you're reading...
Education in the Media

Three Cups of Fiction

On Greg Mortenson, and how our collective fantasy about saving the world with schools goes from romance to comedy to tragedy.

The recent revelation that Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea is based on fictionalized accounts of his experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan, that his charity’s funds were misspent and its books were cooked, and that there was little or no followup or support for many of his schools once they were built – if they were built at all – has drawn a lot of media attention.  But 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.

photo by Jim Hurst

Don’t get me wrong – I would never deny that there are individuals who benefit when money is spent on education, and I would never want to come between those individuals and that money.  If a girl from rural Pakistan wants to go to school and has a knack for academics, she deserves support and I hope she gets it.  But the idea that building schools and getting every kid on the planet inside them is a solution to the problem of global poverty, for example, is a real whopper.

Why?  Well, for starters  –  and everybody knows this –  a huge percentage of the children in those schools will fail.

Greg Mortenson, like everybody else, loves to tell the touching story of the girl from the village who studies hard, passes her school exams, and goes on to become the proverbial doctor-who-will-come-back-to-the-village-and-reduce-infant-mortality.   He raises a lot of money with that story, and a lot of donors go to sleep at night feeling better about the world because they are helping it to happen.  But what Greg doesn’t tell us, and what the donors don’t want to think about, is what happens to all the other children.   The dirty underside of our system is that schools as we know them today are structurally designed to fail a reliable percentage of kids.  Interestingly, they reliably fail a much higher percentage of kids in in low-income areas than they do in affluent areas, and this is true from Detroit to Gilgit-Baltistan.  When we put children from traditional rural areas into school, what we’re doing is transitioning them from a non-cash agricultural economy where nobody gets rich but nobody starves into a hierarchical system of success and failure in which some lives may get “better,” but others will get much, much worse.  Guess which club has more members?  Welcome, boys and girls, to the global economy.

The reality is that there are few better ways to condemn a child to a life of poverty than to confine her in a bad school, and a very high percentage of schools in low-income areas are and will remain bad schools.  Many NGO’s as well as international programs like “Education for All” are focused on the body count, on getting more and more children into classrooms.  What happens to those kids in those classrooms is harder to quantify or to track.  One thing that seems clear is that an awful lot of them learn very little. A Brookings Institution study of education in Pakistan by Rebecca Winthrop and Corinne Graff reports that “the education system produces many unemployable youths with few skills for economic survival…..In a recent survey of Pakistani youth, half the students say that they believe they lack the skills necessary to compete in today’s labor market.”  A World Bank Policy Research working paper indicates that, contrary to popular belief, money spent on education often increases inequality in a country. This is partly because those who already have substantial assets are better positioned to take advantage of educational resources than those who have their hands full trying to get food on the table.  But it’s also because from its inception school was designed as a sorting mechanism, a rigged competition where only one form of intelligence is valued, only one way of learning is permitted, and one child’s success means another child’s failure.  We forget that the structure of schools as we know them today was developed during a time when people believed in racist eugenics and Social Darwinism; modern schools were structurally designed to perpetuate a hierarchical class system, and – despite the best efforts of many dedicated teachers – that’s exactly what they still do, through the non-democratic, hierarchical ranking of children which is hard-wired into our entire system of grading, testing, and one-size-fits-all standards.  Until we change that – at home as well as abroad –  education will continue to perpetuate and justify poverty, not to ameliorate it.

Of course, even if everybody succeeded at school, you would just run into the fact that the current structure of the global economy does not provide enough good jobs for the growing number of graduates.  As Winthrop and Graff say about Pakistan, “Many young people express fears about their ability to find employment, and they believe there are too few jobs available and that their prospects are getting worse, not better. One complains that ‘if you have an MA or an MBA you do not get a job. People are roaming around with degrees in their hands.’”  Economists at the World Bank have a fanciful theory  –  a fairy tale much bigger than any of Greg Mortenson’s – that by schooling the world and expanding our “human resources” we will endlessly expand the growth economy to a point where we will all live in affluence.  This is pure fantasy, of the “it’s-okay-to-buy-this-house-that-you-can’t-afford-because-the-housing-market-always-goes-up” variety.    The planet doesn’t have the physical resources to sustain a middle-class lifestyle for a white-collar world, and in any case, who will mine the coal, collect the garbage, and work at Walmart when all seven billion of us have college degrees?  China now has millions of unemployed college graduates, and it turns out they are as free to work in sweatshops as everybody else. As the New York Times reports, “While some recent graduates find success, many are worn down by a gauntlet of challenges and disappointments. Living conditions can be Dickensian, and grueling six-day work weeks leave little time for anything else but sleeping, eating and doing the laundry.” Zhang Ming, a political scientist and vocal critic of China’s education system says, “College essentially provided them with nothing…. For many young graduates, it’s all about survival. If there was ever an economic crisis, they could be a source of instability.”

Which brings us to terrorism.  If we want to look for links between education and terrorism, we should look hard at this cycle of raised expectations, inevitable failure, disappointment, unemployment, and poverty, which fuels crime and violence at home and conflict abroad. According to observers familiar with the region, Greg Mortenson is just fear-mongering when he  suggests that Islamic madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan are a primary source of terror recruits (according to Winthrop and Graff, madrasas constitute a small percentage of schools in those regions, and only a tiny percentage of these are militant; the vast majority are simply religious schools, like Catholic schools or Hebrew schools in the U.S.)  But if you confine large numbers of low-income boys in mediocre conventional schools for years, brand them as failures, make them feel stupid and inferior, and then turn them loose without marketable skills into a country with high unemployment and a lot of cheap semi-automatic weapons, what exactly do you think is going to happen?  “In Kashmir, there are reports that unemployed youths who joined militants ‘found an occupation and ideology, and a new family in which they found bonding and brotherhood.  They had motivation, dedication and direction’ as a result of joining a militant group.”  Substitute the word “gangs” for “militants” and the situation is the same in the U.S.  We need to have a serious conversation about the shame and humiliation that young people experience in school –– and the crummy opportunities available to them afterward –– as an unacknowledged trigger for violence.

