Education Opinion

Three Cups of Cynicism

By Nancy Flanagan — May 04, 2011 3 min read
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I am proud to call Alaska Teacher of the Year 2009 Bob Williams a friend. After the troubling news about Greg Mortenson broke, Bob wrote this, neatly distinguishing between principle and practice:

I have always liked the "Three Cups of Tea" theme that stressed the importance of building relationships first and using the relationships as a basis to make meaningful social change for the greater good. As teachers, much of our success is dependent on building trust with students, parents, and colleagues. During accountability crusades and high-stakes testing marathons, often the soft factors of relationships and building rapport with students get short shrift.
Mortenson's fall is another reminder that losing trust has long term consequences and ramifications. This is not the time to trade out "Three Cups of Tea" for "Three Cups of Cynicism." Relationships are still critical and key. His lapse does not diminish the importance of relationship-building in any way.

My response: Looks like even trust can be co-opted.

This is what happens when everything is for sale, including ideas that seem noble, like building schools (or improving teaching). When you boil this down, Greg Mortenson succumbed to the all-too-human need for fame and, later, fortune. What may have begun as an altruistic idea--building schools for girls who were left ignorant in a culture foreign to Westerners --turned into a personal spotlight and magnet for philanthropy, as the story was burnished, sound bites created and repeated, money and more money secured--and little of lasting value created.

Mortenson grew ever more entrepreneurial--having found the perfect cultural context for liberal Americans to reframe their own guilt. And send cash.

Hey, I read the book. I got taken, too.

Nothing that Greg Mortenson said about relationships was wrong--it was just the way he used a resonant theme of high moral value for personal/organizational gain.

Just as Teach for America uses themes of “giving back to the community” and “best and brightest in our toughest schools” to build a powerful, well-funded organization on the backs of poor kids who deserve experienced, professional teachers.

Just as StudentsFirst uses “closing the test-score achievement gap” and “keeping the best teachers in the classroom” as a way of building their billion-dollar kitty, even though Rhee’s ideas have not yielded anything remotely resembling social justice in public education.

Just as governors all around the country are using “shared sacrifice” as a cover for slashing budgets and summarily removing control from municipalities and unions, including--and this is appalling--unilaterally voiding legal contracts and elections.

It’s about power and money and how you get it: the “free market.”

A friend--a former teacher now pursuing a new career in education--joined the conversation:

Your post makes me sad. I guess the question is: Are anyone's intentions honorable? Are we all sinners? I see my heroes falling all around me. I really doubt there was ever a golden age of education. There has always been injustice, mediocrity, and failure.

Well, yeah. Education (like medicine, social work and other services) is particularly vulnerable to incursions by those who would like to position their efforts as noble and selfless. When bankers and stockbrokers tell us that their hard work is strengthening the American middle class, we know better. But when a teacher, nurse, firefighter or adoption counselor explains their work, there’s an credible element of do-gooding.

Saving lives, touching the future. Making the world a better place. That’s why we go into teaching. It’s difficult, it doesn’t pay well, it doesn’t offer many opportunities for fame and glory. But it’s socially beneficial. We know we’ve done something positive, when we leave for the day.

These are seductive and powerful ideas: Helping others. Making a difference. This is exactly why hedge fund managers promote charter schools. They are salvaging their reputations (and probably their consciences). They have done something terrific for poor kids! Plus they look so cute in their plaid jumpers! Then they write a check and feel good about themselves at the fund-raising tour (after drinking some excellent wine).

I don’t think that should make anyone feel like jumping out a window. We all want the strokes that come with positive recognition. Greg Mortenson just went way, way overboard in trying to get them. You can see how tempting it was.

We all have to check ourselves when the fame monster comes calling--the need to be in the spotlight, absolutely right, holding the microphone and saying the most compelling things. If you’re rich and powerful, you can buy that kind of adulation. If you don’t have much to begin with, you have to have a powerful story, idea or experience to catch the public’s imagination.

All of our heroes have flaws. Sometimes, they’re inconsequential. Sometimes, they’re major. These days, flaws get ferreted out and put on Sixty Minutes, or YouTube.

But--that doesn’t mean the public ideas and goals that drive us are flawed, even if the people are flawed. A free, high-quality public education for every child is still a world-class idea--and, actually, within America’s grasp (if we don’t follow the feds or grasping governors down the corporate rathole of reform). Finland did it. Korea did it.

Building schools for girls in Afghanistan is still a world-class idea. It’s only Mortenson who surrendered to the insatiable desire for fame and adulation (and, yeah, money).

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.