Thursday, May 14, 2015

Book Review: Stones into Schools

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Stones into Schools
Author: Greg Mortenson
Author’s web sites:
Date: 2009
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-14-311823-7
Length: 422 pages
Illustrations: photos
Quote: “At the moment, female literacy in rural Afghanistan contin­ues to languish in the single digits...The demand for schools, teachers, immense."
The memoir that explains why I even bought a copy of Stones into Schools appears at .

I didn't know how controversial Greg Mortenson was when I read his second book; the controversy has blown up and down during the years since I bought Stones into Schools. Before deciding whether or not to buy the book, you may want to check out what people are saying about Mortenson:

The hatchet job:

Mortenson replied to a more sympathetic journalist:

To some, he's still a "hero":

The Washington Post summarizes the controversy:

Me? I'm tempted to say that Mortenson "went native"; the exaggerations and distortions to which he's admitted in his storytelling and fundraising, the sloppy accounting and questionable uses of funds, are very similar to what I learned to expect from the mostly Himalayan Muslims I knew well. "How can decent people tolerate such dishonesty?" some Americans wail, and their wailing does resemble the way Muslims react to decent, responsible, even monogamous Americans' tolerance for so much ambiguity and opportunity-for-wrongdoing in regard to sexual chastity. It's a cultural thing. I was surprised that Mortenson, the American, was accused of using donated money for his own private personal benefit, because most Americans agree that that's unethical. I would've been surprised to read that any of the local school organizers and teachers had refused to do that, because I've seen no evidence that anybody in northern India, Pakistan, or Afghanistan has any ethical objection to it.

In fact, one reason why this web site tries to avoid anything that sounds like foreign policy positions is that, as (tactfully) noted in How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas, when even the most liberal researchers probed the question of which international humanitarian organizations are most effective, what they found was that enormous amounts of what Americans are likely to call chicanery go on--even in the best organizations. In order to get a book or a bowl of rice to an orphan in a famine area, you have to cross a few greedy officials' hands with silver. If this shocks or upsets you, you may want to limit your support to U.S. charities operated under U.S. standards.

I personally have not sent Mortenson's organization any money...but if I were a millionnaire, I might have done, because I would expect more than half of every dollar donated to anything in the Himalayan Region to be collected along the way by people who were neither needy children or their hardworking parents. If a dime out of the dollar you send to Pakistan actually pays for food, books, or (modest according to local standards) school uniforms, for a poor child, I'd feel that that dollar was probably doing more good than the average dollar sent to Pakistan.