Which brings us to girls.  It doesn’t take a professional psychologist to tell you that anything that causes humiliation and anger in men is going to cause increased rates of violence against women.  I don’t question that access to education has benefitted some girls and women in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  But the way education is currently framed means it does good for some children at the cost of doing great harm to many others, and this is not good for families, for communities, or for societies.  The answer is not to hold girls back, of course; it’s to challenge the ranking-and-failure paradigm as the only way to help children learn. Because let’s not forget that millions of girls also fail in school every year.  What do we suppose that the future holds for these young women?

I was talking recently to a friend who had grown up in a rural village in the Philippines.  It was one of those places that still exist all over the world, where people don’t have much money but nobody goes hungry. Life was not luxurious; there were hardships and problems, illness and death; but it was not a pit of endless degrading misery either.  Families and friends lived close together; people gathered to sing, joke, and tell stories in the evenings; the mountains and valleys were beautiful; life was slow-paced, and there was plenty of time for relaxation and enjoyment.  My friend was sent to a school where she did well, eventually took advantage of an Army program that enabled her to train as a nurse, moved to the U.S., and spent the rest of her life thousands of miles from her home and family.  She made a good living and sent money home to her family, but she was well aware that this was not the way it worked for everybody. I asked her what happens to the girls from her province who do not succeed in school.

Without missing a beat, she said, “They get trafficked.”

The World Bank isn’t giving us any data on this.   Girls’ education raises GDP, the development agencies all crow!  Yes, but transitioning rural people from self-sufficient farming into sweatshops also raises GDP.  Girls’ education lowers the infant mortality rate! Yes, but what if introducing school failure into rural areas also raises the sex trafficking rate?   It’s commonly assumed that lack of education in developing areas is a risk factor for trafficking, but apparently the evidence suggests the opposite; according to thee Strategic Information Response Network, vulnerability to human trafficking correlates with more schooling and the migration to urban areas in search of money that usually follows it.  “Dream big,” Greg Mortenson exhorts girls from tiny villages in Pakistan.  But what happens when those dreams don’t materialize, and a well-oiled international network that trades in girls not just for sex but for domestic servitude and sweatshop labor is ready to fill the breach?  A multitude of pathologies, including suicide, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, obesity, and diabetes go up when traditional cultures are disrupted and people transition rapidly from a land-based non-cash economy into the modern global economy, but news like this doesn’t get you on the bestseller list. The aid agencies cherry-pick statistics to prove that the impact of their programs is good, and the popular press repeats their conclusions without question the way they repeat much official propaganda.

To closely question just one of these factors, try looking at the teen suicide rate around the world.  Both school failure and suicide are epidemic among “educated” indigenous teenagers from the Amazon to Australia to the Arctic Circle.  And in societies like India, China, and South Korea whose recent economic growth has been fueled by intense academic pressure placed on children, suicide rates are “spiraling out of control.”

A highly competitive educational system, an extremely selective process for university entrance, violent hazing and bullying in schools and poor family relations are driving too many young South Koreans to take their lives…..School failure is among the top causes of youth suicide. In one case last December, the nation was shocked when twin sisters jumped from an apartment building in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, because they were upset about their university entrance exam scores.  (Asia News.)

In both India and China, suicide among girls, fueled by “academic pressure and fear of failure,” has now outstripped the rate among boys, and in an alarming trend, according the the Lancet, unpublished WHO studies show the same pattern emerging in Sri Lanka and Vietnam. “I am not doing well in exams,” wrote a girl from Chandigarh to her parents before she took her life. “This is something striking, unfortunately for women,” says Jose Bertolote of the World Health Organization. Anuradha Bose, who led a Lancet study of suicide among young people in southern India, observes, “Poor countries that are developing rapidly may suffer higher suicide rates.” But according to the BBC , the Mumbai area records a teen suicide almost every day, and there is a “general agreement between psychologists and teachers that the main reason for the high number of teenagers taking their own lives is the increasing pressure on children to perform well in exams.” In case you were wondering, the Lancet authors report that the top three methods of suicide in the population they studied were hanging, poisoning with insecticide, and – a method used only by girls – self-immolation. As Damayanti Datta asks in India Today, “What have we done to our children?”

The bottom line is that the modern school is no silver bullet, but an extremely problematic institution which has proven highly resistant to fundamental reform, and there is very little objective research on its impact on traditional societies. When we intervene to radically alter the way another culture raises and educates its children, we trigger a complex cascade of changes that will completely reshape that culture in a single generation.  To assume that those changes will all be good is to adopt a blind cultural superiority that we can ill afford.  A clearer view of the real impacts of school projects would require well-funded and well-executed research which looks objectively at both positive and negative effects, not reports which mine the data to bolster an a priori assumption that the impact of schooling is always good.   And until we have a clearer view, we should all – NGO’s, development agencies, rock stars, corporate billionaires and bestselling authors included – think long and hard about the principle, “First, do no harm.”

So what are the solutions?

Most importantly, solutions begin with the truth.  We can’t start working toward real answers until we stop lying to ourselves about what schools do to children – in the real world, not in our dreams.  We need to acknowledge that no system that discards millions of normal, healthy kids as failures – many of them extremely smart, by the way – will ever provide a lasting or universal solution to anything.  We need to innovate with learning here at home and abroad, to put our resources into developing the many promising models that already exist for sharing knowledge, skills and ideas without humiliating children or branding them as failures.  We need to recognize the real value of the intellectual traditions of other cultures – including non-literate cultures – and look for ways to share useful information in both directions which does not completely disrupt or undermine the social structures, traditional livelihoods, and knowledge systems of those cultures.

