The Golden Age of Books
Reaching the Schoolhouse Summit
Should Greg Mortenson win the Nobel Peace Prize? Read his story in the bestselling Three Cups of Tea and you may agree he’s a strong candidate.
For the past 15 years, Mortenson has laid his life on the line building schools in the most remote and inhospitable parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has been fighting terrorism, not with bombs but with books.
Mortenson has a very different background from John Wood, founder of the Room to Read Foundation. Rather than a globe-trotting executive, Mortenson was a mountain climber and underemployed nurse, at one time living out of his car in Berkeley, California. Where Wood is all modern business principles applied to charitable work, Mortenson is blue-collar sweat in dangerous settings.
Yet both men demonstrate how extraordinary individuals can leverage the resources of the developed world to help children leapfrog to literacy.
Scaling a different summit
It was on the way down after his failed attempt to reach the summit of K2 in the Himalayas that Mortenson, broken and lost, stumbled into the tiny village of Korphe in Pakistan, where he was nursed back to health. Discovering that the local children had no school, he refocused his sights from scaling high and distant mountaintops to building one-story schoolhouses in some of the world’s most remote pockets.
He didn’t realize he had chosen a harder task.
Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations…One School at a Time is co-authored by David Oliver Relin. It’s a cliffhanger of near-deadly experiences, anguished setbacks, and starry successes. Reading it will introduce you to good and courageous people in both hemispheres.
Mortenson’s foundation, the Central Asian Institute (www.ikat.org), got its name from its founding philanthropist, Jean Hoerni, himself a mountain climber as well as successful entrepreneur. With Hoerni’s help, Mortenson was introduced to people of means who could support his hazardous school-building initiative.
Building the school in Korphe turned out to take longer than Mortenson planned and required the building of many bridges—both figural and literal. Just as reaching one mountaintop allows one to see that there are many others, at this first school’s completion, Mortenson realized there were many more villages just as needy for schools as Korphe.
The same other-worldly terrain that attracts the world’s mountain-climbing elite also makes it difficult to build anything—including schools. The challenge is not only the natural obstacles of this region with its few roads (and most of those hardly deserving the name), but also the manmade dangers that are just as daunting. These are the war-torn regions that gave rise to the Taliban and still provide hiding for Al Qaeda. Such madrasses—or schools—that exist focus on male pupils. An unknown number of these tutor their young charges in extremist, anti-Western education.
Groundwork grounded in reading
In order for an American like Mortenson to have even a chance of success, he had to slowly and carefully build relationships of trust based upon his own good character and ability to learn the local Balti language. He also had to reinforce his independence from western religious and governmental institutions.
Mortenson discovered many of the same principles that Wood had:
- Parents want education for their children. Along with the most basic needs for food, water, and health care, parents recognize that a better life for their children depends upon their children learning to read and write.
- Poor people need help with basic infrastructure, including schoolhouses.
- Given whatever educational opportunities do exist, girls have been shortchanged, yet they can deliver more return on their education in that they tend to stay local and take on the education of the young.
- As in so many activities in life, it’s about relationships. Mortenson’s ties with local power brokers, forged slowly and sometimes at his peril, were what made progress possible.
- Success depended upon the active involvement and co-investment of parents and other locals.
Like Wood, Mortenson combined his own experiences in the real world with reading. When he would return home to the United States, he would read intensely about the history and geography of the region, about development efforts, and about management principles to help him lead his foundation. He also learned during visits to the Philippines and Bangladesh how successful businesses can be run by the poor, and how focusing on educating girls can reap long-term rewards for a community.
Isn’t this reading at its finest? Read, do, read more, do more—repeat as intensely and as frequently as your energies allow. There is no substitute for real-world experiences combined with the knowledge to be gained from books.
In my next post, I’ll report on how another remarkable person, Paul Polak, has invested his life in learning first-hand through interviews, and second- hand through reading, about the problems faced by the poorest people on the planet. Like Mortenson and Wood, Polak discovered the importance the poorest people place on education for their children.
And what do you observe, dear reader? Can you share examples of this interplay between reading and doing? I’d love to hear from you.