Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Much needed perspective

One of the reasons I joined the Peace Corps was that I felt the need for more perspective on life.
Two years in the Peace Corps, living in a different country with a different culture, learning a different language, will give you more perspective than the average American can handle. You have no choice but to broaden your mind, both to the bad and the good of your host country, and of your own country.

I am here as a teacher. My specialty is computers, although I do lots of other teaching.
This has presented me with two major obstacles to overcome:

1) How to teach students about computers when electricity is undependable? For instance, this past Saturday there was absolutely no electricity all day. When computers break in this country it is usually the power supply that goes bad because the electrical current fluctuates so much.

The lack of electricity and water is not unexpected, and is something you just have to get used to.
So is the fact that my Spanish is muy pobre.
The other obstacle, however, is much more difficult to overcome:

2) The educational system here is an absolute disaster.

People in The States like to talk about how bad the American educational system is. A single day in a Dominican school would change their perspective. The Dominican Republic has the worst public education system in the Western Hemisphere. Yes, that includes being worse than Haiti.
[public expenditure for education] is 2 percent of the GDP, compared to 4 percent average in the region. There are not enough infrastructures to provide access for all children. As a result, students only receive about two hours of education a day in overcrowded classrooms.
According to the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations' organization that connects countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help development, by 2006, only 56.9 percent of the professors had levels equivalent to bachelor's degree and less than 5 percent accomplished the official scholar curriculum.
Those who cannot afford private school might not graduate from high school since only 48 percent of the matriculated students get a high school diploma.
As bad as that sounds, in reality it is much worse. Here are a few anecdotes:

I overheard a teacher telling her students that there are two continents in the world - the west continent and the east continent.

I am planning on giving a workshop to the high school teachers on how to use Microsoft Word. I decided that it would be great if I took one of their current exams and converted it to Word, thus showing how the knowledge could directly make a positive impact in their work (they currently use exams created on a typewriter, or handwritten, and then photocopy it). So I asked for a copy of a current exam.
The exam is full of misspellings.

I got a global map in both English and Spanish and showed it to the neighborhood kids. I asked them to find the Dominican Republic on it. Since American students fail this test too, it didn't surprise me that the kids couldn't do it. What did surprise me was that the kids had no idea what I was asking them. They had no concept of what a map was and what it was used for.

Despite all these shortcomings, the current students are obviously the best educated the Dominican Republic has ever seen. Much of the adult population is functionally illiterate. It's a sad statement that mi pobre espaƱol is superior to most native speakers in my pueblo when it comes to literacy.
The libraries here, when there actually is one, is full of brand-new books. They've never been used. Go into anyone's home and the only book you will find is the Bible. There is no tradition of reading here.

And yet I still feel lucky. The students I have are generally respectful and eager to learn. Other Peace Corps volunteers tell me horror stories of students that are out of control and make teaching a class impossible.
Classes here can't last longer than a hour because students simply shut down after 45 minutes. They've never had to concentrate on anything longer than that.

Which brings me to an epiphany I had the other day while visiting another volunteer's site.
His casa is about 100 feet from a local escuela. We were sitting outside watching the kids in the playground. They were running around hitting each other with sticks and throwing rocks at each other. It went on for a very long time. There was no supervision.
When it finally came time to restart classes, the teacher tried to organize the kids into lines. It was an impossible task as the kids either ignored the lines, or tried to knock each other out of the lines.

That's when it occurred to me that I had seen this before - with Dominican adults trying to get on a transit bus or trying to buy things at a store. They have no respect for lines or waiting their turn either.
Then I had my epiphany: simple things like respect for your fellow man and waiting your turn is learned behavior.

Imagine a world where you don't know where you exist on the planet, and no one around you does either. Imagine a world where you don't know what is happening in the world, and no one around you does either. Imagine a world where you don't know how to read, and no one around you does either.
Now here's the important part - imagine a world where none of this is strange because this is the way it has always been and may always be.

How would this limit your view of what you can become? Where you can go? What you can accomplish?
I come from California (which to Dominicans is a suburb of Nueva York). I may as well have been dropped from outer space. After living here nearly a year it occurred to me that no one has bothered to ask me, "What is it like where you come from?"
Isn't that strange? Dominicans have no frame of reference to even ask that question.

Now circle back to my epiphany and ask yourself if this limited view of the world isn't also true for America, just different?

In the Dominican Republic there are almost no homeless people. Imagine that.
A country this poor and lacking in basic services can still take care of their own.
Oh sure, the homes may lack windows (and in the case of Haitian immigrants, floors) but nearly everyone has a roof over their heads. Family takes care of family, including extended family.
Now ask yourself what is so sick and twisted with Americans that we can't do this too?

In the Dominican Republic everyone knows their neighbors. Imagine that.
People here leave their front doors open all the time. You are expected to simply walk into other people's homes, unannounced, even if you don't know the person, and introduce yourself. No one gets excited about it.
Now ask yourself what is so wrong with Americans that we can't do this too?

In the Dominican Republic everyone wants to share what little they have. Imagine that.
If you stop in someone's casa they will inevitably offer you coffee. And if it is around meal time, they will insist they feed you. If you are on a bus (or GuaGua), and someone has some food (or moonshine), they will offer it to everyone.
Now ask yourself what is so wrong with Americans that we can't be like this too?

My point isn't that one culture is better than another. My point is that when it comes to societies problems that we classify as "human nature" is mostly just culture. It can be changed, if we wanted to change it.
What is needed is for more people to ask "why?" Why are things like the way they are? Why can't we change them for the better? And don't tell me it's because "people are like that" because I know that isn't true. People have been trained to be like that, and they can be untrained. Or better yet, they can untrain themselves if someone would just show them how.


singlein2012 said...

wow, we really got it good! u rock!

Unknown said...

wow, we really got it good! u rock!