And most of all, we need to stop falling for the popular fiction of schooling as a cure for everything and recognize that a romanticized idea of education is being used as a PR device and a smokescreen to obscure the real economic issues at play for powerful nations and corporations – who extract natural resources and cheap labor from weaker nations, and then turn around and tax their own citizens to provide “aid” and “education” to help “end poverty.”  It’s an elaborate shell game, a twisted road to nowhere.  It should be clear by now that the “rising tide” does not “float all boats” – that’s another fairy tale –  and it’s time to start talking seriously about the underlying global economic structures which are creating poverty, so that people everywhere can educate their own children in the way they think best –– without charity.

Greg Mortenson’s second book, Stones Into Schools, revolves around his efforts to build a school for Kyrgyz nomads in Afghanistan.  He built the school, and it stands empty, never having been used.   Many development people, including Mortenson, would tut about this, and try to find ways to convince the Kyrgyz people of the importance of education for their children’s futures.  But to me, this empty school is a small sign of hope.  I mean, Greg.  Hello.  They’re nomads. Should they give up their horses and their high mountain valleys and their yurts and sit in a classroom for years so at the end they can look for work hauling bricks or driving trucks in Kandahar or Kabul? As it turns out, the New York Times reports that Kyrgyz parents want their children to learn to read and write; it’s just that they also want them to herd sheep.  Mortenson’s representative in the region was frustrated by this: “The Kyrgyz only care about sheep and yaks…They say if we have sheep and yaks, we have success in life.”  Hmm.  Perhaps the Kyrgyz don’t understand the value of education.  Or perhaps they still have a sense of what’s real and what’s not in this world.  Sheep are definitely real; “big dreams” may not be.  The Afghan government, to its credit, seemed to recognize this, and sent teachers to teach the children at home in their yurts.  Apparently it’s working out quite well.  I just hope the Kyrgyz remain unschooled enough to continue to be able to tell fact from fiction.

Kyrgyz boy getting an education

Alarm at Mumbai’s teenage suicide trend. By Zubair Ahmed. BBC News, Mumbai. February 1, 2010.

Beyond Madrasas: Assessing the Links Between Education and Militancy in Pakistan. By Rebecca Winthrop and Corinne Graff. Brookings Institution, June 2010.

China’s Army of Graduates Struggles for Jobs, by Andrew Jacobs.  New York Times, December 11, 2010.

Estimating The Returns To Education : Accounting For Heterogeneity In Harry Anthony Patrinos; Cris Ridao-Cano; Chris Sakellariou.   World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 4040, October 2006

Indian teens have world’s highest suicide rate. By Shaoni Bhattacharya, New Scientist,
April 2, 2004.

Progress Can Kill:  How Imposed Development Destroys the Health of Tribal Peoples. Survival International,  2007.

Serious School Failure Is Depressing For Girls, But Not Boys. University of Washington,  ScienceDaily, July 23, 2008.

Suicide the major cause of death among young people. By Wang Shanshan.  China Daily, 2007.

Suicides in young people in rural southern India, Rita Aaron MD, Prof Abraham Joseph MD, Prof Sulochana Abraham MD, Prof Jayaprakash Muliyil PhD, Prof Kuryan George MD, Jasmine Prasad MD, Shantidani Minz MD, Vinod Joseph Abraham MD, Dr Anuradha Bose MD.   The Lancet – 3 April 2004 ( Vol. 363, Issue 9415, Pages 1117-1118 )

Targeting Endemic Vulnerability Factors to Human Trafficking.  Strategic Information Response Network, United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) 2007.

Teen Suicides, By Damayanti Datta, India Today, April 18, 2008

Two Schools in Afghanistan, One Complicated Situation, by Edward Wong, New York Times.  April  23, 2011.

Violence and school failure drive young people to commit suicide, by Theresa Kim Hwa-young.  Asia News, August 21, 2008.


37 thoughts on “Three Cups of Fiction

  1. Carol, your work asks some really important questions. The key issue I remember from your movie is the idea that we have 6000 ways of understanding the world through our 6000 different languages, but we only promote a few of those ways through traditional schooling.

    In some ways, the fact that Greg Mortenson’s story is falling apart is actually good for your message. “Here folks, we can see that schooling the world isn’t working, is there something else we can do?”

    Your point that sex trafficking increases as traditional schooling is increased in areas is quite disturbing. What harm will we bring through our misguided notions about schooling?

    Posted by David Wees | May 11, 2011, 11:22 am
    • Thanks for your comment, David. This ties in so well with the discussion now on Coop Catalyst about standardization. When you take the natural diversity among individual children and then factor in 6000 different cultural approaches to knowledge and learning, you can see how you are setting millions of kids up for failure. And of course labeling children as failures because they learn differently or value different knowledge makes them vulnerable to any number of tragic outcomes.

      Posted by Carol Black | May 11, 2011, 11:57 am
  2. Fantastic, urgent, and provocative post, Carol – thank you.

    I am thinking again of how fundamentally flawed our scholastic enterprise is in the United States, despite the effort and thought of so many people who have dedicated their lives to the notion of universal public education.

    I am also thinking of how school creates feelings that students want to escape from, and about the forms these escapes take for different kids of different backgrounds and genders.

    I have some ideas about how school could matter more and be valued more by more families and students, but I don’t know if they’re half-measures or more of the same.

    I think a more diverse body of people should be allowed to start “schools” or homeschooling or unschooling coöps. I worry that public schools can’t innovate quickly enough to accomplish their mission, let alone to remain relevant to the world at large. We need private-public partnerships to create tuition-free, community-based schools that offer everything public schools struggle to offer: democracy, flexible scheduling, seamless mentoring and experiential learning inside and outside the school, student-directed inquiry, local food, life experience, a sincere appreciation for – and willingness to learn from – kids and youth culture. Flexible space, flexible scheduling, flexible shifts. An unwavering commitment to healthy, emotionally safe, and sane education, even when the real lessons to be learned are in conflict with what the system wants kids to believe about themselves.

