Little Princes, while inspirational in many ways, is ultimately a problematic book because of the ways in which it reinforces stereotypes about American ignorance of global affairs. Conor Grennan addresses his own ignorance about global issues, particularly as it relates to his experiences in Nepal, but even his acknowledgements do not go far enough. Scholars in the social sciences, such as Martin W. Lewis and Michael Schudson, have noted that this ignorance is both a perceived problem and a real one, especially for Americans. Throughout his work, Grennan identifies his lack of knowledge pertaining to the people and history of Nepal. Scholars have shown that many Americans, even those in the highest ranks of fields that require knowledge of global affairs, may know shockingly little about the world around them. Conor Grennan starts off as an average American, but progresses in a very self-aware way into a well-informed advocate for Nepal and its children. However, his knowledge remains limited to the scope of the work he undertook in Nepal; the book does not suggest that he becomes more informed about issues in the world at large. As a result, this book, despite its many positive aspects, reinforces the notion that American ignorance about global affairs is ultimately harmless. I disagree with this idea, because I believe that even well intentioned ignorance can ultimately prove to be harmful, because achieving social justice, at home or abroad, is often incredibly complex. I wish that the book had done more to address the importance of being informed and aware of other nations and cultures before plunging into complex geopolitical projects like reuniting families after a prolonged civil war.
When Grennan began his journey, he showed a serious lack of geographical knowledge about Nepal, a country where he was about to spend three months. He explained his decision to travel there by saying, “When I learned that Everest was in Nepal (a country I had previously confused with Tibet), I decided it was the perfect country to volunteer in--I could combine my volunteering experience with a trek to Base Camp” (14). Grennan admits to his readers that he learned the location of Everest during his adulthood and even writes about how he easily confused Tibet with Nepal, which are two distinctly separate places. As a writer who had lived abroad before, it would be reasonable to expect that he would know the location of Mount Everest. Grennan seems to want his readers to know just how bad his geography was, perhaps as an explanation or excuse for his later misadventures with Nepalese politics. Martin Lewis, a geographer, points out that “Accounts that expose the lack of [geographical] knowledge among American high school and college students are so common that they have lost shock value” (603). Grennan, when he arrives in Nepal, is almost a caricature of an ignorant American, arriving in a country he knows little to nothing about, to volunteer for a cause he thinks sounds appealing to his friends and family back home. Lewis goes on to argue that this particular brand of ignorance is more than just embarrassing: “The ‘ignorant American’ is a derided figure the world over, and, as we increasingly work and play abroad, derision is giving way to something uglier: contempt” (604). In a world where communication and travel across time zones is easier and cheaper than ever, Americans look more and more absurd when they travel to countries or work with people whose cultures they know nothing about--the world is giving up on them. Grennan, in the beginning of his story, is in danger of becoming just another American who knows almost nothing about the world beyond his doorstep. Lewis emphasizes that it is not just high school and college students making these mistakes, but it is also scholars and journalists for top organizations who lack this knowledge as well (Lewis 604). Lewis believes, rightly I think, that this ignorance is especially dangerous when it comes from the very people we rely on to explain the world to us (Lewis 612); Grennan is, in many ways, just such a specialist.
When Grennan arrived in Nepal, his ignorance was not only geographical, but also cultural and political. Again, this made him a typical American in many ways. Michael Schudson, a political scientist, claims, “Americans sometimes demonstrate deeper knowledge about a major issue before the nation, such as the Vietnam War, but most could not describe the thrust of Clinton’s healthcare plan or whether the Reagan administration supported Sandistinas or the contras during the conflict in Nicaragua” (16). It is spotty and perhaps focuses on events that get a certain kind of media coverage. Grennan, even as he comes to know more about Nepal, still displays this American penchant for lopsided knowledge. He becomes an expert in the Nepalese civil war. I have a feeling, though, that he might not have much to say about the tribes of northern Pakistan or the situation in Darfur. He becomes an expert, but the kind of expert Schudson would be skeptical about, because his knowledge is so limited to the one area about which he is passion. Even in Nepal, his imperfect understanding of the situations of the families he tried to help complicated his efforts. Though he is desperate to reunite these families--something that looks like the obvious desired outcome from an American perspective--he discovers that some of them, for complex reasons (including financial strains) do not want to be reunited (265-267). Despite Grennan’s incredibly hard work and his obvious devotion to the children, his work in Nepal was still problematic and flawed. Early on in his story, Grennan devotes a considerable amount of time discussing his discovery that the civil war mentioned in the travel literature he had read, was in fact a real civil war, and not some minor, unimportant conflict (5). The civil war would shape his experience in Nepal--the children he worked with, for instance, largely lost their families because of the civil war--but he arrived in Nepal thinking the civil war would be no more than a footnote to his experience. In fact, he opens the book talking about the civil war and saying, “Being an American, I assumed the writers of the brochure were doing what I did all the time—exaggerating. No organization was going to send volunteers into a conflict zone” (5). This breezy attitude led him into a country engulfed in civil war, and in a way, I would argue, also allowed him to persevere in his quest. If he had known the difficulties that would face him all along the way, he might have thought twice before volunteering in Nepal, and certainly would have thought twice before becoming involved in the complex situation of the orphans there. Even though I believe Grennan’s information about Nepalese culture and conflict is accurate, I still wouldn’t trust him to keep me informed about global affairs. Grennan has focused all of his intellectual energy on Nepal, rather than on becoming a more informed citizen all around. He has become more knowledgeable, without a doubt, but this knowledge does not change the fact that he is still a somewhat ignorant, though optimistic and kind-hearted, American.
