Missionary Zeal and the Paradox of Paternalism

The United States of America fails Allie Fox, pushing him to abandon his homeland and to drag his family to the coast of Honduras in Paul Theroux’s Mosquito Coast, popularized by the Harrison Ford and River Phoenix film adaptation:

“That’s business,” the captain said.

“That’s ruin,” Father [Allie Fox] said. “We eat when we’re not hungry, drink when we’re not thirsty, buy what we don’t need, and throw away everything that’s useful. Don’t sell a man what he wants—sell him what he doesn’t want. Pretend he’s got eight feet and two stomachs and money to burn. That’s not illogical—it’s evil.” (p. 75)

The novel, narrated by Allie’s son, Charlie, presents Allie as a gifted scientist/inventor with socialistic ideals and an aggressive humanism: “Father said, ‘Man is God'” (p. 85). In fact, Charlie notes, “It seemed as if Father could work miracles” (p. 63).

However, one character, Polski, recognizes danger lurking beneath Allie’s missionary zeal: “‘Your father’s the most obnoxious man I’ve ever met,’ Polski said”:

“He’s the worst kind of pain in the neck—a know-it-all who’s sometimes vight.”

Then, with all the sawdust in him stirring, he added, “I’ve come to see he’s dangerous….Tell him he’s a dangerous man, and one of these days he’s going to get you al killed….” (p. 55)

Theroux’s novel echoes and parallels other works about hubris and missionary zeal—Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s  “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Yet, in Theroux’s narrative Allie is one type of missionary who sees himself above the religious missionaries in the novel. Reverend Spellgood is mocked by Allie, but the reverend’s daughter, Emily Spellgood, explains to Charlie, “‘My father’s real famous there. We’ve got a mission in the jungle. It’s really neat'” (p. 71).

Allie, however, seems comfortable with his own mission: “‘I was sent here,’ Father said” (p. 136)—a mission that involves buying land and imposing his Utopia on the native people of that land and his own family.

The novel builds to a predictable end, revealing that despite Allie’s considerable gifts and altruism, his missionary zeal reduces him to a careless tyrant, an embodiment of evil.

As a grand allegory, Theroux’s novel raises questions about paternalism, the quest by some agent of privilege to help others who appear to be in need.

Traditional religious missionary work certainly confronts that paradox of paternalism inherent in their missionary zeal, but education also faces this dilemma, broadly in commitments such as service learning and more narrowly in the mission of Teach for America, an organization that champions its missionary zeal.

In “Why Service-Learning Is Bad,” John W. Eby (1998) identifies the often ignored negative consequences of the good intentions behind service learning:

The excitement and euphoria of the service-learning movement, fueled by dramatic stories of the benefits of linking learning and service masks underlying troubling issues. The limitations of service done in the name of service-learning are often overlooked and possible harm done by to communities by short term volunteers is ignored. Conversations about negative aspects of service-learning do surface occasionally in the hallways of the academy and in the lounges of service-learning conferences. There is talk of McService, service bites, quick fix service, happy meal community service, or service in a box. Discussions of the limits service-learning have surfaced on the Internet. Community leaders and agency representatives concerned about fundamental community change raise significant questions when given opportunity.

Unfortunately these voices are often informal and sporadic. Much of the discussion about service-learning is carried on by advocates. Most of the published research about service-learning is done by academicians particularly interested in the learning side of the equation. Community leaders and residents do not have a voice in the dialogue. (p. 2)

The potential for imposed and misguided paternalism in service learning highlights the essential paradox of both service and teaching: What is the role of the population being served and/or taught, and even more complex, if that population is genuinely in need, how do those with privilege seeking to help or teach provide for others who may be unaware of those needs?

In service learning contexts, Eby does not suggest abandoning service learning, but does raise cautions about the dangers he outlines. In short, service learning helps both populations being served and the learners charged with conducting service learning when all stakeholders have equal and powerful voices guiding the projects.

A far more problematic situation, however, is the high-poverty and predominantly minority populations being served by TFA. As Sarah Car has documented in New Orleans, despite many critics condemning TFA for its missionary zeal and classist/racist practices, impoverished and minority families often eagerly choose and embrace TFA and the highly authoritarian charter schools that have flooded the city.

Carr’s work as well as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow exposes the problem of choice underneath the paradox of paternalism. Just as Carr’s narrative forces readers to consider why impoverished minorities embrace TFA and “no excuses” charter schools, Alexander directly confronts the fact that high-poverty and African American neighborhoods appear to support the mass incarceration Alexander characterizes as the new JimCrow:

Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people “support” mass incarceration or “get-tough” policies [because] if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be “more prisons.” (p. 210)

The world controlled by Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast is eventually revealed as a world with artificial choices, choices that back innocent people into corners, choices that mask the corrosive influence of privilege and rendering people being served as the Other.

Just as Eby recognizes how service learning can fall prey to forces that corrupt its mission, TFA (and “no excuses” charter schools) often falls prey to their missionary zeal, like Allie, and causes far more harm than good—despite their stated mission.

The troubling difference between TFA and Theroux’s novel, of course, is that TFA is a reality for children and communities, not simply an engaging and disturbing novel/film.

The paradox of paternalism inherent in service and teaching is not an easy problem to overcome—although awareness is a first step—but when it is compounded with missionary zeal, the outcomes are too easily predicted—children, adults, and communities underserved by a traditional system once again being mis-served by an organization promising a land of milk and honey.

Allie’s death in the novel reveals that he has become the thing he mocked: “But a white man’s death was news—a missionary, they called him. How he would have hated that!” (p. 373).

Those of us drawn to service and teaching, then, should beware missionary zeal and be aware of the paradox of paternalism.

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