    We need choice and a broader agency that lets people – including students – with engaging ideas about learning to meet up, create a space and time face-to-face or asynchronously, and get “credit” for doing work that matters to them. Or, rather, we need to teach and learn without so much regard for the self-styled creditors of the world.

    I don’t know if any what I suggest could address poverty, but I can imagine “schools” that help people do what they value replacing the schools that devalue people who don’t meet arbitrary, abstract standards on an arbitrary timeline of accomplishment that is intermittently divorced from what we know about human development, learning, and motivation.

    I would love to see public schools lead this transition.

    If we had “schools” that engendered trust rather than judgment, we might be able to talk with one another and students about who we are and what we can accomplish together in our communities. At the very least, maybe we could get some kids to shout, “Damn adults, get off my lawn!”

    I hope there’s something useful to you in there. Your thinking here is of great use to me, Carol.

    Where and how do we draw the lines in keeping ourselves from colonizing our kids’ imaginations with corporate, consumer, and oftentimes cruel images of themselves?

    With gratitude,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 11, 2011, 8:18 pm
    • These are all such good thoughts, Chad. When you talk about “how flawed our scholastic enterprise is in the United States, despite the effort and thought of so many people who have dedicated their lives to the notion of universal public education” what comes to mind is the idea that any One System will inevitably be flawed.

      In other words, as Monika says, “nothing is for everyone,” so even a perfectly valid option will become a great evil if it is imposed universally on a diverse population.

      The methodical, teacher-led, step-by-step, text-and-test form of learning seems to provide a viable opportunity for some children, albeit generally not the majority. But rather than argue with the people who prefer that model and compel them to engage with more fluid, dynamic forms of learning that they may not welcome, I think the idea of diverse options is really the key.

      When the public system ping-pongs between different fads in teaching or curriculum, one of the things that happens is that you simply shift which group of kids is well-served and which group is ill-served.

      So as you’re implying, it seems that it’s this idea of the One Perfect School System that stands in the way of real creativity, and to unleash that creativity we just need to embrace the idea of different paths for different people. Some of these paths will involve schools, and others will involve learning from communities, from nature, from ancient traditions, and from open-source cutting-edge technologies. When we let go of the idea that there is one right way to learn or to teach, then a breathtaking universe of choices opens up before us, and we can begin the long process of trial-and-error that will be necessary to create real solutions.

      Posted by Carol Black | May 12, 2011, 8:20 pm
  3. At Kirsten’s suggestion, I’m attempting to re-post an email conversation on this topic. I don’t know if I’m doing this in the best way, so forgive me if it’s awkward! Here goes:

    This piece was originally posted on the “Schooling the World” blog, but I wanted to post it here to connect the dots between your work and the issues raised by “Three Cups of Tea.” While the people here on Coop Catalyst are working to transform the culture of schooling in the developed world, the old standardized form of schooling is being imposed on traditional rural societies as though it were their only salvation. Cultural diversity and ancient forms of knowledge are being lost at a breathtaking speed, while traditional people around the globe have come to believe that whatever the wealthy nations are doing must be superior to their own ways of knowing and learning.

    My question for this group: many NGO’s buildling schools in traditional parts of the world feel they have done enough if they consult a bit with the local people, and perhaps include a little traditional “culture” in the school curriculum. But the fundamental assumptions of schooling remain unquestioned, and these superficial gestures do not significantly reduce the massive failure rates in these areas, nor do they meaningfully slow the rapid loss of local ecological and cultural knowledge that occurs when children shift from traditional forms of learning into full-time schooling. What ideas could we generate for a deeper shift in thinking that would address these problems at a root level?

    thanks —


    Posted by Carol Black | May 11, 2011, 8:19 pm

      Love the idea. I read *Three Cups of Tea* and was skeptical, not because I thought the story wasn’t true, but because I thought there were parts omitted. The story was such an achievement-oriented, Hollywood B.S. narrative that it really bothered me. However, what really got to me was the sense of imperialism implicit in it. Throughout the developing world, there are amazing local movements that come from the people, for the people and by the people. Where are those book deals? Why aren’t we celebrating those stories?

      Posted by Carol Black | May 11, 2011, 8:25 pm

    Not sure if you guys heard the NPR story about how Three Cups of Tea was not all it was made to look like. Apparently the money was terribly mismanaged and much of the book is exactly what John described..B.S. to get more donations.

    As for your points, Carol, I am so glad to hear your perspective. I taught on the Navajo Reservation in Tohatchi, NM for 2 Januarys at a government boarding school and saw exactly what you are talking about first hand. Navajo is taught as a second language and most kids have no desire to learn it. Traditions are carried out only by the elderly and the few families who try to keep them alive. The traditional Native American stereotype that we all know is even a stereotype for the young people I worked with since most
    of them preferred to dress, talk and enjoy the music of other American children their age.

    Part of the issue, as you bring up, Carol, is that these schools were created by the government and were reinforced by decades of, essentially, cultural genocide.

    So what are our solutions?

    Community-run schools that follow traditional learning structures?

    No schools at all, but rather an integration of things like reading and writing into the structures already in place?

    Leaving these cultures alone completely?

    A tough challenge.

    Thanks again, Carol.


    Posted by Carol Black | May 11, 2011, 8:28 pm

      Correction: it was a 60 minutes interview.

      Posted by Carol Black | May 11, 2011, 8:29 pm
    • I love these ideas – I think this kind of brainstorming is exactly what is needed. The tough thing, as you say, is when a local culture has been so devalued that people no longer even want to keep it alive. That’s why I think it’s so important to show that more flexible, open-ended forms of learning can work – like the video in John’s post “Suffocating in Standardization” suggests – so people don’t feel that it’s an all-or-nothing choice to either send kids to a conventional top-down standardized school or be completely “left behind.” The idea of integrating the acquisition of specific skills or information into cultural structures that already exist is the one that really intrigues me. If anybody knows of initiatives based on that model, I’d love to hear about them.

