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?