I had posted my review on the talk by Greg Mortenson given in Buffalo on November 10, 2010. Not many people commented on my article here but it caused quite a bit of a stir in India. My brand of cynicism was hailed as unwanted by Greg's ardent fans. I was taken to task by several readers of my blog in “The Indian American”.
Well, a fresh round of questions that have turned up upon an investigation by CBS, which was aired on Sixty Minutes, April 17, 2011... makes me post this with a sense of profound inquiry. I do not feel guilty about having had misgivings before and questioned some of his ideas. That is not the point. I truly wish to know WHY?
So here goes the post as I had written it ….
Greg Mortenson came to town yesterday. An honorary doctorate from 16 universities, twice nominated for the Nobel, I met this shy yet confident personality, who did not seem to be used to the bright light of fame. He spoke from the heart about the work he has been doing in Afghanistan.
I agree that our soldiers, have succeeded in their limited mission and cannot also be responsible for the humanitarian work that must follow wars. Greg’s work is impressive in building schools from stones in Afghanistan starting in Korphe. He has won the hearts and trust of a people who are by nature suspicious of foreigners, the hard way.... school by school, rock by rock.
He started off with a video that showed us the bleak vista which he is helping to rebuild. Even as the camera pans the buildings in Kabul one gets the sense of unadorned simplicity. Here and there are some architectural pieces but they are bombed out of recognition. He talked of the little boy Gul who was so interested in the proposed school project but died by a land mine. Gul’s father’s face was a study in human resilience and suffering. Greg’s personal feelings towards the boy, and Haji Ali were stirring as he went through some of the details in “Three Cups of Tea” to drive home his conviction about the role of education and awareness in bringing lasting peace.
The book is required reading for those in the Army who go to that part of the world to fight, instituted by none other than General David Petraeus! What could be reason to embellish a story that by itself is inspirational? Just to make a book a bestseller? Is that a reasonable explanation by someone who might have been a Nobel Prize winner? Could it be that he simply did not know? Is it a legitimate reason?
I continue from what I posted before…….
Listening to him talk I could not help having a few questions which went unasked. Would Mr. Mortenson have got as much attention, if instead of Afghanistan he had built these schools in Myanmar, Tibet, Nepal, any of the other depressed Eastern Himalayan sector, or even Kashmir? Another author in the past UB reader’s list was Khaled Hosseini who with his thousand splendid suns illuminated the kite runners from Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is then the focus I must deduce. Don’t get me wrong, I think the job is splendid, but why is it that such work is so much more glorified that the quiet teacher in a rural town in the US or anywhere else, who do their job the best they can? Why is it that in ethereal circles of well settled professionals, they commiserate about the sibling teacher sister with hushed voices? Why is it that a child who aspires to be a teacher is met with “Why not a doctor?” It must be more the scope of the project at hand rather than teaching itself. Greg’s scope is admirably huge.
He threw up some slides with known wisdom about education. I could not but think about the one which says “If you educate a boy you educate an individual; if you educate a girl you educate a community” an African proverb. I would take extreme objection to it if I was a male teacher, a responsible father or citizen of the world. This is not to put down the basic principle that yes all girls should be educated and that all children have the basic human right to knowledge. But to separate out females from males by proverbs, which are more socially relevant rather than universal, is surely unnecessary in the US. What about the simple logic that both sexes need to be educated for a healthy society to flourish.
He talked about the importance of “elders” and listening to them and lamented the lack of it in the US or Western world. I come from the East and yes there is a huge advantage in learning from wise elders and talking to them and letting them lead the way. But even Greg would agree that this is an individual honor deserved by the older generation and given by the younger generation voluntarily. Not all elders have wisdom, and I would especially question the elders of Afghanistan who might know wonderful glorious stories of their past but have done very little to take charge of their own society and bring it to modern times. Is it okay for the children there to be so bereft of resources? Is it okay for the warlords to have run the town and kept their own girls down? Aren’t the elders the ones who have actually actively kept the country marking time and confounded them with religiosity, social and cultural taboos? As wonderful as it is for the villages in India to have been hearing the tales from “Ramayana” being told and retold (it is still fascinating, I wholeheartedly agree), or about the British Raj and the Freedom Movement, is it not also incumbent upon society to be proud of their present? Is it not incumbent upon the elders to find ways and means of disseminating knowledge through the means of the newer technologies and thus make the next generation vested in their future? To stick rigidly to history and wishing things to be the way they were without a balancing viewpoint about the present and future is sure the definition of fundamental thought. In fact one of education’s strength is in encouraging creativity and curiosity about the unknown. To make the further correlation that in the Western world there is no inter-generational give and take is not deserved. Modern technology has opened up the world to the silent majority who used to remain quiet in the past and has allowed them to actively participate in discussions.
His idea of empowering local people instead of doing charity rang a bell with me. I have always considered those who label their life work as charity as disingenuous. The word itself has inequality embedded in it automatically presuming that one is somehow better than another and is thus more qualified to be doing “for” rather than “with” someone. Logically helping one’s co-traveler results in a journey being successful, all scientific endeavor is collaborative, we are a society not individual islands. Education is the only way to enlightenment and awareness and has been the shining torch in the world and for me all my life.
As we snaked our way through the lines for his autograph I could not help notice the number of police that had been recruited to keep peace around the man.
Commentary: Why did a man of peace need so much security?
My questioning some of his ideas casued a flurry of negative reactions. A recent investigation by CBS aired this past Sunday on Sixty Minutes found quite a few of the facts in the book simply not corroborated by their research. The dates are incorrect. The schools sometimes do not exist? The kidnapping did not happen. So my question again to Mr Greg Mortenson is WHY? What could possibly be the reason to want to make more money than what the book would have made if it had been true? It is absolutely no(n) sense to me.
The video from AlJazeera English is linked and it makes me upset to think that one of the major programs we might have taken pride in estbalishing contact with minds and hearts where we are fighting is now under fire. Could it not be simple and honest just this once and not be about money Mr Mortenson. Was the idea not big enough for you? Was the work not worthy enough? Did you really NEED this storm in your tea cup which in this case, might take all the good work down with it?