      Posted by Carol Black | May 11, 2011, 8:31 pm

    Part of what this strikes at, even at the most local level possible (my family) is the question of the extent to which we conform to social norms and socialization and to what extent we choose to create a counter-culture, leave the culture or try and reform the culture through participation. It’s a tough one that my wife and I try and make sense out of as our son goes through kindergarten.

    Posted by Carol Black | May 11, 2011, 8:32 pm
    • Hey John – I just thought of a video clip that addresses this question in an interesting way. It’s called “Two Loops: How Systems Change.”

      My personal conclusion has been that we need people working everywhere for positive change, and at a certain point there is no right answer — you just pick your poison and do what makes your family happier. Some people are more stressed and miserable working inside a confining system, others are more stressed outside it. There are problems either way, and it comes down to which problems you would rather have.

      I do think that it’s essential for people working outside the mainstream system to make it a high priority to form new community connections, especially for their children. This is very possible, but it does take a certain amount of effort. On the other hand, you save all the effort that goes into navigating a sometimes hostile system, so it shouldn’t automatically be assumed that it’s “harder.”

      Posted by Carol Black | May 14, 2011, 5:06 pm

    i see this as our main focus in ed.. preserving culture. nothing is for everyone… so we need to listen to each voice/culture and facilitate that.
    everything you explain so beautifully in Schooling the World – can be taken into a classroom as well.
    if we want happy healthy people, solving difficult and messy problems, we need to let them be themselves. that’s where true drive comes.. that’s where we’ll get remarkable growth – even when no one is looking/grading/managing.
    Ethan Zuckerman’s work (not just finding people in other cultures like you and thinking you are global) and Cameron Sinclair’s work (letting people in that culture design what they need – architecture for humanity), and Jacqueline Novogratz’s model as seen in the Blue Sweater (it’s about getting to know people, listening to their stories, rather than helping them), the I Am film (how we are all connected).

    as i told you before Carol – your post is spot on. we need to get Schooling the World and your voice out amongst the people.

    Posted by Carol Black | May 11, 2011, 8:34 pm
    • It really is about truly honoring diversity, understanding the very real value brought to the world by different voices and visions, rather than saying we honor diversity and then compelling everybody to learn the same things in the same way at the same time.

      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.

      So just as a bright child who has failed in school will come to deeply believe she is stupid, many people in traditional cultures have come to deeply believe that they are backward and ignorant and in need of our tutelage. The child who fails in school will completely overlook her own talents and gifts, and people from other cultures often overlook the value of their own ecological, philosophical, social, and spiritual knowledge.

      Many people seem to have no awareness that there could be a downside to this. I tried once to find out what the outcomes of Greg Mortenson’s projects were, how the kids were doing, what demographic changes were taking place in the villages (where commonly the young people will all leave to go look for work in urban areas, with the old folks, very young children, and the “failures” left behind.) But they were not tracking this at all. They were simply taking it on faith that their interventions were uniformly good.

      I think the damage won’t stop until we go to a completely new level in our appreciation for diversity and the multiplicity of valid pathways through life.

      Posted by Carol Black | May 11, 2011, 8:38 pm

        Carol, This is an incredibly important topic, and supports what I’ve seen everywhere traveling in India and South Africa.


        Posted by Carol Black | May 11, 2011, 8:42 pm

        that is what we are going for in the lab.. within a person, within a culture.

        Posted by Carol Black | May 11, 2011, 8:43 pm
      • Thanks for all the resources, Monika. I’ll check them out. I’m
        definitely going to have to get up to Loveland one of these days and see your lab! It sounds amazing.

        Posted by Carol Black | May 11, 2011, 8:44 pm
      • i would add Carol.. many 4.0’s spirit/talent/culture/etc have been compromised, though to many they appear successful, making their situation invisible.

        Posted by monika hardy | May 11, 2011, 9:57 pm
      • That is so true, Monika. When you frame learning as a ruthless competition, the winners are as damaged by it as the losers, just in different ways. And sometimes the saddest thing is the damage to relationships — between friends, between siblings. I’ve seen it tear families apart.

        Posted by Carol Black | May 11, 2011, 10:19 pm
  7. I am reminded as I reread this blog of a description of the aliens in Star Trek first generation as mostly being “humans in alien clothing” and the aliens in the next generation as being a bit more alien, but still different.

    A language, and a corresponding culture, is more than just window dressing, Hanukkahs, Christmases, Ramadans, Songkran festivals, and all the other things we do a bit differently, it is a fundamentally different way of looking at the world.

    What will we lose if all of us look at the world the same way?

    Your comment about the relationship between standardization and the colonialism through education is very apt. They are one and the same thing, just on different scales. Standardization imposes a set of ideologies on communities every bit as much as our schooling of the world does on a global scale.

    Posted by David Wees | May 11, 2011, 9:46 pm
    • It’s such a good question, what we lose if all of us look at the world in the same way. One of anthropologist Wade Davis’ central points is that the diversity of the “ethnosphere” is important for the same reason that diversity of the biosphere is important — so that you have a viable set of choices to select from when changing conditions render previous adaptations no longer viable. So as we run out of fossil fuels, for example, and need to find ways of living a satisfying life with lower levels of consumption, we may find that our current emphasis on personal individual success as defined by material gain really needs to go the way of the dinosaurs. This is where existing models of functioning workable cultures could provide us with ideas for how to reframe our desires and aspirations in ways that are more compatible with the continuation of life on earth. For example, in some traditional societies, it is not considered admirable to hoard material goods, and a person is respected to the extent that they share or give away what they’ve acquired. If some of our straight-A Ivy League boys on Wall Street would adopt this ethos, we might stand a better chance of leaving a livable planet for our grandchildren.

