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"Three Cups of Tea", by Greg Mortenson and David Relin

Lehigh’s Office of the First-Year Experience has assigned international best-seller Three Cups of Tea, by former mountaineer Greg Mortenson and journalist David Relin, for the incoming first-year students to read over the summer. The reading program is part of the evoLUtion seminar, a four-week seminar geared towards helping the freshmen (and freshwomen) make the transition into college. Over the past few years, many colleges and universities have introduced reading programs for their incoming classes, with the goal of building a sense of community by giving the students shared academic experiences early on. While I'm not sure that the reading program is nearly as successful in terms of community building as the events held during Orientation Week, I find any activity that makes teenagers read highly welcome.

As a faculty volunteer for the evoLUtion seminar, I have to read the book over the summer too. I had mixed feelings about Three Cups of Tea before I began. Although I was aware of its status as international best-seller, I had read some negative reviews about the book, which are hinted at in the Bookmarks magazine excerpt published on Amazon.com – it was supposed to tell a great story but in a grating style, and was overly focused on heaping praise on Greg Mortenson. (I also heard, and I’m sorry I don’t remember my source but the story is repeated on Wikipedia, that the book wasn’t selling too well with its initial subtitle of “One man’s mission to fight terrorism one school at a time”: only 20,000 copies were bought in the hardcover edition. Then, at Mortenson's prompting, the subtitle was changed to “One man’s mission to promote peace one school at a time,” and the book found itself propelled onto the bestseller lists, landing a coveted #1 spot on the New York Times rankings. Excellent marketing lesson.)

Three Cups of Tea turned out to be an engrossing, and very well-written, account of the extraordinary mission former climber Greg Mortenson set for himself after a failed attempt at climbing K2 (reputedly the most dangerous summit in the world): to build schools, especially for girls, in Pakistan. Mortenson, exhausted after his aborted bid for the summit, wandered off the track on the way down and ended up in the wrong village – a village Western climbers usually didn’t go through. He befriended the population and promised them he would come back to build a school for the village children, who studied their lessons in a field, and were even left by themselves on the days the teacher they shared with another village was away teaching the other children.

Mortenson was a bit of a Californian drifter back then, living in his car to save money, working as an ER nurse to pay the bills and spending his free time first climbing and later writing letters asking for money for the school. (Budget: $12,000, in early 1990s money.) I liked that he discovered, in his mid-thirties, what has become his claim to posterity by accident – so many students are expected to figure out their passion by the time they graduate from college, which is unrealistic – and he struggled to raise the money for months afterward. The people he contacted (painstakingly typing 580 letters one by one at a typewriter because he did not know about word processing) did not exactly fall over themselves to lend money to a stranger with no track record, no matter how worthy his goal sounded. I cannot think of a better lesson in fortitude and perseverance. Ultimately, a philanthropist named Jean Hoerni wrote the check for the whole amount Mortenson needed.

In Pakistan, the idea of building schools for the local children aroused much enthusiasm and Mortenson benefited from the advice of several Pakistanis, who helped him decipher local customs and introduced him to the right people to buy construction materials for the school. The need to rely on others, and to build schools in places where Mortenson already had contacts (a foray in Waziristan, where he ventured alone, could have ended tragically), was reinforced throughout the book. Those are valuable insights in business too. In addition, his criticism of the US media (the “circus”, as his driver called the whole thing), dropped in Pakistan after September 2001 with little understanding of the area, provides an interesting perspective. The hate mail Mortenson received in late 2001 for helping Muslims is contrasted with the overwhelmingly positive reaction that followed an article about him in the magazine Parade in April 2003. Eye-opening, the difference eighteen months can make.

Mortenson makes many important points. He explains that offering Pakistani children a better future through schools, in addition to being a source of great pride and excitement for Pakistanis, is key to winning the war against terrorism. To stop suicide bombings, he says, you have to give youngsters a reason to believe life is better than death; abject poverty just won’t do it. Education is a critical component of that fight. (“The enemy is ignorance,” a Pakistani Brigadier General is quoted as saying.) Mortenson also emphasizes the need to view Pakistan as many tribes with their own history, tribes who might or might not coexist well together. It comes as no surprise that, according to the afterword, the book has become “required reading for senior US military commanders, Pentagon officers in counter-insurgency training, and Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan.”

What about the criticism that the book glorifies Mortenson? Three Cups of Tea is indeed very positive about its main character, understandably so since he co-authored it, but I never felt that the book tried to gloss over his failings. For instance, the book does not hide that board members of the Central Asia Institute, which Mortenson directs and which raises money to build schools in Pakistan (and now Afghanistan), have criticized his inability to delegate or train replacements, and the fact that he is stretched too thin; this has even led Jean Hoerni’s widow, a former board member, to step down. (Another business lesson: the need to delegate to sustain growth. There comes a point where you can no longer do everything by yourself.)

Yes, the Central Asia Institute sounds a lot like a one-man show, with superhero Mortenson accomplishing incredible feats for the children of Pakistan, day in and day out. But you need a lot of self-confidence to attempt a climb of K2; besides, Mortenson shows himself eager to learn local customs and respectful of others’ religions – he’s not a know-it-all. When he tries to make people stick to his schedule to build a school, the elder of the village takes him aside and gently explains that he is driving everyone crazy. Mortenson learns the lesson and changes his ways. Later, as the foundation has a more solid financial footing, he does hire people to help him and finally gives himself an overdue raise. (He was originally paid about $25,000 a year. It’s a good thing he settled down in Montana with his wife rather than, say, Boston or San Francisco.)

As a side note, I enjoyed reading Tom Brokaw’s blurb on the front of the paperback edition: “Thrilling… proof that one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, really can change the world.” Of the 580 people Mortenson contacted by mail before Jean Hoerni decided to help, a single one replied, with “a check for one hundred dollars and a note wishing him luck.” That person was Tom Brokaw.

In summary, I thought the book was excellent. Mortenson is an inspiring figure and hopefully will motivate first-year students to aim high and dream big. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Stones into Schools, about Mortenson building schools in Afghanistan.


Its really a nice feeling to know that someone outside pakistan is thinking so good about it...Hats Off to you guys...

Hi Aurelie,

Great write up on Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea." I can definitely see its relevance to first year college students. As a supplement to the book, you might be interested in checking out Charlie Rose on Bloomberg Television tonight, as Greg will be one of the featured guests. If you are looking for preview, there's a clip of tonight's episode, including Greg's segment, posted on Facebook at http://www.Facebook.com/BloombergTelevision.

All the best,

Community Manager
Bloomberg Television

Thanks for the info, Meghan! Greg Mortenson's interview on Bloomberg Television sounds very interesting.

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