Death of Idealism: A Peace Corps Case Study

I was never a Peace Corps volunteer, but after studying and writing about the agency for six years, there are parts of the Peace Corps experience that feel very familiar. The culmination of those six years of research has just been published in a book called The Death of Idealism. It’s a provocative title—it’s intended to be. The book is actually about rationalism, professionalization, and some of the social forces that emerge within late-stage capitalism.

I am a sociologist who studies organizations. Modern society is formed around organizations, but they aren’t neutral structures: organizations have values and priorities and agendas, and they teach their participants constant lessons about being members of society. Schools, for instance, teach people what education is and how to get along with others; religious congregations teach people about morality; the Peace Corps teaches people about development and social change.

My book uses the case of the Peace Corps to explain why and how participation in a bureaucratic organization changes people’s ideals and politics. To do so, I look both beyond and within the organization—at the forces within society that put pressure on the Peace Corps, how those pressures trickle down to the volunteers, and how the whole enterprise of the Peace Corps has affected the development industry over the years.

The basic story is this: at its inception, the Peace Corps was heavily motivated by idealistic thinking, both among its staff and its volunteers. To a large extent, that is still true. Between 1961 and 2015 though, the organization faced huge pressures from Congress and from society at large. It should come as no surprise to readers that many were skeptical of the Peace Corps and its potential to contribute. So over the course of those 50+ years, and generally to ward off attacks and budget cuts and to “justify” its existence, the Peace Corps made a series of changes to how it operated. It became much more “rationalized” and managerialistic, and it began to try to make itself professional to help be seen as legitimate. These changes were also linked with neoliberal economic and social reforms; neoliberalism is an ideology of governance, and that ideology greatly affected the Peace Corps.

These changes created patterns in the volunteers’ experiences over time. The Peace Corps, because of its increasingly managerial orientation and the fact that it avoids things that are “political”, falls short of teaching its volunteers important lessons, because development is all about power and politics (as the research has shown time and time again). There is no such thing as “apolitical” development—any community or social change project has values attached. That’s not a bad thing; it’s the nature of the beast. But pretending that values don’t exist makes development much harder. 

And more to the point, it also very much changes volunteers’ experiences. The lessons that volunteers learn in neoliberal public service and civil society affect their visions of democracies, governance, and social change over the long term. There are a few big patterns: RPCVs tend to volunteer over the long term, although in very specific settings. They are usually liberal-centrist, although with some interesting variations. A great many eventually enter what we call “helping” professions, either in education, international development, or social services.

But the Peace Corps, for all its vision of community development, does not teach a systemic perspective on development, and volunteers feel this paradox. They experience the disconnect between what the Peace Corps promotes, and how that development work is actually done. And this disconnect shapes their opinions about development, about politics, and about a great many other things.

The book tells a story about a complex set of pressures—much larger than a single organization—that shape organizational behavior and, through that, the experiences and trajectories of volunteers.

I hope you will give it a read.