      Posted by Carol Black | May 12, 2011, 7:23 pm
  8. Hi Carol,

    As I read this, I thought wow she should talk to the makers of Schooling the World…and then it clicked.
    Reading your post after watching the film was incredibly helpful. Many of the questions that came to me as I watched the film are beautifully addressed in your post- namely, the connection between girls education and community health, the ‘romanticizing’ of ‘traditional’ societies as it pertains to issues of equity. I guess I still wonder about process by which to facilitate the emergence of a alternative vision of learning.
    Thank you for asking the hard questions.

    Posted by Nada | May 11, 2011, 10:05 pm
    • Thanks for your comment, Nada. In terms of process, I think that part of what happens is that a certain type of schooling takes on an aura of status or prestige, which then makes it desirable to others regardless of its actual outcomes. I’ve heard of Montessori pre-schools which have become popular in “developing” nations, and I think this may be connected to the fact that this is actually considered a prestigious or desirable form of schooling for young children in wealthy nations. But by the teen years, the pressurized, standardized, conventional form of schooling is the one that has the status attached to it, so people want that — just like they want certain brands of clothing, cell phones, cars, etc.

      That’s why I wanted to post this here, because I think it’s by innovating with learning here at home, showing that other approaches can work, creating new options which ultimately become desirable among those who have all the choices, that we create more truly viable choices for people around the world. Interestingly, I think that we can use the forms of learning embedded in traditional cultures to help us create more flexible, humane, creative forms of learning here. So I see the process as one of creating a dialogue, a two-way conversation that encompasses larger questions about what we can all learn from each other to create sustainable and humane societies and emotionally healthy children, families and communities.

      An interesting note about education and girls: we all hear about the injustice of traditional families who send their boys to school but not their girls. Girls’ education is promoted by development agencies because it is seen as the best way to promote certain changes in the culture. But seen from another perspective, in some places families are keeping girls at home precisely for that reason — because women are the keepers of the culture, and if the family “loses” one of their boys to the city and modern ways, the family, village, and way of life will still go on as long as the women are there as anchors.

      So this is another reason why the development of models of specific skill-sharing that do not completely disrupt the social fabric and livelihood of a traditional society could be so valuable. There is no reason girls can’t learn to read, learn a bit about germ theory and sanitation, and learn the practical arithmetic necessary to deal with money, for example, without creating the complete disruption of culture that results from twelve years of institutional schooling. So by listening to local people and finding out what matters to them, there might be creative ways to create positive options beyond the current “all-or-nothing” model. If families felt their daughters could learn to read without being “lost” completely to the modern world, they might well opt for that.

      Posted by Carol Black | May 12, 2011, 7:07 pm
  9. Hey Carol, Joining you late here, but what a fabulous and incredibly important post.

    Your work confronts a fundamental cultural myth that mine also seeks to problematize: the idea that schooling is always good–always the way forward–(especially old school as we know it)–and anyone who doesn’t agree is ungrateful or unrealistic. To confront/encounter schooling as a system of oppression, colonization and systemic marginalization is really difficult for many, many folks, especially many who work IN the system.

    I am in this often, all the time. Holding onto the values of thoughtful education, as opposed to schooling, and also naming the system for what it is complex, and asks people to turn the world as they know it inside out.

    How do you think you are doing?

    Supportively, admiringly,


    Posted by Kirsten | May 16, 2011, 10:20 am
    • Hi Kirsten – I’ve started to answer this question about seven times, but then realized this would be a long and very interesting conversation – but not one I can easily sum up!

      There are so many dimensions to this, but your book “Wounded By School” does an excellent job of taking on the hard reality that schools as currently incarnated are doing active harm to many children, and I agree that we’re coming at the same issue from slightly different angles. The short answer is that I’m finding that for many people, spotlighting the issue of culture brings into focus the destructiveness intrinsic to a one-size-fits-all system – in other words, it helps some people to see the necessity of embracing the idea of multiple valid pathways to adulthood rather than always thinking the One Great System can be perfected with more money, better methods, etc.

      It’s a short step from realizing their are multiple valid cultural pathways to adulthood to realizing there are multiple valid individual pathways, and I’m finding that more and more people are ready to take that leap. I’d love to talk about this in more detail sometime.


      Posted by Carol Black | May 23, 2011, 12:44 pm
  10. I think NGO’s have much to teach us about “learning” that is embedded rather than imposed. As a teacher what am I doing is to encourage the gradual growth of an emergent system that permits and promotes problem solving. But what happens when there is already a rigorous and tested system already in place? Then you have to show them how to adapt what they already own to emergent conditions. That is the tragedy of Mortenson and that is the double-edge story of narrative.

    All narrative lies and the ethics of the lie might be one of the greatest questions of the age. How can we take our emerging experience and fashion it into something else? How indeed! Faulkner once famously admonishes us never mistake the facts for the Truth. Narrative is our attempt at truth, the meta-story of our own experience mapped onto the world. As always when we mistake the map for the territory and the macro for the micro, all hell breaks loose. There is the not so bright line that Mortenson crossed. He mistook his ‘facts’ for our Truth.

    Thanks for sharing this ‘narrative’–it is an old story “Of one that lov’d not wisely but too well;
    Othello Act 5, scene 2, 340

    We can learn from it, we can adjust for it, but we cannot escape the heritage of language that speaks not wisely but too well.

    Posted by Terry Elliott | May 19, 2011, 8:05 am
  11. My personal experience with higher education led me to believe that, for the most part, there wasn’t much value for it in my life. I remember being a sophomore in college and complaining to my family about how I thought liberal arts education was a waste of my time and how I was forced to take classes I didn’t care about, nor did I learn anything from. Most often, their response was something along the lines of “you’re learning how to think,” which I accepted at the time. However, I’ve come to realize there are hundreds of ways to learn how to think critically that don’t involve spending time in a classroom or sitting on a computer and writing a paper. In fact, I learned more in four months engaging in community based education in Thailand that I did in the rest of college.

    I think that there’s a difference between building schools in “poor” countries and building places for education to take place. As people from the West, it’s easy to see schools as traditional where we sit down and look at books, and I think that idea is then passed on to developing countries which try and emulate without understanding. English teachers in the city I work for come in, teach English, and leave without giving the students any idea about the country or culture they’re from. It’s very stagnant and there’s not much actual learning going on.