Even though Grennan was not the most informed person, he managed to transform himself from an ignorant American to a well-informed traveler in Nepal (at least with respect to the issues he was concerned about). Through his volunteer work, he realized how important it is to be educated about the country where you find yourself and to be involved. Grennan’s reaction to a presentation about Nepal when he arrived was, “The presenter was speaking in slowly enunciated detail about Nepalese culture and history. The presentation was frightfully boring. I found it impossible to keep my attention focused on the speaker, even when I concentrated and dug my nails into my hand” (8). His boredom and lack of interest in learning about a completely different country, especially one that he was about to live in for three months, shows him as a typical, self-absorbed American, one who did not really have interest in learning about countries other than his own. The Conor at the end of the book (or even the middle) is an entirely different person. He grows into a person who cannot resist listening to news of Nepal. After returning from Nepal to America after his first stay, Grennan began to look for a job outside the Little Princes. Grennan found himself drawn to news from Nepal, explaining:
As I tried to start the job hunt, I was distracted by the news from Nepal as it unfolded live on CNN. People were taking to the streets, not at the orders of the Maoists, though the rebels did all they could to support it, but at the urging of the political parties that had been kicked out of parliament when the king seized power. (99)
This distraction shows how much he had come to care about Nepal and understand some of the major issues facing the country. Grennan’s experiences seeing firsthand the situation in Nepal, underscores the idea that people need to “see it to believe it.” Once Conor fully immersed himself in the Nepalese culture, the civil war and its devastating consequences became a reality and ultimately impacted his life in such a profound way. Despite his newfound appreciation of and interest in Nepalese politics and culture, though, I found myself feeling that Grennan was still operating more on optimism than real knowledge and understanding. Throughout the course of the book, he finds himself in new predicament after new predicament, first discovering that the orphans are not orphans, then discovering that their families were tricked, learning about the man responsible for leaving them, Grennan continually gets himself into new situations where he comes to learn about the Nepalese conflicts in the area.
When choosing sides in a conflict, which often happens when you volunteer for a humanitarian cause, it is essential to have some understanding of the geography and history of that conflict. If you, like Grennan, only rely on glossy brochures and enticing-sounding volunteer opportunities, you may find that you have accidentally sided with dangerous or corrupt people. Grennan was lucky and hard working, but I would like to see more rigorous study and reflection in his story, rather than a focus on pluck and courage. To give an example from recent history, many Westerners supported the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s. When Pol Pot came to power, though, he turned out to be one of the worst, most violent dictators in modern history. I am not suggesting that Grennan was siding with monstrous people or causes, but simply pointing out that global affairs are complex and that good intentions are not enough on their own. Understanding how to protect human rights and achieve social justice depends on understanding whose rights need protecting, often a very difficult question for anyone to answer. When college students read Grennan’s work, I hope that they take away the idea that the modern world needs well-informed citizens, and that passion should follow knowledge whenever possible. I do not mean to suggest that you need a Ph.D. in a country’s history before you volunteer there, but rather I want to promote the idea that volunteers should value learning about the history and customs of a country at least as much as they value the bragging rights they get from going there.
Conor Grennan’s volunteer work not only brought awareness to how children are living in Nepal, but also how Americans are uninformed about other nations and global issues. Through immersing himself in Nepalese culture, he showed how little he knew entering Nepal and how much he learned factually and emotionally through his experience. Grennan showed readers how these issues are real and that we all need to be conscious about what is going on to others outside of our country. No matter where someone lives, everyone is a person and we all need to be involved in learning and understanding different cultures and customs. Reading about his journey, I felt that Grennan gave a realistic portrayal of a typical American who developed a strong devotion to a cause and became a more informed citizen who took the initiative to become more educated on issues outside of America. Grennan is an inspiration, but also a cautionary message, to me. I hope to one day be as passionate about another country and another culture as Grennan is about Nepal. Beyond that, though, I would like to make it a personal priority to become more informed about the world around me, to become the sort of geographer and social scientist Lewis and Schudson would be proud to call an American. My concern about Grennan and his work is that it glorifies the idea that with a lot of optimism and passion--and very little knowledge!--anyone can take on any cause anywhere. Grennan’s story is inspirational, but also dangerous. I side with Lewis and Schudson and their arguments that having well-rounded knowledge about the world is an essential starting point.
Grennan, Conor. Little Princess. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. Print.
Lewis, Martin W. "Global Ignorance." Geographical Review. Vol. 90, No.4 (Oct., 2000.): 603-628. Web. 4 Sept. 2013.
Schudson, Michael. “America's Ignorant Voters." The Wilson Quarterly (1976), Vol. 24, No. 2 (Spring, 2000), pp. 16-22. JSTOR. Web. 9 Sept. 2013.