Three Cups of Tea

I just finished Three Cups of Tea, a book by and about Greg Mortenson, a heroic guy who has spent twenty years building schools in Pakistan.  The book is interesting for its descriptions of life and culture in the high mountains of Pakistan.  It starts as a chronicle of a climber’s simple desire to repay the hospitality of a small village by building a $12,000 school building.  The author and subject’s goals eventually morph into the book’s subtitle:  “One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace, One School at a Time”.

It is supposed to be inspiring.  We don’t need a big military to keep angry Muslims from killing us.  All we need to do is build a school and fund a mostly secular education for every Muslim child on the planet and this would be easier and cheaper than running our war machine.

One problem with accepting Mortenson’s conclusion is that he spends no ink trying to show that a good secular education makes a Muslim friendlier to the U.S.  The September 11th attackers had above-average secular educations (example 1 and example 2).  Bilal Abdullah, recently sentenced for an attack on an airport in Scotland, had an M.D.  His main accomplice was studying for a Ph.D. in computational fluid dynamics.  Perhaps it is possible to use a public school to distract someone from the Koranic instructions to wage jihad, but Mortenson doesn’t provide any evidence to suggest that this is effective. (In fact, he provides evidence to the contrary, chronicling the celebrations at Pakistan’s leading universities on September 11, 2001; the Pakistanis who had the best secular educations might not have had the courage to kill Americans, but quite a few of them thought that it was a great idea.)

The book more or less disproves its thesis that building schools for poor Muslims worldwide would be straightforward.  Our hero is a guy who was willing to endure twenty years of dangerous bus and truck rides, kidnapping, personal poverty, and frustrating delays.  He had a strong enough stomach to eat rancid yak butter, raw Ibex flesh, and the various bacteria living on the fingers of his hosts.  He essentially converted to Islam, at least while over in Pakistan, praying in mosques with his hosts.  He comes into a lot of conflict with local Muslim clerics, all of whom want bribes and some of whom are concerned that his schools will lead Pakistani children into secular ways.  How many other Westerners would have the patience, stamina, and physical constitution to do this?

Towards the end of the book we learn that Mortenson is not the only person building schools in Pakistan.  Every time Mortenson builds a spartan school for 50 kids, the Saudi Arabians build a splendid school for 5000.  Where Mortenson pays his teachers $1 per day, the Saudis give their teachers briefcases stuffed with cash, enough that each teacher is able to purchase four wives and breed a tremendous number of children who are passionate about Islam.  The Saudi-funded schools don’t teach secular subjects, according to Mortenson, but only Arabic and Islam, with a special emphasis on the parts of the Koran that compel Muslims to kill infidels.

You might ask what the government of Pakistan does.  At least according to Mortenson, they don’t bother to build schools or hire teachers for any children living outside of a major city.  The Pakistani government appears in the book only when antagonizing India with military mobilizations, supporting angry Muslims inside Kashmir, building nuclear weapons, etc.

Finally there is a question of fairness.  There are many children on this planet who live in countries whose governments are either too poor, too incompetent, or too indifferent to provide them with an education.  The U.S. does not have enough money to build and run schools for all of these children (actually given the way that we run school systems, we don’t even have enough money to run schools for our own children in the long run).  Should we favor children in Muslim countries because they are predisposed to want to kill us?  Why does a kid in a high mountain village in Peru or Ecuador not get a school?  Merely because he or she is very unlikely to become a suicide bomber?

8 thoughts on “Three Cups of Tea

  1. The Saudis provide a big chunk of the Pakistan government’s revenues as the Pakistani army provides security services to them (i.e. hires itself out as mercenaries). This buys the Saudis quite a bit of influence over the Pakistanis, much as the US does through “aid” (which promptly goes into the pockets of the local kleptocracy, and buys us relatively unimpeded supply lines for our own quixotic efforts in Afghanistan).

    Pakistan is essentially a feudal society. Our press may have celebrated Benazir Bhutto because she went to school in the west, but she was as ruthless a feudal landowner as any duke from the European medieval history, having her thugs kill any indentured farmer who gets too uppity, or even her own brother as a matter of fact (as for her mother, she merely had her imprisoned). The last thing a feudal baron wants is education for his or her serfs, it would give them dangerous ideas.

