Teaching Peace

Greg Mortenson on connecting peace and education, American policy in Afghanistan and the restorative power of failure

Some stories are inescapable. They get passed from friend to friend, mentors to mentees, supporters to skeptics. They end up on nightstands and in carry-ons of the unsuspecting with no other directive than to simply “read this.” Greg Mortenson’s life is one of those stories. His 2006 book Three Cups of Tea details a failed bid to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain, and how that led Mortenson to devote himself to the construction of schools in the remote villages of Central Asia. In two weeks the book will likely spend its 208th consecutive week — four complete years — on the New York Times best-seller list with worldwide sales topping 4 million copies. It’s now required reading for all U.S. military officers and Special Forces troops deployed in Afghanistan. Mortenson released his second book, Stones Into Schools, in paperback in November. It hasn’t left the best-seller list yet, either. But book sales ultimately aren’t the results that matter to Mortenson. The numbers that matter are these: Since co-founding the organization in 1996 the Central Asia Institute has helped construct more than 170 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, educating more than 60,000 students — most of them girls who otherwise might never have set foot in a classroom — and employing more than 700 teachers. The Reader interviewed Mortenson before he delivered a Jan. 14 lecture to a sold-out crowd of 700 at KANEKO. The Reader: What is the connection between education and peace? Greg Mortenson: Education isn’t the only thing but it has a profound role in peace. It mainly has to do with girls’ and women’s education. When a young girl learns how to read and write and goes on to become a mother she can educate an entirely new generation. Women who are educated are much less likely to encourage their son to get into violence or terrorism or gangs. I’ve seen that happen in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s primary recruiting grounds are often illiterate, impoverished society. I’m not saying all, but many educated women will risk their lives to refuse to allow their son to join the Taliban. Education takes generations but it also has an impact on reducing population growth. One of the biggest problems we have in the world today is there are too many people on this planet, especially if we look forward three to five generations. Forty years ago in Bangladesh the female literacy rate was less than 20 percent. The average woman in Bangladesh in 1970 had nine live births. If she’s a grandma that means 80 grandkids. Today the female literacy rate has gone to 65 percent and the average woman has 2.8 live births and the main reason for that is simply female literacy. Pakistan is a very volatile country. The female literacy rate there is about 35 percent and Pakistan is going to double in population in the next 27 years. It’s the fourth fastest growing country in the world. It’s pretty scary if you think about what’s going on in Pakistan now. What will happen when the population doubles? Wars are often the result of too many people. Only the first one or two sons and daughters will get land and the others have to move out. As someone who has been in Afghanistan for the entire American occupation of the country, what’s the reception like locally for U.S. troops? Most people there don’t identify by nationality. In the U.S. we’re very proud of being an American citizen. In Afghanistan people will first identify by their faith — whether they’re Sunni or Shiite. If you ask me, I’m a Minnesota Norwegian Lutheran. Now I might die for my faith but I’m not sure. I might die for my country, but not because I’m a Minnesota Norwegian. Over there they will die for their faith. They will die for their tribal persuasion. For their country? That’s a different question. Nationalism is a very different concept over there. What do they think about Americans? If we go over there and we listen to them and respect the elders they will have great respect for us. Something else that few people really think about is that most people I meet over there never even heard about 9/11. They never even heard about it. Now they will see B-52s, they’ll see American soldiers, but if they have a water well in their village that’s going to mean more than how many Americans are there. I’ve seen a huge learning curve in the military. I think the military out of all our government entities really gets it. It’s about empowering the elders and listening and working with the people to come up solutions. Has your work setting up an educational infrastructure in one of the most remote sections of the world changed the way you look at our infrastructure in America? I think so. We have the finest higher education system in the world, but we are faltering now. In the top testing scores — science, math, other things you study — the U.S. continues to slip. That’s kind of scary. I think what’s also a key in education is not just reading, writing, and math but also learning from our elders and that’s where the U.S. falls behind. We’ve got to work hard on all the basics but, because it’s not happening in the homes, we have to use schools also as a way to mold men and women who are going to go out into the world. At our schools we have our elders come in twice a week. One of the things that I think is amazing that very few people in the U.S. know about is a UNICEF study that found in 2000 there were 800,000 students in Afghanistan, mostly boys, age 5 to 15. This is 11 years ago, before 9/11. This is the height of the Taliban. Today in Afghanistan there’s 8 million children in school, including 2.5 million females. It’s one of the greatest increases of any country in modern history. I’m amazed that more people in our government or media don’t reference that. We can take some credit for it but the real credit is the people themselves. We’ve obviously been a part of that but it’s really because the people will do anything for their education. You went to Pakistan with a mission to climb to the top of K2 in honor of your sister. You didn’t quite make it but came away with a very different goal. Do you think that failure spurred your desire to succeed elsewhere? At that point, and it’s very hard to remember, I was very despondent. I was emaciated. I was exhausted. I was basically kind of clinging to life just to get home, but the huge thing in my heart was failure. If you read Three Cups of Tea do you know what the first chapter is called? Failure.When I submitted the original manuscript to the publisher they said, “Greg, you never start a book with the word failure.” But I said, “You know, it’s okay to fail.” At that time I felt as though I’d really let my sister down. If I make a promise I really want to keep that promise. I can’t always do it but I really try to keep a promise. Now that I have kids I realize that if you tell your kids something you really better stick with it because if you don’t it will devastate them. Any new books in the works? I’m doing two children’s books. I’ve talked to a lot of children and educators and my son is going to help with one of the books. My daughter helped with the young reader’s edition of Three Cups of Tea. A book is very difficult. I generally get up at two or three in the morning and then I write for four hours or five every single morning. It’s a lot of discipline. I thought I would get inspired to write but then I realized you just have to sit down and get organized. Three Cups of Tea took about 14 months to write and Stones Into Schools took about nine months. One of the new books is called Listen to the Children and it’s for three- to six-year-olds. The other is the young reader’s edition of Stones Into Schools and that’s for about 4th through 8th grade. We received some criticism because Three Cups of Tea didn’t include a map or a glossary or a timeline so all of those things are in the young reader’s editions.

posted at 03:23 pm
on Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

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