David Patrick McKenzie

History Communicator

Category: Latin America

Informal education, museums, and the Peace Corps

“Peace Corps and the Alamo. I never thought I’d hear that combination.”

That was the reaction of a professor several years ago when I mentioned where I had worked. In March, when I attended the Symposium on Informal Learning, sponsored by the American Association of Museums and The George Washington University Museum Education Program, I remembered that statement.

Listening to the speakers discuss informal education and learning (related but different concepts) reminded me how much my experience in El Salvador with the Peace Corps has overlapped with the career I’ve begun in the museum world. Yet to many, this overlap has seemed surprising. Perhaps this stems from seemingly (at least to my own eyes) little overlap in personnel. In my short time in the Peace Corps, I met no one who was planning a museum or public history career. Although I’ve heard of people in museums and public history who once served in Peace Corps, I haven’t yet met any in person (although I mutually tweet with a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who is in a library program).

Thus, I share my experiences here in hope of provoking dialogue and connections between museums and the Peace Corps, both of which are engaged in the common objective of creative education outside of a classroom setting and share a lot more in common than may meet the eye.

My initial encounter with informal education

Although I had worked as a history interpreter at the Alamo for several months prior to leaving for El Salvador, Peace Corps training was the first place that I encountered the term informal education.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Peace Corps strongly emphasizes that concept. Many volunteers–in my case, all of my training class besides a 56-year-old engineer–are either fresh out of college or a few years removed. We had spent most of our lives in the formal education system, yet were going to  work with people who often had little contact with their country’s formal educational system.

In my community, many adults had not gone past early elementary school. But lack of education does not mean lack of intelligence. During the next several months I interacted with some of the smartest people I’ve met in my life. Many people–whether Salvadoran campesinos (country folk, loosely translated) or gringos with multiple degrees–do not always learn best in formal settings. Informal education does not mean dumbing down; it simply means teaching with different, “informal,” methods.

So, to reach our audiences, we had to break the habits we had acquired from the formal education system. Gone were lectures. In El Salvador, we gave charlas (“chats,” as compared with “talks”), often at meetings of various community organizations.

Although I didn’t realize it until I returned to the Alamo after early-terminating from Peace Corps, I had also been engaging in informal education there. I have done the same in my museum internships and jobs since. After all, much of what a museum does is informal education, whether it be through lectures, tours, exhibitions, new media activities, and even publications.

Commonalities

Thus, based on my experiences of 10 months in the Peace Corps and now nearly 10 intermittent years in the museum/public history field, I offer some more specific commonalities, with anecdotes to illustrate the points. Since my M.A. is in Museum Studies, and I have not held a specific museum education job (although my jobs have involved some of the same functions), this is by no means a comprehensive list, just some examples that come to mind.

Interactivity

This is the most basic, and general, idea of informal education. The talking head, in both museum settings and the Peace Corps, is the kiss of death to learning. Informal education in both settings is interactive; at its most basic, a dialogue between educator and audience. In Peace Corps, we were rightfully admonished not to be up in front of a group just yakking away, but to engage the audience. This could be through any means, but the most important thing was having a dialogue–a charla.

Guided discovery

One form of interactive informal education that I’ve seen in both museums and Peace Corps is guided discovery–the idea that we guide our audiences to the learning objectives, rather than just telling them. In Peace Corps, volunteers are trained to fade into the background and guide their audiences.

For example, in my community, people complained about how long and scattered community council meetings could be–so much so that it was a disincentive to attendance (other volunteers reported the same). So I decided to try a charla on parliamentary procedure. It was a challenge; parliamentary procedure is not easy to teach in a classroom, much less an informal setting. So, based on what I had learned in training, I worked with that particular meeting’s attendees to draw up rules for how to conduct meetings more efficiently. I put up a piece of butcher paper and worked with the community members to create two lists: essentially, characteristics of good meetings and characteristics of bad meetings. I asked some leading questions. Even when I didn’t, people came up with great suggestions. In the end, we had a list that community members, not the gringo, had created.

Just the same, in museums we guide people to come to the conclusions we are trying to teach. During a tour, rather than telling people what is on a building, we have them look for themselves. Then, we guide them to deduce the building’s history from those clues. Thus, our audience members feel like they have come up with the solution for themselves, and are more likely to have that lesson sink in.

