Beware of Mythical Lands

Global Philanthropy
Friday, May 13, 2011

I just finished reading the complete text of Jon Krakauer’s whistle blowing expose of Greg Mortenson and his best-selling book, Three Cups of Tea (Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero Lost His Way).  As a result of Krakauer’s meticulous research, it is now clear

 that much of Mortenson’s recounting of his experiences in Afghanistan was created from whole cloth.  Furthermore, Krakauer documents the enormous personal benefit Mortenson derived from the non-profit he founded, the Central Asia Institute (CAI).  While CAI supported Mortenson’s travel to his paid speaking engagements and promotions of his books, Mortenson kept all of the speaking fees and profits from the book sales. Most disturbingly, while CAI has received some $50 million in donations to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, primarily for girls, it turns out that Mortenson’s claims about the number of schools that they’d built were significantly inflated.  Yet Mortenson regularly spoke to packed and enthralled audiences and Three Cups of Tea was required reading for servicemen going to Afghanistan.

Why did it take so long for the truth to come out even though so many of Mortenson’s “facts” could be so easily refuted?   How could a non-profit organization get away with producing just one audited financial statement in 14 years?  Why weren’t donors doing basic due diligence? Krakauer says it’s because we want so much to believe in the positive change that Mortenson presents.  He quotes Ted Callahan, an anthropologist who Mortenson hired as a consultant in Afghanistan: “Things are so bad that everybody’s desperate for even one good-news story. Mortenson’s tale functioned as a palliative.  It soothed the national conscience. Greg may have used smoke and mirrors to generate the hope he offered, but the illusion made people feel good about themselves, so nobody was in a hurry to look behind the curtain.”

Our eagerness to embrace good news and our reluctance to ask the hard questions is also a theme of the book I’m currently reading: The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch.  Ravitch is an education historian who has been an observer and a participant in “education reform” for some four decades.  In this book, Ravitch recounts how she changed her personal views about how to improve schools and uses an array of hard data to argue against today’s purported panaceas. 

Over the years, I have consistently warned against the lure of 'the royal road to learning,' the notion that some savant or organization has found an easy solution to the problems of American education. As a historian of education, I have often studied the rise and fall of grand ideas that were promoted as the sure cure for whatever ills were afflicting our schools and students. In our own day, policymakers and business leaders have eagerly enlisted in a movement launched by free-market advocates, with the support of major foundations.  Many educators have their doubts about the slogans and cure-alls of our time, but they are required to follow the mandates of federal law (such as No Child Left Behind) despite their doubts.

In our day, school reformers sometimes resemble the characters in Dr. Seuss's Solla Sollew, who are always searching for that "mythical land" where they never have troubles, at least very few.

One of the “mythical lands” that Ravitch cautions against are charter schools, which she says are still relatively untested.  “If there is one consistent lesson that one gleans by studying school reform over the past century, it is the danger of taking a good idea and expanding it rapidly, spreading it thin...Whether charter schools are a sustainable reform, whether they can proliferate and at the same time produce good results, is a question yet to be resolved.”   In other words, Ravitch is saying, let’s not jump ahead of ourselves and pretend we have the solution to a very complex problem. 

What is refreshing about Ravitch’s book is that she is willing to look objectively at the data and change her beliefs based upon results, as opposed to being stuck on any particular ideology. What is disturbing about Greg Mortenson and CAI is that they apparently did not care about the truth and, unfortunately, because of their purported “mission”, donors did not think it necessary to look beyond the rhetoric.

For more on this issue, read Pam Fessler's recent NPR article Can You Know Where Charity Dollars Go? Not Easily.