When Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson addressed the thousand people attending the 20th annual Love of Literacy Luncheon in West Palm Beach last Friday, he had some bad news, some good news and (to me at least) some surprising news about literacy in Afghanistan.
The bad news: The Taliban has bombed hundreds of schools, targeting especially those attended by girls.
The good news: In the year 2000, only about 800,000 children between the ages of 5 and 15 were in school in Afghanistan, and almost all of them were boys. Eight years later, in 2008, the figure was 7.2 million children in school, and 2 million of them were girls.
Why is the number of girls in school so important? Because, explained Mortenson, drawing on an African proverb, when you educate a boy, you educate an individual; when you educate a girl, you educate a community. The girls not only stay around to educate siblings and eventually their own children, but they often educate their mothers.
And it is a mother, says Mortenson, who must grant permission for a son to go on Jihad.
The surprising news: Mortenson said in the schools his organization has helped build, they have retained an Afghanistan tradition where elders do story time two or three times a week. Apparently 90% of Afghan children listen to their elders pass on the traditions of their culture. This compares with only 10% of American children who do so.
Are we missing something here?
It takes a family…
American parents know how important it is to read to their children, and they often do so up to the time their children begin to read for themselves. But educators here say parents often stop too soon. Further, one of the downsides of the very mobile American society is that grandparents are often far from their grandchildren. Both miss out on story time using books or just the elders’ memories.
But continuing to read to children who can already read has continuing benefits.
When I reported on Mortenson before, I emphasized that his East Asia Institute ensures the community’s involvement in its school by insisting that the local communities provide free land, unskilled construction labor and ongoing support. This partnership model is similar to the successful Room-to-Read efforts and the model proven to work in this country by Andrew Carnegie a hundred years ago.
Mortenson takes heart in a recent survey that says 40% of American college students want to make a difference in the world—a figure higher now than in recent years. “The only way we can solve poverty is to touch, taste, smell and be with poverty ourselves,” he says. But there are so very many ways to make a difference—by being teachers, going into medicine, or working in many businesses.
A toast to the Tea
Mortenson had just come from a meeting at the Pentagon with General Petraeus. The general told him he had learned much from Three Cups of Tea and has made it mandatory reading for U.S. soldiers going to Afghanistan. This time it’s not only a military surge we’re engaging in, but a surge for education and infrastructure as well.
Three Cups of Tea has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 100 weeks or so. Read it and you’ll see why. In one stroke, it shows how a person, and a book, can change our world.