Three Cups of Fiction

On “Whites In Shining Armor” saving the world with schools.

by Carol Black /photos by Jim Hurst



The revelation that Greg Mortenson’s New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea was 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 that 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.

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 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 land-based 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.


photo by Jim Hurst


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 zero-sum game 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 hierarchical labeling and ranking of children that is hard-wired into our entire system of grading, testing, and one-size-fits-all standards.  Until we change that, education will continue to reproduce 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.”

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.

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 instability and violence all over the world.  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 children in low-quality schools for years, brand them as failures, make them feel stupid, incompetent, and inferior, and then turn them loose without marketable skills into a country with high unemployment, 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 a trigger for violence.

Which brings us to girls. 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.”

It’s commonly assumed that lack of education in developing areas is a risk factor for trafficking, but apparently the evidence suggests the opposite.

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 the 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 well-oiled networks that trade in girls not just for sex but for domestic servitude and sweatshop labor are 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 Indigenous teenagers from the Amazon to Australia to the Arctic Circle where traditional land-based livelihoods have been disrupted or destroyed. Young people who no longer learn land-based livelihood skills but who fail to achieve a level of success in school that has any real market value find themselves caught in a devastating dead end, a bleak future at the bottom of the global economic pyramid.  Martyn Namarong of Papua New Guinea calls it "the education trap."

In rapidly-developing 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.” Asia News Reports:

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.

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.


The Girl Effect?
“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.


The bottom line is that the modern school is no silver bullet, but an extremely problematic institution that has proven highly resistant to fundamental reform, and there is very little objective research on its impact on traditional land-based 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 that looks objectively at both positive and negative effects, not data mining that bolsters 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, 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. 

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.


Crucially, we need to recognize the value of the intellectual, spiritual, ecological, and artistic traditions of other cultures –– including non-literate cultures –– and look for ways to share useful information in both directions that don't completely disrupt or undermine the social structures, traditional livelihoods, and knowledge systems of those cultures.  And ultimately we need to respect the right of other societies to opt out of formal schooling completely if they prefer to raise and educate their children within their own knowledge systems and pedagogies.

But 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 – which 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 that are creating poverty, so that people everywhere can educate their own children in the way they think best –– without charity. As author Teju Cole has put it:

What innocent heroes don't always understand is that they play a useful role for people who have much more cynical motives. The White Savior Industrial Complex is a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage.



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?

“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 child getting an education.

Kyrgyz child getting an education.