they could score well on exams and become even more privileged. India: I begged and pleaded to go to work every day, to pick 50 cents worth of cotton for farmers who were simply indulging a silly girl. South Africa: I “assist” caretakers who are perfectly capable of doing their work themselves. And if I think of all the plane fare spent on this trip and what it could have done if it had simply been donated…sometimes my resolution truly wavers. But then I remember that the purpose of this trip is “service learning,” and I feel much better.
During orientation I was introduced to the idea of service learning versus actual community service. I was frustrated by this “service learning” where it didn’t seem like I was doing any good for anyone. Then I arrived in India. I was there to study sustainable agriculture. However, all I could focus on were the injustices towards women.
A year ago I didn’t know if I could be truly passionate about anything besides theatre, and I had absolutely no clue what I was going to do with my life. Now I do. I wouldn’t call it a desire so much as a need to return to India. I can’t see what I saw and do nothing about it. I need to return to India and work for a women’s or human rights NGO of some sort. I was born with so much extra anger and passion, and I finally know where I can productively channel it. So there is no doubt in my mind that this year was not wasted. It was the best-used year of my life. I don’t pretend that it wasn’t selfish, it was. I don’t pretend that I “sacrificed” to help others. And I am not ridiculously proud of myself.
But if I can follow the career path that this trip inspired me to follow, I can make it up to the world. I truly believe I can. Because although Illich was correct in saying that you can’t do any good in a month, I believe that he’s wrong in saying you can’t do any good abroad period. I can start studying Hindi in college, I can spend years instead of months in India, and I can learn to understand the culture enough to help.
How can Illich say that Americans can’t do good abroad? I’ll admit, Illich hit pretty close to home with the whole “living in a hut and eating tortillas” thing, and yes in four core countries I didn’t speak one of the languages. But I am skeptical towards his assertion that I have done “willy-nilly” damage. Throughout the trip we have been studying “bad” development, and I hope that I have sense enough that I’d realize if I were participating in it. To convince me on this point, Illich would have to provide further and more specific examples. As for getting into politics instead, if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that politicians cannot be trusted to take care of the world by themselves.
I know that some adults will be shaking their heads saying, “silly little girl will change her mind a thousand times before she really decides what she wants to do.” Maybe that’s true. But at least I have direction now where I had none before. And at least I have good intentions, which I know won’t be enough.
So what do you think, if it’s good in intent and it’s just a little bent, does it matter?