Monday, April 25, 2011

Sinking like schools made out of stones

Greg Mortenson came into the orbit of my concern April 19th, when I received a student's biography, which was part of an award she had received which I had nominated her for. Her essay cited personal qualities like her belief in integrity “and the bravery it takes to exhibit such traits under all circumstances.” She cited Greg Mortenson as her inspiration for organizing a charity book fair this year. English books are a real commodity in Taiwan and the fundraiser was a huge success. She goes on to explain that “it was AST’s education that drove me to take action after I read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. The novel inspired me...” Of no small significance is her error in calling Mortenson's work a “novel.” Though I believe her word choice was unintentional, her deeming Mortenson's work to be fiction, now holds a special sort of importance as irony for me. It was only hours later that my mom sent me an email about how Mortenson had allegedly been accused of falsifying some of the stories spun in Three Cups of Tea.

I thought long and hard about telling my award recipient student about the Mortenson scandal. Eventually, I decided to save her the embarrassment of citing as her hero someone who had been recently discredited. I forwarded her the pertinent article and then immediately hated myself for doing it. Lines like “I want to find, create, and protect happiness in a world that is becoming dangerously materialistic, superficial, and apathetic. When did young people stop caring?” haunted me. I know when I stopped caring. Wait, did I ever care to begin with? Either way, I felt bad laying waste to her fragile idealism.

Make no mistake-- idealism is rare and fragile. I should know-- I teach young people-- those most commonly accused of being the most idealistic and possibly the most foolish in their approach to the world. Their cynicism is evident in the subtle aspects of their speech and mannerisms. Recently in a conference on the (pretend) United Nations I caught a student saying something like “it would not be pragmatic to make changes to that resolution” or something like that. The part that caught my attention was how he used the word “pragmatic” where he should have said “practical.” Ever since I read “Pragmatist” by Edmund Conti (“Apocalypse soon/Coming our way/Ground zero at noon/Halve a nice day”) pragmatism has always had a glass half empty connotation to me, and to see the term encoded in the language of the UN was revealing of truths that encircle governance and modernity and today's youth. A person like my award recipient who claims to want to “encourage both global and local connectivity” is rare. They are as rare as the Greg Mortensons of the world.

Finding out about the Mortenson scandal has been nearly an obsession for me during this previous week. Once my award recipient student found out about it following my suggestion that she watch the 60 minutes program, she asked me “should I change my essay?” I am still considering the answer, but at the time I said “don't change a word. Especially the word 'fiction.' Keep it just like it is.” The subtext was that I also hope that she remains fixed, like in Holden's museum, and that what she said in that essay is never revealed as flawed, or inaccurate or false. But that might require living in a world very different from the one I live in, and I honestly hope that both my award recipient student and Mortenson can continue to live there happily.