Sunday’s 60 Minutes program investigated allegations that Greg Mortenson, author of the New York Times best-seller Three Cups of Tea and a follow-up book Stones Into Schools, fabricated or exaggerated key points in his books. In Three Cups of Tea he tells about his failed attempt to climb the mountain K2 and how a local village took care of him and asked him to build a school. He ended up building many schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, many for girls, for whom education has been restricted by the Taliban. His tagline is “peace through education.”
Books by Mortenson are some of the most popular as “common reading” at colleges and universities. For the academic year 2010-2011, twelve institutions selected Three Cups of Tea and one school chose Stones Into Schools as their one book for student common reading. Inside Higher Ed reports that some of these universities, which intend to honor Mortenson and have him speak on campus, are now in an awkward position. Two of them were planning to give him a medal or an honorary degree this month.
It will be interesting to see whether Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools continue to be popular as common reading for next year, or whether the books take a dip from this negative publicity.
Two other popular “common reading” authors, John Krakauer and Nicholas Kristoff, have weighed in on this controversy. Krakauer, author of Into the Wild, which was made into a 2007 film, appeared on 60 Minutes. He said he was formerly a supporter of Mortenson’s but was disillusioned when he discovered the embellishments in his books. Krakauer said, “He has become perhaps the world’s most effective spokesperson for girls’ education in developing countries, and he deserves credit for that. Nevertheless, he is now threatening to bring it all down, to destroy all of it by this fraud and by these lies.”
Kristoff, author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, writes in the New York Times about the 60 Minutes exposé as a troubled friend, suggesting that most of the accusations could be explained by Mortenson’s “utterly disorganized” personality. Kristoff argues that Mortenson’s good deeds outweigh the alleged bad ones: “But let’s not forget that even if all the allegations turn out to be true, Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will.”
That’s right, and building schools in impoverished nations is indeed admirable and makes for a touching story. But truth still matters. If the compelling evidence against Mortenson is correct and his books are riddled with falsehood, that affects the education of American students whose colleges have set Three Cups of Tea on a pedestal. Are colleges so eager to instill in students a mindset favorable to the Islamic world and activism for “peace” that they are willing to dismiss the importance of factual accuracy? Where will they draw the line between a politically correct book choice and their duty to teach students to pursue the truth? We will see.