Physical motion, even games

Peace Corps training strongly emphasizes games; I was lucky to have a program director who had co-authored an entire book on games to use in water, health, and sanitation education. What I saw there, and have since seen in museums, convinced me that games are not just for children.

In my community, I watched a nongovernmental organization worker use a game from that book to great effect to teach about the importance of preventative health practices–not always well-known in rural El Salvador. She gave each participant a certain amount of “money.” Then she read out different scenarios for the next several days, reflecting decisions people could make about preventative health. Each participant either received more money (for a day’s work) or lost money (for expenses) for each day. For example, someone did not wash his/her hands before handling food and got amoebas (not a pleasant experience). The person lost a day’s work (in a country where sick leave is rare) and also had to buy medicine. Someone else who did practice preventative health, meanwhile, gained a day’s wage. In the end, the person who had taken the most responsibility for prevention had the most money.

Sure, she could have gotten up and just lectured on the importance of preventative health. But by showing it through this game, she drove the point home; the followup discussion clearly reflected that.

Just the same, in museums we frequently have people act out scenarios. There has recently been a great deal of discussion about gaming in learning–not just in museums, but broadly. Participants in that discussion should look to the Peace Corps for inspiration; Peace Corps has been using games to teach for decades.

Final thoughts

I hope this post might provoke dialogue between museums and the Peace Corps, two of the most established types of informal education institutions. In my brief experiences, I’ve seen a lot of connection between their methodologies. Museum educators would make great Peace Corps volunteers, and vice versa. Both have a lot to learn from each other. I hope that both will do so.

I hope that in the future, people won’t be so surprised when I say that I’ve served as a Peace Corps volunteer and made a career in museums.

Do you have experiences in informal education, whether in the Peace Corps, museums, or another setting? Please share those in the comments. I would love for people with more experience in both to compare notes.

Preliminary final project

My preliminary final project is live: http://davidmckenzie.info/projects/exhibits/show/santa-anna-goes-to-washington

I feel like it’s coming along. It’s coming along a bit more slowly than I had hoped, but it is coming along. Thus far I’ve found working with Omeka both challenging and rewarding. Rewarding, because it’s taken a learning curve to crack, and because it will give me more flexibility to include more items, particularly as the design solidifies. Challenging, for those same reasons. I have gone back to my CSS repeatedly, as I’ve added more items and realized, oh wait, that didn’t work so well. Not long ago, I expanded my main content container to give everything more breathing room.

A couple continuing issues:

  • The secondary navigation, i.e., the left menu bar. Overall I’m happy with how it’s turned out, except that some page titles get cut off. I’m not sure if it’s an issue with my padding and margins; anyone have thoughts?
  • I may need to go into Omeka’s exhibit page layouts and make some alterations. I haven’t been happy with how some of the layouts are turning out, such as this one. It’s meant to have two columns worth of items on the right side. Right now, it’s only displaying one, but some room for a second. I may need to make it so that it just wants to display one, as I feel the main text is too narrow.

Because of my continuing tinkering with the design (which has been really helped by blog comments from Claire and Lindsey, Twitter comments from program classmates Lynn and Erin, and in-person comments from my wife), I haven’t put in as much of the content as I’d like. There is more to come–but I hope where I am now gives a taste of what will be there.

I will look forward to receiving feedback from my classmates tomorrow night (or tonight, now that I’m writing past midnight). Anyone else that cares to comment, please feel free!

What a difference a detail can make…

Right now I’m sitting by a microfilm machine at George Mason University’s Arlington campus library, looking at a microfilm–retrieved via interlibrary loan–of the journal of Calista Cralle Long. Long’s grandson published it in 1940, but it is hard to find–indeed, no Washington-area libraries, not even the Library of Congress, have it.

Long travelled with her husband and family from near Lynchburg, Virginia, to Union County, Kentucky, in late 1836 and early 1837. My reason for looking at her diary: On December 29, 1836, the party passed through Lexington, Kentucky. They stayed in the same place as Antonio López de Santa Anna, Juan Almonte, and three Texas Republic officials, who were traveling from toward Washington. Long described what happened:

We are now in Lexington, Kentucky, one of the handsomest places I was ever in. The surrounding country is highly cultivated and very neatly managed, the woodland enclosed and all the undergrowth cut down. This enclosure serves for stock. The grass, I am told, is nearly eighteen inches high on average.

