Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Reader beware

Picture from 怀墨

As news unfolds about Greg Mortenson on 60 minutes and his alleged misrepresentation of himself and his story of "Three cups of tea" in Afghanistan, it brings to mind the book "Honor lost : love and death in modern-day Jordan" and how it was discovered that this 'true' story was a fabrication. Also, the book "A Million Little Pieces," by James Frey that was hailed publicly by Oprah as one of the most tragic lives and one of those books that could not be put down, was also found to be a work of extreme embellishment and fiction. There have been others that faced similar controversy, including "A Child called it" and its sequels.

Mortensons' story is used in our school as part of the 'Power of One' unit of inquiry with the year 5's, along with John Wood's "Room to Read" journey. It is extensively referred to in our secondary community service programme as how one person with a good idea can make a difference if they follow through with action. Mortenson's story is a good one, and one that is inspiring, so why are there parts of it that have been allegedly made up and, if this is case - who did add the fiction? Was it Mortenson? Was it the publisher? Does it matter?

I have been teaching evaluating information this year to years 7-10. Part of what I teach the students is that printed books generally go through editing and evaluation before they are published. All the checks and balances have been done by editors and researchers, so we can usually rely on the authenticity of the printed non-fiction word, whereas internet publishing does not go through so many checks, so we need to be the ones who check authenticity and accuracy after the publishing.

This latest controversy is a very sad state of affairs for not only publishers who do not perform the checks and balances, but for all of us who have read these books in the belief they were true, because the people we trusted told us they were.

We need to remember that the publishers are in the business of selling books, the more amazing story, the more books will sell, the more money will be made. We cannot seem to trust them with the research of autobiographies or biographies to check their authenticity and we need to rely on other agencies who have their own agenda such as 60 minutes, to try to keep the publishers honest. However, remember too that they have their own agenda - the more sensation - the more exposure, the more money.

As educators it has become even more urgent and important for us to be helping those under our charge to be critical thinkers, to question and to be aware of possible bias, agendas, lies. They need to approach everything with a little bit of wariness and discrimination.

I don't know what will happen with the allegations against Mortenson's story, I hope it is found to be as true as it can be, not only for the charities he has created and the people he helps, but so faith can be restored in the publishing industry and so young (and old) people can trust again.


Anonymous said...

I guess these people are relatively rare in the 'we thought they were doing good' part of the world. Just stick with Sir Edmund Hillary and his work in Nepal over almost his entire life, Fred Hollows, etc.

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