Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Dissenting Opinion

A disclaimer: this post is perhaps surprisingly more candid and negative than I usually reveal. I apologize in advance if my positions offend you, but I will not recant them. I hope that those of you reading this who were involved in the events I have described - some now good friends - will not find my dissenting opinion sufficient reason to take serious offense.

I recently learned from a friend of mine that the BYU Field Studies Program is being shut down. My friend and several others have raised a protest; they value their field studies experiences highly, and are sad that the program is to be no more.

Allow me to voice a dissenting opinion: a BYU Field Study was my single most miserable BYU experience, and one I would not wish on any student, ever. It has been a continuing source of pain and frustration, rubbed raw again recently by briefly re-encountering the contempt I feel from former Field Studies' staff concerning my experiences and myself. How dare I dislike field studies!

If you examine my blog - this blog, in fact - during the summer of 2010, you will find that my experience was not all bad. Indeed, I limited my blog posts to uplifting experiences, of which there were many. In the words of a man I respect very much, "it's always good weather [when you are abroad]"; people at home should probably not hear about your personal struggles (until they are resolved) unless 1.) you need their assistance, and 2.) they can assist you somehow. My experiences did not meet these criteria, so I tried to be exclusively uplifting.

The Field Studies program focuses very much on cross-cultural experiences; I was told the program would help me better understand my fellow human beings. Additionally, I was told that it would help me better appreciate other's viewpoints. We were taught that, rather than trying to fix or help others, we should try to serve them - an other-centric philosophy that adapts to the local conditions, customs, and norms.

Unfortunately, the Field Studies program did not, in my experience, extend the same philosophy to its own participants. I felt, often, that the program - or, rather, my leaders, facilitator, some of the other students, my host mother, and the administrative policies of the program - were trying to "fix" or "help" me when I neither needed nor wanted correction. Indeed, I found the efforts offensive, painful, damaging and counter-productive.

Field Studies was the most culturally relativistic program I experienced at BYU. We were carefully instructed not to judge other people, especially the native people with whom we would be interacting. Unfortunately, cultural relativism is itself an absolutist doctrine: either you believe that anything (culture, people, set of behaviors) is as good as anything else, or you do not. I do not, and so my "non-judgmental" peers judged me as less than correct or good.

I have strong opinions about who I am and where the Lord would have me go in life. These establish a strong sense of right and wrong in my personal conduct. I do not now, and did not then, apply these standards to others, but I claim the right to act according to the dictates of my own conscience and to suffer the consequences, good or bad, of such behavior. My philosophy, and attendant life goals, were consistently and repeatedly denigrated or dismissed by Field Studies staff, both before and after I arrived in South Africa. It was a source of pain, frustration, and conflict for me during my entire experience that I was apparently expected to apply different standards to those around me than I was allowed to expect them to apply to me. Note that I am not talking here about native South Africans (with one exception), but about the members of my field studies group and the staff of the Field Studies program after I returned.

I was told that my Field Studies group and host family would be there to help me manage the difficult times I would have concerning those with whom I worked. My experience was precisely the opposite: I loved the people with whom I worked, and had it not been for the churches, religious leaders, students and teachers I was interviewing and serving, I would not have survived the experience emotionally.

Do not misunderstand: I learned an amazing amount during my time in South Africa, but the things I learned are not lessons I am sure I am glad I have gained. For example, for the first time in my life, I understood what it meant to use my race, consciously, to my advantage. When I was near my breaking point, I understood for the first time that I had power in South African society because I was white, and that I did not need to fear or tolerate some of the events occurring as a result of that fact. For the first time, I understood my racial privilege viscerally. It was one of the low points in my life, and one of which I am still ashamed. I believe in the family of man. I do not believe in racial superiority, and I do not want to ever again consider using my race like a weapon, even in self-defense.

But, for all that, I would support Field Studies and protest for its continuation except, for one fact. The rest I could chalk up to experience and an unlucky draw, but there is one aspect of the program I cannot tolerate, and that element makes me not only un-surprised, but partially grateful that Field Studies is leaving BYU.

Namely, this: the Field Studies personnel and policies were either neutral or derogatory concerning my faith in God. I was never attacked directly on religious grounds; rather, I was "instructed" that my beliefs were insufficient or incomplete because they were not culturally relativistic.

