A reflection on Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, and CAI.
With a meek, modest, humble nature, Greg Mortenson radiates
with a passion for education that bubbles just below the surface. Perhaps it’s this mild and humble manner
that allows Mortenson to so gently observe and respect the communities with
which he has worked.
Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute has the unique posture of working
with communities to build ideal schools where much of the educational philosophy can be imagined, rather than fitted within an existing bureaucratic
structure. While Mortenson could have taken any approach to education, CAI appears to have done the opposite of what is happening in the U.S. As hyper-standardization
and rigid structure appear to be at the forefront of “education reform” in the
States, Mortenson’s organization builds community-owned schools in which communities
have actual decision-making power, where spending is transparent. There is a
contract with communities in which they decide how the schools will be
Mortenson knows about the importance of listening. Asking: What
are your community’s priorities? Acknowledging the lived expertise of community
members. While we privilege certain types of education and expression–for
example written expression–these don’t define education, knowledge, or
intelligence. The ability to “read the world” can be just as powerful.
Community members are experts in their lived experiences and can contribute to prioritizing and planning.
Educational theorist Paulo Freire pushes towards a theory of “dialogical action”
when working with communities. He warns against falling prey to “cultural
invasion” in which development workers and professionals come to solve all
problems and develop solutions on their own. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he argues that often times, “professional”
or “educated” individuals “do not listen to the people, but instead plan to
teach them how to ‘cast off the laziness which creates underdevelopment.’ To
these professionals, it seems absurd to consider the necessity of respecting
the ‘view of the world’ held by the people.” In order to be with communities
rather than over or inside, we must recognize the importance of dialogue (sharing
and listening) and appreciating the expertise of all participants in the
Mortenson made it clear that he believes communities are capability of running schools (tell
this to the NYC Department of Ed!)
CAI schools are formed with community input that includes a
focus on storytelling, culture, and languages. Storytelling can be a major
stronghold within a community–in sharing and shaping history. In Local Acts, Jan
Cohen Cruz, an Associate Professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the ArtsÂ and community-based
artist, comments, “storytelling as a traditional form of education passes on
values, practices, experience, and knowledge that affirm the collective
identity of the group.” Education and schooling have the potential to distance
students and participants from their communities or allow them to form
connections with the community, explore the community’s history, and recognize the
beauty and struggle that lies within. Often, schooling drives students to leave
the community if we place a negative focus on the community. The only desirable possibility is to escape. It’s important to recognize education’s potential to build up
communities and preserve and share their important histories.
Mortenson describes education as an act of engagement and
experience. He references the need to smell, taste, touch, and feel. Theater of the Oppressed author, practitioner and theorist Augusto BoalÂ translated Freire’s popular
education theories into participatory and theatrical games and exercises. Through participatory techniques, Boal challenges us to truly listen to what we hear, feel what we touch, and see what
we are looking at. With the development of these senses, we can pursue Freire’s
concept of literacy, not only learning to read words, but to read the world
through sensory experience and emotion. And finally, by reading and recognizing
the world, we are called to challenge, transform and re-name it.
When we hear Greg Mortenson’s story, his quest to build schools to promote
peace, we are touched. Why can’t education be like this in the States? Do we
think we are too advanced for an education that promotes community and peace?
How can we re-imagine education?