Greg Rohlf's Special Interests
Works in progress
“Manual Labor in Faraway Places: The International History of an Idea” shows a completely new direction to my work. In this article, I follow the historical evolution of the idea of international volunteering through a range of countries during the twentieth century. Volunteering to help others, especially those living overseas who were poorer and ethnically different from the volunteer herself or himself became a highly sought after transformative experience beginning at the mid-twentieth century, just as mass tourism was accelerating. This transformation was understood within the metaphor of education. Like a good education, volunteering abroad changed one’s Self deeply and permanently.
Most of the examples examined in the article are drawn from writings about the personal-transformative dimension of voluntary service in China, but the broader purpose of the article is to trace the global history of the phenomenon. The historical record shows that serving Others has remained, somewhat paradoxically, about the Self. Poor, remote villages were not only personal proving grounds for the volunteers’ sense of Self; they were also often proving grounds for the version of modernization favored by the metropolitan civilization that had sent them there. Specifically, the volunteer programs examined in this essay came of age during the Cold War. Their success or failure was a measure of the quality and values of the sort of modernization they promised. In the context of the Cold War, placement countries were high stakes battlegrounds of political ideas and great power hegemony.