My lecture tomorrow in class will focus on Ivan Illich’s speech To Hell with Good Intentions. It’s a particularly frustrating talk, and class to teach, as it focuses on the challenges of even communicating when trying to “help.” I’ll let Illich take it from there:
In fact, you cannot even meet the majority which you pretend to serve in Latin America – even if you could speak their language, which most of you cannot. You can only dialogue with those like you – Latin American imitations of the North American middle class. There is no way for you to really meet with the underprivileged, since there is no common ground whatsoever for you to meet on.
Let me explain this statement, and also let me explain why most Latin Americans with whom you might be able to communicate would disagree with me.
Suppose you went to a U.S. ghetto this summer and tried to help the poor there “help themselves.” Very soon you would be either spit upon or laughed at. People offended by your pretentiousness would hit or spit. People who understand that your own bad consciences push you to this gesture would laugh condescendingly. Soon you would be made aware of your irrelevance among the poor, or your status as middle-class college students on a summer assignment. You would be roundly rejected, no matter if your skin is white-as most of your faces here are-or brown or black, as a few exceptions who got in here somehow.
Illych lays out a fundamental problem of civic engagement classes like mine. I find this myself, it’s easier for me to get to know, become friends with, and yes, work with, those who are most similar to me. That means I gravitate towards those (in Camden) most like me. Of course, most of my students do the same. It’s the reason I appreciate those in my life who “offended by (my) pretentiousness would hit or spit.” I think that’s a necessary for our faculty and students engaging here in Camden to have that experience. But it also turns people off. That’s the reason I think classes that teach local history, bring in genuine local speakers, etc. are so important for a campus that wants to engage civically. So my task as I see it, tomorrow and over the semester, is to prepare my students for negative reactions surrounding their engagement, to provide space to help them process it, and to provide academic content to help them understand it.
Or, as Illich puts it:
If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as “good,” a “sacrifice” and a “help.”
This is my challenge: to ensure my students are told to “go to hell.” That they know when they (and I fail). But also to create a class that can be a space to ensure we “know what [we] are doing, why [we] are doing it, and hot to communicate with those to whom [we] speak.”
No easy task.