The Gospel is not a relativistic path of life. There is right and wrong, and though I may not always understand what those rights and wrongs are in a given situation, my heart is still either becoming more like God's, or less.

I wish, I long, for a field studies program that is as difficult and painful as mine was, but that asks and suggests and encourages the students to turn to God in their extremity. I wish that the pain - emotional and physical - that I experienced had been necessary and improving, and that I could claim the program itself had helped me to be a better person. I wish that I had found a "community of saints" in my study, that I would have had good experiences generally with the other members of my program, that we could have "strengthened each other in the Lord," that I could give a good report of my experiences overall. But I did not, and it was and has remained a source of pain for me, even two years later. I have found greater camraderie, espirit de corps, respect for my religious beliefs and empathy - from complete strangers - all over the world in my subsequent travels, than I found in my Field Study with fellow BYU students.

There are facilitators - friends of mine, still, I hope, if they have continued reading - who will dismiss my experiences even now. Others did not experience their Field Study as I did, so surely what I have said is not valid. To them I return the standard Field Studies argument: why is your positive experience more valid than my negative one?

Those who dismiss me and mine are welcome to do so. But I do not weep that BYU Field Studies is dying, and I hope its replacement does a better job for its students than I feel Field Studies did for me.

Yours truly,
Brett T.M. Peterson

1 comment:

  1. First off, I can say that I’ve known something of your feelings about the Field Studies programs, and, even after reading this post, it’s still my hope that our friendship can remain intact in spite any disagreements about these programs ;)

    As a member of the Field Studies staff, I feel especially sorry that you felt your views and faith were not valued. I actually remember in the prep class how grateful the instructor and facilitators were for your willingness to speak up, share ideas, and participate in discussion, and it’s unfortunate that this appreciation wasn’t communicated well. I don’t want to challenge your experience in any way, but I think it is safe to say that all the Field Studies staff hoped to do was raise some different perspectives so that the students could be more mindful and conscientious about their own world views and more prepared to understand (not be converted to) the perspectives and values of other cultures and other people. We take it as a failure on our part that you received anything other than this from the program staff, and that you felt your own perspectives and values minimized.

    Now, on my own behalf, here are some of my thoughts about the cancellation of BYU Field Studies:

    I didn’t know you when you first came in contact with Field Studies and began planning a project and experience for the field. I don’t know what experience you had hoped to have. I feel, though, that getting that ideal experience through BYU is even less possible today and for the foreseeable future than it was when you came to the program a few years ago, because of the way the International Study Programs office has approached this decision about the Field Studies programs. I’m okay with the idea of Field Studies, as presently constituted, being drastically overhauled, or phased out in favor of a significantly different model. Whether because of inherent weaknesses in the program or incompatibilities with the institutional goals of BYU and ISP, there are certainly arguments to be made along these lines. What bothers me is that so little thought and planning has gone into how the Kennedy Center or BYU International Study Programs can support student-initiated cultural inquiry in the wake of Field Studies’s cancellation. I’m concerned at how little emphasis is being placed on meeting student needs. I’m concerned at how little attention is given to providing more affordable experiences abroad at BYU. I’m concerned that cross-disciplinary interests are not going to be supported. Even the discussion about supporting academic departments in creating their own study programs abroad fails to recognize what that support might be; it’s ridiculous to expect, for example, that departments dealing with subjects like public health, arts, humanities, history, and so on to also specialize in cross-cultural skill training, yet ostensibly BYU wants all these students to have access to meaningful, academic experiences abroad.

    Anyway, I could keep rambling here. There are other points I could bring up, but more than anything what bothers me is that there has been little forethought into how certain needs might be met after Field Studies is gone. My view is that while you might be right about the weaknesses of Field Studies, while ISP might be right in moving away from Field Studies, the cancellation as it has been executed represents a lack of interest in helping students find or create the kind of experiences abroad that they want to have, or supporting students and faculty in preparing for deeply immersive cultural experiences. It represents a preference for expediency over actually improving the quality and diversity of BYU’s programs abroad. For me it’s not about whether Field Studies exists or not, but rather the values that are and are not motivating the decisions surrounding Field Studies’ cancellation and the future of BYU’s international study programs.