AT ABOUT THE TIME -- Oct. 13, 1960 -- that John F. Kennedy stood on the steps of the University of Michigan and launched the idea of the Peace Corps, I was in college in New York. But the camera in my mind kicks swiftly to Kennedy's inaugural address the following winter, a snowy moment before flickering fires and a television set at the International House where I lived. There, surrounded by students from around the world, Kennedy's famous words -- "Look not at what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" -- struck like so many missiles. The following summer found me in Africa -- in a private volunteer program called Operation Crossroads Africa that actually predated the Peace Corps.
Sentiment surely shaped part of that memory, but the Peace Corps, which today kicks off a year-long celebration of its 20th anniversary, has remained part of the tarnished magic -- and madness -- of Camelot.
We had the hope then that we could change the world: We could erase poverty and racism; we could make the world a better place. There was the hope that we could make a difference.
Today, it is so different. Young people no longer believe they, as a group, can make a differnece. Instead, they believe that what I want rates first and foremost.
In the 20 years since Kennedy launched the corps with the mandate "to promote world peace and friendship" by providing trained manpower, increasing the understanding of America and heightening Americans' understanding of others, the world has become too much for many of us -- too complex, too difficult and unchangeable.
So even those who once had grand hopes are settling for less. Now we are content simply to make a small difference.
I asked a group of Peace Corps veterans and recent returnees what motivated them to join the corps.
The veterans mentioned "Kennedy's vision on the role Americans could play in the development of Third World countries." One black man "needed a more international insight into racial problems in particular." A woman told me, "It was a change to get involved in something important and exciting . . ." She mentioned the "Ask not what" gauntlet that Kennedy threw out in his inaugural address. "That really struck home," she said. "And at a certain level my going was a patriotic gesture. . . . It was the idea in the promise."
But some of the recent returnees also responded: "This was something I did manily for myself." "My motivation was looking for a change and new learning experience, something that would be challenging," said another. And yet another: "I wanted to find an opportunity to help and also to learn the culture and the language."
One man who left the corps 10 years ago felt it is less important in today's world because America no longer holds "the magic and respect" it used to. While that "respect" may have been an illusion, it is a reality that the world today is so different. Interdependence is the key word; the attitude of "doing something for them" has been replaced with the more valid notion of "equal partners." The returning volunteers often say they gained more from their exposure to a foreign culture than they gave -- I felt reborn. . . It is part of who I am and what I am,"said one man -- and this is something Third World countries need to hear. Too often people in other countries don't feel America cares about them.
But importantly, in this changed atmosphere, it might ironically be that today's "new generation" is best suited for the Peace Corps because it doesn't have the arrogant ambition of "changing the world" that we did. This is a difficult admission for a black American who wanted so much to be a sister in Africa but found out that she was only a cousin.
The developing countries are asserting their natural right to run their own countries and they need technical help. Today's young people need cultural exposure; they want new experience and they have technical expertise. That might just be the combination to spark new growth and change -- if the Peace Corps could only succeed in cutting through the total absence of social responsibility that permeates this generation. It is this narcissistic phenomenon that is paving the way for the frightening new conservatism sweeping our land and is so much out of the step with the expansive view of John Kennedy. The "new generation" could in turn bring home with them much-needed lessons for this country such as respect for the environment, lessened materialism, a new scale of values more appropriate for an interdependent world.
The Peace Corps needs more minorities, but is having trouble luring them into the service. That's because most have had such a struggle making it in the American culture that the prospect of another cultural experience has seemed too great a luxury, elitist even. With just 6 percent of the more than 6,000 volunteers, the minority representation is too low. The Peace Corps has tried recently to recruit more non-whites through several innovative programs. Yet badly as they are needed, it seems that significantly increasing the numbers of nonwhites is a far-off prospect until some added economic payoff can be incorporated. The now-defunct Teacher Corps division of the Peace Corps gave a free one-year master's degree course as part of the training and one minority corpsman told me frankly that had been the lure for her.
But for all young Americans, now motivated less by "changing the world" than by personal considerations, maybe it is appropriate that they are the new pool. For when they go, they go to learn rather than "serving the less fortunate" and indeed it is time to evaluate who is less fortunate -- we who are so rich materially or these countries which are so rich culturally.