Mr. Henry Clay has a most beautiful residence near town. We reached here about dark. The candles were burning on either side of the street and the reflection gave everything an added beauty.

There is a little confusion in town tonight on account of the heartless cruel Santa Anna’s arrival here. There is some little talk of a mob tonight. He has two gentlemen with him, his aide-de-camp and Major Somebody, I have forgotten his name. We are all lodged under the same roof. We took tea with the latter gentlemen at the same table.

The Mexican is a very genteel looking man, of low stature, dark hair and eyes, and rather sallow complexion. They are on their way to Washington, as they say, to see the President of the United States, (Jackson). I did not learn their business, neither did I see the General as he was ill and did not leave his room.

Santa Anna kept his room closely and very much wrapped and muffled up to prevent the effect of the keen air. His aide says he longs very much for his lost Paradise, Mexico.

Image of Juan Nepomuceno Almonte

Likely Long took tea with Juan Almonte, a Mexican army colonel who served as Santa Anna's translator during the journey to Washington.

I found this diary through serendipity when searching on ArchiveGrid for references to Santa Anna a while back. In the libraries that hold the published version of this diary, most catalog entries for this diary (at least not the ones I have seen) do not mention Santa Anna.

However, the catalog, uploaded to ArchiveGrid, from Madisonville Community College in Kentucky does. I haven’t seen this diary cited anywhere in accounts of Santa Anna’s voyage to Washington, and might not have known of its relevance otherwise. This diary entry will be a great source for my upcoming class project site about Santa Anna’s trip to Washington, and will eventually roll into my dissertation.

So to whoever that cataloger was, I say, thank you for adding that little detail! You never know what may help a future researcher.

Peace Corps: Semi-leaving Central America?

My house, San Lorenzo, Sensuntepeque, El Salvador, 2003

Having spent 10 months as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador in 2003 (before I early-terminated after losing 30 pounds and being constantly sick), I was disappointed to see that Peace Corps is shutting down its operations in Honduras and not sending more volunteers into Guatemala and El Salvador.

The reported reason is crime: the Northern Triangle of Central America (the three aforementioned countries) has one of the world’s highest crime rates, only rising as drug and gang wars heat up. While I have not been to Central America since 2005 and have lost touch with my village, Peace Corps’s decision mystifies me.

In 2003, crime was certainly an issue in El Salvador. From what I remember of my group’s briefing by Embassy security officers, the murder rate for the country as a whole was comparable with that of the worst of U.S. cities. This briefing included precautions we should all take.

Yet, while I was there–frequently riding buses the 60 miles between my site and the nurse’s office in San Salvador–I didn’t have any issues. Granted, I’m a 5’11”, not small man, but nonetheless, I felt protected by people in my village–even the guys local chisme (gossip) said were gang members. By contrast, two years later I had a bicycle and my backpack stolen within a six-week period in Dupont Circle, one of the better-off neighborhoods of Washington.

I don’t doubt that the security situation in El Salvador has deteriorated since I was there, and I know that Peace Corps has volunteers’ best interests at heart. Nonetheless, I’m saddened and mystified by this decision. Has Honduras gotten so bad–with violence aimed specifically at Peace Corps volunteers–that there was no other choice? Has the country become the equivalent of a combat zone?

The part that mystifies me most, though, is the decision not to send new volunteers into Guatemala and El Salvador. This seems a half-baked compromise. If the countries are that dangerous, then Peace Corps should simply withdraw. If the countries aren’t dangerous enough to necessitate withdrawal, Peace Corps should send the next batch of volunteers there–such as the January group, of whose predecessor I was a member nine years ago.

Is this a precursor to an eventual withdrawal from Guatemala and El Salvador? Is Peace Corps hoping to have fewer volunteers to evacuate if that decision is made?

Peace Corps previously withdrew from El Salvador in 1979, as the conflict between guerrillas and a U.S.-backed government got worse. It would be a shame for Peace Corps to be forced to withdraw again, as violence resulting from drug demand in the United States creates a worsening security situation.

El Salvador needs development assistance, and Peace Corps gets some of the best bang for the buck–its annual budget is a fraction of the military aid sent there every year during the civil war. I hope that any decision on withdrawal is only taken in an absence of any alternative. Not allowing new volunteers into the country does not seem like a viable alternative.