    The Saudi madrasas are a big problem, but not one that will be solved until either the Al-Saud family musters the guts to take its rabid Wahhabi clerics (not likely, given how utterly corrupt and discredited they are, and thus dependent on religion as a fig leaf of legitimacy) or until the US government gets serious about confronting the Saudis (not likely given our addiction to oil). Spending money on English-curriculum universities and schools would be a much better use of USAID money than the current utterly ineffective PR efforts that fall on deaf ears.

    As for the kids in Peru, the reason is simple – they have no oil. Ecuador has resources, but a century of gunboat and banana republic diplomacy have pushed it firmly into Chavez’ anti-american camp, it’s highly unlikely they will welcome what would inevitably be seen as propaganda efforts.

  2. I’ve no objection to saying that it’s fair to spend a little money to make people like us instead of a lot of money bombing them into submission (with little evidence that the latter strategy works), but that does raise the macro-economic question: If we pay them only if they’re a threat, are we then creating an incentive to be a threat?

  3. Have you read Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood?

    It describes how the author gave up a very good job at Microsoft after a holiday trekking through the Himalayas where he saw a very poorly-stocked library at a small village school. (If a locked closet can even be called a library.) He became convinced that education is one of the most important things in life, which is what Leaving Microsoft focuses on and not so much on promoting peace. I must admit not having read Three Cups of Tea.

  4. Patrick: I haven’t read the book by John Wood, but I came to the same conclusion independently when over in Africa. Any country with a growing population needs to generate jobs. The only way to generate jobs is to have well educated workers who can compete in a global economy. If you could supply infinite food and health care you would simply have well-fed and healthy unemployed people in ever-growing numbers UNLESS you can solve the education problem. And if you can solve the education problem, the other stuff takes care of itself. Educated people can get jobs. With jobs comes money. With money they can buy food and health care. Thus my conclusion that all foreign aid should be in the form of education.

    That was back in 2007 and I was thinking about Uganda and Tanzania. Today, however, I realize that the same thinking applies just as well to the U.S.!

  5. Phil said: “I realize that the same thinking applies just as well to the U.S.!”

    In the US and other countries with the means to require mandatory primary and secondary education, you have a large swath of the population who do not want to be educated. Not very much anyway.
    In the third world, a similar distribution must exist. When you provide the access and the means to be educated, you will still have functional illiterates.

    The “education problem” as you put it, is not so simple to solve.

  6. Perhaps it’s not just access to knowledge that’s important, but also the quality of the education that goes along with it. It shouldn’t be “Learn your ABCs! — Why? — Because the grown-ups say so!” A good education should encourage curiosity, a desire to grow and learn more.

    I’m no expert on education but there should be ways to convince kids that all the fun stuff we enjoy wasn’t just created by magic and that all these “tedious” subjects like math and science are used to create them. (And wouldn’t it be great if they could then think of new things and learn how to actually create and sell them and … ).

    Will that make everyone enthusiastic? Probably not. But it seems a lot better than just telling kids that have to do this, can’t do that, or to deny them an education in the first place.

  7. “Today, however, I realize that the same thinking applies just as well to the U.S.!”

    If what the economy really needs is educated people, how come the US keeps importing millions of uneducated unskilled laborers?

  8. I read this book a while ago but seem to remember that the point made was that whilst the 9/11 bombers were well educated their mothers were not. Apparently suicide bombers need to get their mother’s permission and the hope is that better educated mothers would be less inclined to give it! I don’t know if this is true.

    You raise some interesting points here but jump over the fact that Greg Mortenson originally built the schools simply for very “micro” reasons; to help poor and remote villagers. The whole “lets defeat terrorism” thing came much later with increased international interest in what he was doing and I suppose lead to the books sub-title (and which GM tried to down play). So it is probably unfair to criticise on this angle, although is certainly worthy of debate.

    The Saudi influence is very worrying.

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