So, with that in mind...Himalayan Muslims have long expressed a need and desire for decent schools for girls. Muslim teaching is that education, even advanced education, for women is a good thing. Muhammad is said to have guaranteed any father who educates two daughters a place in Paradise. The ideal Muslim wife is intelligent, an avid reader, a wise counsellor who listens closely and chooses her words well, and a competent partner in whatever her husband’s line of work may be. Somehow, though, the value placed on a girl’s education tends to get lost, in practice, amidst the value placed on her brother’s education, or getting a daughter married before she can get into trouble, or keeping her at home where she can stay out of trouble and help with the chores...and then, after a few generations, there is no longer a school for girls. And it’s not that these girls’ parents don’t think that educating a daughter will help her catch a rich husband, as well as teach her children and serve her whole community. Even if they're being bullied by Taliban types, they know that to be true. Some of them do think that, if foreigners are so concerned about these girls’ education, maybe the foreigners should be the ones to pay for it.
Most of the Islamic world has interpreted the idea that people should avoid contact with the opposite sex in ways that can work for women, rather than against them. City women can support each other in any kind of business. In small villages the rule is more likely to become a problem; if there’s no female teacher, very soon there’s likely to be a local culture in which women grow up uneducated—even illiterate, though these people say “illiterate” in the same tone Anglo-Americans use to say “dirty.”
What even his critics admit is that Greg Mortenson doesn’t mind paying to break traditions of female illiteracy. He says that it’s in the interests of the United States to educate Pakistani and Afghani girls because, as a general rule, educated people are less likely to become haters than ignorant people.
Mortenson has organized several schools in these Muslim territories. He doesn’t teach. He’s not trying to teach children to become Christians, or American citizens, or British subjects, as missionary teachers inevitably tend to do. He recruits and pays local adults to teach children to be good citizens of their villages, their states, even their mosques. He does not supervise the classes. He merely looks for teachers who aren’t bigots and don’t interpret the more “embattled” parts in the Koran literally. He requires schools to begin with one-third female students and work steadily toward one-half female students.
International charity programs tend to belittle their beneficiaries. Mortenson recalls his father being told that “getting anything done in Africa required...a hippo-hide whip.” His father refused to believe this and was indeed able to leave his work in Tanzania in the hands of Tanzanians. Mortenson’s stated policy was to find a place for a school, finance teachers’ wages and school supplies and a building if necessary, and move on.
Mortenson describes himself as an introvert and prefers to let a well-connected local man talk to people on his behalf. I’m not surprised to read that this method of operations is well received in the countries where he works. What Americans call shyness, much of the world calls tact, courtesy, and due respect for others.
Is it truly enlightened, or merely altruistic? Is there, in fact, long-term benefit for the United States in a respectful, hands-off kind of charity that actually gives people what they say they want without hanging around to supervise the outcome? In another twenty or thirty years we’ll have an answer that does not depend on faith. I wouldn’t be writing about this book if my feeling weren’t that Afghans are human and would rather be educated for peacetime jobs than be trained as armed drug runners and gun slingers for the Taliban. In any case Mortenson’s work is a private charity, not dependent on government funding. Toward the end of the book Mortenson describes one situation in which he was tempted to break his own rule and appeal for a little bit of humanitarian aid from our government...but that approach wasn’t best. Read the book to find out why.
Photos may surprise some Americans by illustrating Mortenson’s description: “Afghanistan is a vast melting pot in which green eyes, brown hair, and Caucasian features are not at all uncommon.” Europeans have been visiting Afghanistan for a long time, and some Afghani faces look European.
The central part of the book describes the aftermath of an earthquake so terrible that Mortenson’s Pakistani friends didn’t even call it by the word they usually used for earthquakes; it was Qayamat, “the apocalypse.” In view of the earthquake disaster more recently reported in Turkey, it seems timely to call attention to the way Mortenson reports Turkish people responding to the needs in Pakistan. The story of how donations to foreign aid programs are actually received (see especially pages 176-177) is also instructive.
If this book has a flaw, it’s that Mortenson is preaching to the choir. He assumes that those who prefer to hate everything associated with an “enemy” country like Afghanistan, or even a “not very close friend” country like Pakistan, don’t read books. (He may be right.) You, the person who undertakes to read 400 pages of rather fine print and only about 40 pages of pictures (a 16-page color photo insert is not included in the page numbering), are of course too much of a humanitarian to question the wisdom or safety of financing free education for potential enemies. Is this the kind of bold, radical charity that makes Christianity special? Or, in Objectivist terms, is Mortenson getting a fair exchange for his work? Mortenson simply assumes that you’ll say yes to both questions, and doesn’t try to persuade anyone who might feel otherwise.
No doubt it’s partly because I enjoyed and appreciated the Khan clan  that I do say yes to both questions. I like Stones into Schools and recommend it to all readers, whether or not they can spare money to support this kind of charity.

Are the adventure stories precisely, literally true? I have no way of knowing. Would you know? Would you care? They're endearingly understated adventure stories, anyway.

Anyway, Mortenson being a living author, this is a Fair Trade Book. If you send salolianigodagewi @ $5 for the book plus $5 (per package) for shipping, in the same batch of mail when we send you a copy of Stones into Schools we'll send Mortenson or his charity $1. Buy the book here if you want to show support for Mortenson; buy it cheaper from some other web site, or at a local book sale, if you want to withhold financial support from Mortenson.