Reading a post by my blogging friend Jayne today (go here to read it for yourself...and make sure you watch the video at the end of her post), I found these words: "First world problem." Her post was making a completely different point, but it sent my mind back several years to my teaching at the nearby community college.
I taught several course--the ubiquitous English 101--Introduction to Composition. Since the community college curriculum requires that ALL students take English Composition, there were many sections of this course and many teachers. English 101 was followed by English 102--Introduction to Argument and Logic. I taught these two courses, but I much preferred teaching English 102. (One other course I got to teach several times was Introduction to Literature--my favorite course!)
So, why did Jayne's words--first world problem--set my mind back to teaching? Because as a final project, I required students to work in teams to explore a third world problem and whether or not the first world had any obligation to address that problem.
Before I describe more about this problem, I acknowledge that current terminology no longer favors the use of the terms "first world" or "third world". These terms are relics of the balance of power following World War II--the former Allies, primarily the United States and Britain, were the first world; the Communist block was the second world; and the developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America constituted the third world. Eventually, the terms "first world" and "third world" came to indicated "developed" and "undeveloped/ developing" countries. Of course, today, the Cold War has ended; and developing countries are rising--think India or Brazil. So, the old terms don't work any more.
Here's what the project entailed. I instructed each group to pick a "third world" country, and then identify a major problem in that country. Then, decide what obligation, if any, the "first world" has to help ameliorate that problem. The project involved an oral team report, as well as individual research papers.
The range of problems selected and countries researched was fascinating. Oh, there were some amusing (and appalling) problems. I had one young African-American woman tell me she wanted to study Africa. I said--fine, which country? She gave me a genuinely blank look which told me she had no idea Africa was a continent, not a country. Once more informed, she and her team decided to study AIDS in Zambia--a worthy project.
For several semesters running, I had projects on Haiti--you name it, Haiti has it as a problem. I had human trafficking in general, and more specifically focused on prostitution. I had water, or really lack thereof. And I had many diseases--AIDS, malaria. I had genocide (in Rwanda, of course).
Mostly, the students would argue that the "first world" should do something about these various problems. No magical solutions ever emerged. One group, that had tackled Somalia and its piracy, acknowledged that a lack of strong government was a major problem. One student in that group turned in his research paper wherein he had argued, quite sincerely, that the country's problems would all be solved if they simply became Christian. I pressed him hard on his paper--and in the end pointed out that he had not demonstrated a complete comprehension of what the country was like (for example, he didn't even enumerate how many people followed what faith traditions) and I pointed out that he had not convincingly argued for his solution. Poor kid--he really thought that waiving Christianity as a solution was convincing--no need for proof.
All in all, the end of semester projects were always a highlight for me. My strong sense was that most of the students actually grappled, even for a short while, with large, perhaps unsolvable, problems. And they had to learn something outside their own small worlds. Plus they had to think about what it means to live in the "first world" when so many other people live in the "third world."