Greg Mortenson’s message is simple: Education can change the world for the better.
It’s a message in which Mortenson believes fervently and has made his life’s work.
It’s a message he brought to Mississippi State students, faculty and administrators and the broader community in a public lecture at the Humphrey Coliseum Thursday night.
“If we really we want to help people, we need to empower them. We need to effect change and hope,” said Mortenson, a two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and author of the best-selling book “Three Cups of Tea,” which was chosen for the Maroon Edition freshman reading program at MSU.
The book, which has sold more than 4 million copies in 45 countries, recounts Mortenson’s failed 1993 attempt to scale Pakistan’s K2 — the world’s second highest mountain — in order to place the amber necklace worn by his sister, Christa, at the summit to honor her memory following her 1992 death from epilepsy.
In the wake of his nearly fatal climb, he was nurtured by the residents of the remote mountain village of Korphe, where he observed children doing their school work outdoors, writing their lessons with a stick in the dirt.
From that experience, he vowed to return to build a school. His effort grew into the nonprofit Central Asia Institute, which to date has built or supported more than 140 schools in rural and often volatile regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which have been marked by war with Taliban, tribal warlords and radical Islamic sects.
Those regions — marked by a male-dominated society — have the potential for great change because those radical elements fear the power of education, particularly for girls, Mortenson said Thursday.
In 2000 in Afghanistan, only 800,000 children — mostly boys — attended school, according to UNICEF. In 2010, more than 8.5 children attend school, with 2.5 million of them being girls, the statistics show.
“Unless girls are educated, things will never really change,” Mortenson said.
“Educated women reduces the population explosion and infant mortality rates. It is very empowering when women can read and understand the news of the world around them.”
An educated populace is what groups like the Taliban fear most, because it reduces their grip of fear on the people, Mortenson said.
“Their greatest fear is the pen,” Mortenson said.
This lesson is one that has not been lost on the U.S. military forces operating in Afghanistan. “Three Cups of Tea” has become required reading for military commanders and special forces soldiers serving there.
U.S. Army Col. Christopher Kolenda, in an e-mail to Mortenson, addressed the education issue specifically.
“This conflict will not be one with bombs and bullets, but with literacy and ideas...,” Kolenda wrote.
Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, invited Mortenson to meet with senior members of his staff. Petraeus relayed three major lessons he gleaned from Mortenson’s book:
• Listen more.
“We have to look at situations from their perspective, not with our often myopic vision,” Mortenson quoted Petraeus as saying.
“We are there to serve the good people of that country,” Mortenson quoted Petraeus as saying.
• Build relationships.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Mortenson said.
Noting that he had informally surveyed MSU students with whom he had met earlier on Thursday on their involvement in community service, Mortenson said he was impressed that all the students he had addressed had been involved in service activity and that a significant amount of them had spent time with their grandparents and elders talking about their experiences in such historical periods as the Great Depression, World War II and the Civil Rights Movement.
Involvement in service is critical to building a better world, Mortenson said.
“It’s something you can cherish and be proud of and it’s also something that is key to creating global understanding,” Mortenson said.