photo credit: KamiSyed

The movies I enjoy the most are the ones where you forget that you’re sitting in the theater. You become so enveloped by the plot that you’re seemingly sucked into the events that transpire around you. You share in the protagonist’s successes and feel their pains. Rarely have I come across a book that can pull off this feat.

Three Cups of Tea is a book that did just that for me. It’s masterfully written, and full of plot twists, setbacks, and surprises that might lead you to think it’s a fictional story. Instead, it’s the chronicles of one Greg Mortenson, a former mountaineer who became lost on a hike up K2 in the early 1990s. After recuperating in a remote Pakistan village named Korphe, Mortenson witnessed the circumstances in which the village’s children were educated:

…the children sat in a neat circle and began copying their multiplication tables. Most scratched in the dirt with sticks they’d brought for that purpose. The more fortunate, like Jahan, had slate boards they wrote on with sticks dipped in a mixture of mud and water. “Can you imagine a fourth-grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons?” Mortenson asks. “I felt like my heart was being torn out. There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them. . . . I knew I had to do something.

Do something he did. He placed his hands on the village chief’s shoulders and promised him that he would return to build them a school. After a failed attempt at scaling one of the world’s highest peaks, Mortenson’s failures continued to stack against him as well. Fundraising was very slowgoing, and his own living conditions were pitiful. But with eventual sponsorship and financial support, he began his work and started construction.

As the years progressed, so did certain strains of extremist groups in neighboring communities. Mortenson witnessed madrassas, financed by Saudi Arabians, explode around him. Many of these schools were hotbeds for extremists and jihadism. Undaunted, he remained convinced that a balanced education was what these children needed most:

“The only way we can defeat terrorism is if people in this country where terrorists exist learn to respect and love Americans,” Mortenson concluded, “and if we can respect and love these people here. What’s the difference between them becoming a productive local citizen or a terrorist? I think the key is education.”

Later briefing some military officials at the Pentagon, he continued his claim:

“I’m no military expert,” Mortenson said. “And these figures might not be exactly right. But as best as I can tell, we’ve launched 114 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan so far. Now take the cost of one of those missles tipped with Raytheon guidance systems, which I think is about $840,000. For that much money, you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands of students with a balanced nonextremist education over the course of a generation. Which do you think will make us more secure?”

Given America’s continual pursuit of military force as a means of creating peace, it seems that these words fell on deaf ears at the Pentagon. So, despite warnings from the State Department that he was heading into one of the most dangerous places on Earth, Mortenson went back to work doing what he does best: giving impoverished children an opportunity to receive a balanced education. Some might argue that this plan does little to abate the problem of terrorism in the short term, but the respect that this single individual has garnered in the region is undeniable. Jon Krakauer, introducing Mortenson at a fundraising event for the Central Asia Institute, made mention of this reality:

What Greg has accomplished, with very little money, verges on the miraculous. If it were possible to clone fifty more Gregs, there is no doubt in my mind that Islamic terrorism would quickly become a thing of the past.

Short term benchmarks aside, it cannot be emphasized enough that the long term benefits of such charity work are worth our investment. Extremism may continue in all its stripes for the next few years, but by arming the upcoming generation with a balanced education and an opportunity to excel, we eradicate the problem for a fraction of the cost of what we’re currently spending on bombs and bullets.

Peace is a worthy goal, but its proper pursuit must be grounded upon solid principles. We cannot lift others through force, but instead must use the principles of example, charity, and love to instill in others the qualities that we have found to be positive and long-lasting. Greg Mortenson’s life mission is one worthy of emulation, and is one proven method to give children an alternative to war and terrorism. Three Cups of Tea, the story of his work, is an excellent handbook for the budding philanthropist. In it we learn that despite repeated failures and setbacks, eventual success is guaranteed so long as our hearts are pure and our intentions noble.

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