    At the same time, there’s a movement in places like Thailand and Laos (and I’m sure other countries, but I’m just speaking from my own experience) where people are realizing that education doesn’t have to be done in this traditional Western sense, but can really incorporate the values of the culture and ways of life. The class I worked in was full of kids who have learning or behavioral issues and the teachers I worked with realized that they didn’t need to teach these kids about algebra or English. For these kids, it was far more important to have them focus on their own interests, as well as help them to understand more about themselves, their community, and the environment. And there are organizations in Laos that are doing this type of “traditional schooling.” These kinds of programs need to be run, however, by native people.

    My boyfriend is a Lao man from a rural community who now lives in the capital city working 12 hours a day at a hotel (that doubles as a brothel at night). He stopped going to school at the age of 13 to find work, but even before that he helped his family with the farm often and didn’t have time for school. When I asked him about if he wanted to go back to school if he had the chance his response was something along the lines of, I don’t really know why I would at this point. He said that for most rural Lao people, there’s no need for education beyond learning how to read and write. At the same time, he’s forced to work at a horrible job in the city when his dream is to be able to go home and work on the farm with his family, but is unable to because he wants to save money to help his parents live in something other than a shack. And so, because of this, he wishes he’d had the opportunity to get an education.

    Here’s a community of people who 50 years ago didn’t need education, but suddenly they do? Suddenly all these developing countries that did fine for hundreds of years need to be “educated?” I think the question is not so much about if people in developing countries need to be education or who should be educating them, but why do they suddenly need to be educated? E.F Schumacher says in Small is Beautiful, “Poor countries slip– and are pushed– into the adoption of production methods and consumption standards which destroy the possibilities of self-reliance and self-help.” All of this, in my mind, goes back to the need to educate and work with people in your own country, especially one like a powerhouse that is the US. Let’s stop ourselves from feeling we need to influence the rest of the world, as if we’ve got it all figured out.

    Posted by Alicia Rice | May 23, 2011, 12:47 am
    • Thanks Alicia for joining the conversation!


      Posted by dloitz | May 23, 2011, 1:32 am
    • Beautifully said, Alicia: “All of this, in my mind, goes back to the need to educate and work with people in your own country, especially one like a powerhouse that is the US. Let’s stop ourselves from feeling we need to influence the rest of the world, as if we’ve got it all figured out.”

      Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. Is there a website or other resource for finding out more about the “traditional schools” you describe in Laos?


      Posted by Carol Black | May 23, 2011, 12:19 pm
      • Check out this video she sent me about the school in Thailand were she worked…


        Posted by dloitz | May 23, 2011, 12:30 pm
      • Most of what I’ve read on the subject comes from a Lao development based newsletter called Juth Pakai, they’ve got a couple of articles on the subject. There’s a group called PADETC that’s trying to work on education ( One of the problems with education in Laos is that only 50% of the population actually speaks Lao, but all teaching is done in Lao. So, education for kids in ethnic groups becomes more difficult.

        Contemplative education is a movement in Thailand that originally started with hospital patients. It’s difficult to describe, as it’s pretty subjective, but I would say there are two main camps at this point. One camp is “teach by not teaching” and the other is “teach by doing.” In the former the idea is that everything we do is helping to teach children, and that by simply sitting in a class, you are educating (or something like this). The second is that children can only really learn things by experience. It is heavily driven by dialogue and free discussion. There’s also a focus on teacher training and workshops, realizing that a teacher can’t be fully effective until they understand themselves.

        Examples of activities include: passing a glass of water around in a group and discuss how you felt, talking to a tree, drawing pictures of yourself as a child and having a conversation, etc.

        There are definitely some great aspects of it, but I also have my doubts. Sometimes I feel like it’s a better style of education for adults than for children and can be a little to “talk” heavy. However, I think any step towards something that tries to cultivate happiness and understanding of oneself can’t be a horrible step.

        Posted by Alicia Rice | May 31, 2011, 11:31 pm
        • Thanks for sharing this work, Alicia – I think you’re probably right on both counts: no single path is right for all learners, but no path that cultivates happiness and self-knowledge can be horrible.

          Best regards,

          Posted by Chad Sansing | June 1, 2011, 8:33 am
      • Interesting, Alicia. I think what you’re saying raises another chronic issue — that when you take a good idea and make it programmatic, it runs the risk of becoming inauthentic or even sort of creepy.

        A group of kids working together in a garden may experience a wonderful afternoon in which the physical activity, the sun shining, the plants and insects and breeze and water, the sense of cooperation or even of deep harmony that arises spontaneously between them all, create a profound experience in which a deep connection to each other and to nature produce a deep kind of learning.

        But thinking you can write that into a curriculum or lesson plan and replicate it reliably is another thing altogether, and can lead to a sort of phony attitude of “The students will experience a profound sense of connection to each other and to nature that produce a profound meditative learning.” Yeah, right.

        On another day, it’ll just be digging in the dirt — the kids’ll be distracted by some social conflict or gossip, somebody gets stung by a bee, somebody is fooling around with the hoe and accidentally chops down the best tomato plant, another kid rushes through the planting and leaves the roots exposed on all the bean plants so they’ll probably die, the teacher gets annoyed and starts to feel like they’re all wasting their time, and it’s hard to say if anybody learned anything or not.

        Of course that’s the natural ebb and flow of life, between our peak experiences and our daily muddle, but I think that’s why so much of the rhetoric about education is ungrounded and phony. Magic occasionally happens, but you can’t write it into the curriculum. Whether it’s high peaks of intellectual analysis or independent thought or creativity or meditative contemplation that you think you’re going to produce in children, the day-to-day reality persistently slips away and defies your “goals and objectives.” Take any group of kids and read them the mission statement of their school and watch them roll their eyes.

