More on Mortenson, Three Cups and the World

My posts yesterday about Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceipt, and Greg Mortenson’s efforts to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, yielded plenty of interesting conversations in various places (Google+, Twitter and here). A few articles and posts also came my way as a result of my review and it worth sharing them out, too.

The first is a piece at Outside Magazine entitled Truth and Consequences, by Christopher Keyes. Keyes nicely balances the two narratives here — that of Mortenson the dreamer and that of Mortenson the scammer. He writes, “…our (the magazine) instinct has been that the truth about Mortenson may lie in the middle ground between the two narratives. There is no doubt that he embellished and, at times, entirely fabricated parts of his creation myth … What I’m not ready to buy is that Mortenson is a con artist who intentionally hoodwinked us all for profit.”

And I agree. Even with my anger over Mortenson’s fictionalized accounts and shoddy management, I don’t think he is a con artist out to get my students’ pennies. But that doesn’t let him off the hook.

The second piece is an interview with Scott Darsney, who was a hiker with Mortenson on the event that spurred the whole story forward, and he is someone that Krakauer interviewed for his investigative piece. Darsney now says that he was misquoted and/or his comments were taken out of context by Krakauer. Darsney concluded that, “Jon Krakauer is a respected and acclaimed author. He is a stickler for details and getting the facts straight, but from what I have read so far, the research needs to continue (as I’m sure it will). This is what Krakauer does, and why he can be a compelling author and journalist, and why I enjoy reading his books. But this one gives me pause. Greg Mortenson is a humanitarian first, an author second—also with a compelling story to tell—and Three Cups of Tea was a first-time process for Greg.”

I can’t quite tell is Darsney is covering his tail, or if he so inspired by the humanitarian potential, or if he truly believes that some things we can just let go because of the power of the larger story. But since Darsney’s voice is central to the debate, I was glad that he got his foot in the door here. It gives us yet another perspective.

The third piece is a post over at the Cooperative Catalyst, entitled Three Cups of Fiction, and while it is less a strike at Mortenson, it is a strike against the efforts that are at the center of Mortenson’s idea: that of building schools. Writer Carol Black notes that amid all of the backlash of Krakauer’s report, ” … the larger fiction which goes unquestioned is Mortenson’s romanticized portrayal of education as a panacea for all the world’s ills, a silver bullet that in one clean shot can end poverty, terrorism, and the oppression of girls and women around the world.”

Black really hits home with the high-mindedness that we Americans have about how to save the rest of the world, and she talks poignantly about trafficking of girls, backlash of anger against education, and the forced shift into schools that can upset the cultural balances in some communities. I need to think more about Black’s piece before I can make a solid reflection on what she is saying, but her piece is an interesting counterpoint to the overall discussion.

Peace (in the narratives),



  1. In one of the pieces about all of this (and I read the Kraukauer when it first came out and am only picking up on this again now) I recall something about our need for a Western Savior. That is, some folks (say Paul Farmer) play it out in a way that works, others (say Mortensen) seem to go from an earnest/well-meaning place that people go for, but doesn’t go into the depth that we need. I feel this whole Mortensen saga is a wake-up call for us to know what we don’t know, so to speak. And that just as it is difficult to figure out why the riots happened in the UK so it is difficult to figure things out in places even less like our own, less familiar to us, where people live very differently from those of us in the West.

    I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone, 1974-76, and am very familiar with the outsider-do-good impulse. I’ve just returned from Sierra Leone, my first time back, and it was fascinating to see the changes and, especially, the NGO presence — all sorts. Some are from Sierra Leoneans, but many are expats of one sort or another. What I appreciate about Peace Corps is it is a two year commitment. Volunteers are not just coming in and out briefly for a few weeks or months, but are in one place, one community for two years and get a perspective that is in far more depth than otherwise.

    Thanks for raising this and for your blog in general. I’ve been following quietly for years:)

    • Hi Monica
      Thank you so much for your thoughts and your perspectives. Your line about “a wake-up call for us to know what we don’t know…” makes a lot of sense.

  2. Hey Kevin,
    I read the Carol Black piece this morning and really enjoyed it… especially things she says in the comments section. I am supposed to be studying the Common Core for a meeting today, but found her blog more compelling! Here’s a great passage:

    “The big problem comes in with the bland assumption of superiority that underlies the whole idea of standards. Anyone who sets a standard for others to follow is inherently making a claim of superior expertise, privileged knowledge –– a claim to know what other people should learn, be, aspire to. This does a great deal of damage in and of itself, because many people will respond at a deep level to that assumed superiority, and come to believe in it.”

    Makes me wanna dive right into those standards (NOT!)
    Best, T-Dawg

  3. Please do leave your comments on Carol Black’s piece… the discussion is never over….

    I wonder if you would be willing to present it to your meeting…instead of your knowledge on the Common Core… 🙂


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