Nineteen-year-old males aren't paragons of learning and wisdom. Sequestering them with other nineteen-year-olds probably isn't a recipe for much improvement. Despite these serious handicaps, they are the primary representatives of our church. (I am setting aside the sister missionaries for a moment, since they are much more mature, educated, and scarce.)
Unfortunately, we but ill-prepare these boys for their service. Sure, we shovel a lot of language and scripture-sharing into them, but we don't provide any cultural background for the place they'll be living for two years. The sum total of the Argentine culture I was exposed to in the MTC was a three-page fact sheet about exports and demographics and one "culture night." During culture night, returned missionaries showed us slides of their mission, passed around a soccer jersey, and taught us a supposedly Argentine song. (We all learned it fastidiously, and then never heard it again.) That's it.
We hit Argentina knowing the name of the President, and that we should never, under any circumstances, bring up the Falkland Islands in conversation. Is it any surprise then that many Elders don't learn much more than that during their mission? I had to wait until I was back at the university to read any Spanish-language literature or learn about Argentine history. When I was finally exposed to these things, I realized that I had been missing out on whole levels of understanding. It felt like I had squandered a chance to fully experience the Argentine culture.
Why can't the church assign one short work of the native culture as a reading assignment? It would help missionaries' language skills immensely to read something NOT translated directly from the English Correlated Mormonese. It would provide insights into the culture that they will soon be immersed in and would give them a common reference point to draw on when interacting with people. Half the fun would be deciding what story or novella to assign for each country.
As it stands now, I lived in Argentina for two years, and returned without ever having read anything by Borges. That just doesn't make sense. And I can't even remember how many old men we met who wanted to talk to us about the gaucho classic Martin Fierro.
I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with well-rounded missionaries.
Cross-posted at Nine Moons. Please comment there.