        This connects back to the Greg Mortenson fiasco — because it’s about how we base our plans and programs on these ungrounded clouds of rhetoric, not on the reality of what really happens with kids. To make better decisions, you have to start with the reality of your situation and work from there, and then create a structure where you can respond to feedback when you try something and the results are not what you anticipated. Otherwise you’re stuck doing the same thing over and over even when it’s not working, not taking the negative impacts seriously, always thinking a little more money would make things turn out better, not recognizing when you’re just barking up the wrong tree.

        Posted by Carol Black | June 1, 2011, 10:55 am
  12. Alica,

    Any time you are ready to do a guest post let me know.

    This is some really good stuff, thanks Carol, Chad and Alica!


    Posted by dloitz | June 1, 2011, 5:03 pm
    • I think this was one of the main problems I had with the class I worked with this year. I remember once the kids got put in a circle outside (Thailand isn’t a cool place, either) and forced to sit in a circle and talk about why they weren’t lining up to sing the national anthem. The kids didn’t want to talk about it, they said that they didn’t want to line up and for them that was the end of the discussion. But the teachers sat there and made them talk about it for over two hours. There were trying to get the kids to understand their motives behind not lining up. They were asking these 10 year olds to tell them what they were thinking the moment they decided to disobey the rules. And they weren’t going to let them go until they squeezed some deep, profound understanding out of them.

      The class I worked in was based on the idea of letting the kids follow what they wanted to do. Except, there was no structure in some places and too much structure in others. 10 year olds don’t always know what their passion in life is and so unless you’re giving them tools then you can’t expect them to do anything. You can’t give them time and then expect them to be productive with it. And you can’t force them to be contemplative.

      The teachers I worked with were very caught up in the “ideas” behind their classroom. They often missed whole weeks of school at a time (there’s no substitute system, so the kids just didn’t come) to go to workshops, usually with the same person leading it. Creepy is the perfect word, too. I saw these teachers who were smart women become ghosts of themselves around him. Whenever I made a suggestion or asked a question, they answered with something that he had said. In the end, I feel as if they spent more time thinking about the idea of the class than actually being in class, and the students got left behind. They acted out. By the end of the year, it was rare to have them all in the class for more than 30 minutes in a day.

      And it’s very true, the moments of real learning that I saw the kids had were the unplanned moments. They were when I got to sit outside with a kid and have a deep conversation with him all because he didn’t want to do his math. Or when all the kids stopped listening to story time and when and made a replica of the dam in the city out of sand. And it’s funny because the whole idea of the class was based around not planning, but it was only when that lack of planning was let go that spontaneity was able to occur.

      There’s no one way that works best for anyone, it’s all about finding your own way. Even a style of teaching that you find to be “perfect” won’t always work. There needs to be fluidity.

      Posted by Alicia Rice | June 1, 2011, 5:45 pm
      • This raises another really interesting point. If you’re trying something alternative and for whatever reason you’re struggling or just a bit adrift, you can wind up feeling that you can’t admit it because then someone will say, “Aha! You see, you’re not meeting standards, and you just need some proper curriculum and testing.” So people working in alternative ed can wind up feeling like they have to keep spouting the same old rhetoric which after a while is just as vague and unhelpful as the standard school rhetoric. As you say, what’s needed is fluidity, experimentation, and somebody you can sit down and talk ideas with in a concrete, practical way — not somebody who will just endlessly repeat the aphorisms of either camp and try to use your difficulties to bolster their agenda.

        The dilemma so often is how to find ways to create the structure that some kids crave without creating a structure that suppresses all the others. Individual kids thrive on such different amounts of external structure, and when you throw cultural differences into the mix, it becomes even harder to anticipate what will work. Some kids seem to be born inner-directed, while others seem to have an innate expectation of a social structure that will make certain demands on them. Sometimes we get stuck because we’re only thinking in terms of demands to study math or write a term paper, when what some kids crave is a demand that they show physical endurance or mastery, or courage, or loyalty, or generosity, or skill in improvising solutions to practical problems, or entrepreneurial instincts, or social negotiation and diplomacy, or creative daring, or …

        Posted by Carol Black | June 3, 2011, 12:54 pm
      • I definitely think there was some of that going on with the teachers I was working with. They’re facing so much adversity that their natural reaction when someone says something contrary is to get defensive. Even with someone like me, who was completely on their side, any suggestion contrary to what they were doing was met with opposition.

        And, with a class full of 20 very different students who all needed different things, it was simply too hard to try and find a path for each of them with the way they had structured their class. The time was there to use freely once the students had figured out their path, but the step before that was missing. They needed more individual time with teachers and that just didn’t happen.

        The dilemma is a tough one and it’s questionable in my mind that any kind of structured system would be able to provide the best path for all students. I know that part of the contemplative education movement focuses on homeschooling as the best way to do this. Children then get the individual attention they need and an ability to guide their own learning.

        I was able to meet a group of young people who were learning in a homeschool environment. There were about 5 to 10 of them in total who learned together. Their parents were displeased with the educational system and came together to build it for themselves. Each parent took charge of a certain aspect of the kids education, while giving the kids time to explore their own interests. When talking with one of the girls, she said that she loved the ability to learn in a relaxed environment with out the stresses of traditional schools.

        The question, I think, then becomes how important is it for parents to educate their own children?

        It was easy for me to get frustrated with the way they were running the classroom. I had to constantly remind myself that it was only their first year doing this style and that the only thing I could do was to interact in a way that I believed in and hope that they would see it. It really cemented in me that you can’t change anyone else, and to try to will only lead you into a wall. The only hope is to change yourself and act in a way that others might be able to learn from (that is, when they’re ready).

        Posted by Alicia Rice | June 4, 2011, 5:41 am


  1. Pingback: Kevin's Meandering Mind » More on Mortenson, Three Cups and the World - August 15, 2011

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,097 other followers

Comments are subject to moderation.

%d bloggers like this: