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Date Author Title
2011-05-02 Steve Gardiner Can we believe Three Cups of Tea?

Say it isn't so. There are some stories that we simply don't want to believe, and the story breaking last week about Greg Mortenson and his alleged misuse of funds donated to his Central Asia Institute is one of those stories.

Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and a host of other major awards, Mortenson is the co-author and subject of the 2006 bestselling book Three Cups of Tea which chronicled his experiences as an injured mountain climber nursed to health by local villagers, his vow to return to the village and build a school, and his success in raising money to, as he says on his website, “promote peace through education by establishing more than 171 schools, most of them for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.”


The sequel, Stones into Schools, takes up where Three Cups of Tea left off and portrays Mortenson as a hero in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The success of these books placed him in demand as a speaker across America. He talked at graduation ceremonies, corporate meetings, national conferences—and he had made millions of dollars. His books have become part of the curriculum at thousands of schools across the nation. His efforts have been discussed and praised in countless classrooms and inspired students to dreams of helping mankind.


Then came last week's 60 Minutes report on which author of the mega-seller Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer, said about Three Cups of Tea, “It's a beautiful story, and it's a lie.” Krakauer, a former friend of Mortenson's and a donor of $75,000 to the Central Asia Institude, was very convincing that Mortenson's accounting procedures were less than accurate. Watching people take shots at someone who has made it big, turned a life into a huge success, has become a major spectator sport for many in America. My first reaction was that this was jealousy in motion, envy of an idea grown to mythical proportions. Then we heard from people in Afghanistan explaining how Mortenson is much more famous in America than in their country.


I don't want to believe it. Like many, I like the image of Mortenson the philanthropist, not Mortenson the phony. I want to hold onto the idea that one person can have a dream and make it come true. I want to know that he made a difference, that he changed the lives of thousands, and by focusing on educating the girls of the region, changed a long-held prejudice in the culture and brightened the future for those girls and the children they will raise.


I haven't given up yet. Mortenson hasn't fully responded to the charges. He is currently at home in Bozeman, Montana, for heart surgery. I hope that he can explain the comments when he recovers, because if he can't, thousands of children in Afghanistan and Pakistan will suffer the results and people who have donated to his Institute in the past will withhold further donations to not only his projects, but perhaps take a more skeptical look at other humanitarian projects as well. In a time of economic struggle, humanitarian organizations have a difficult time, and if these allegations are true, that will only get worse.


Then there is the issue of Three Cups of Tea. If, as Krakauer says, it is a lie, I'll have lost one of my favorite stories, and teachers everywhere will lose one of the best ways of fostering humanitarian instincts in their students. I've watched many of my students read Three Cups of Tea in our independent reading program, and they are changed. As teachers, that is what we dream about, and we trust our non-fiction writers to give us the truth. Perhaps that did not happen this time.


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