November 13, 2008, Greencastle, Ind. - [Download Video: "The Top Global Priority" - 838kb] "The more I do this, I'm convinced that education should be the top global priority," Greg Mortenson told an audience at DePauw University tonight. The co-author of the bestselling book, Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time, Mortenson declared, "We can drop bombs, we can build roads, we can put in electricity, but unless the girls are educated a society won't change."
In a Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture at DePauw's Kresge Auditorium, Mortenson -- who was greeted by a standing ovation -- shared the story of how a mountain climb resulted in a humanitarian effort which has resulted in the construction of about 80 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Approximately 700 people attended the event, and lined the Great Hall of the Green Center for the Performing Arts after the lecture for a book signing session which continued long into the night. Mortenson was introduced by Jeffrey T. Kenney, professor of religious studies at DePauw.
Raised in Tanzania by parents who were both teachers, Mortenson's book tells of how, in 1993, he attempted to climb Pakistan's K2, the world's second highest mountain, as a tribute to his sister, who had died the year before. Mortenson never made it to the top, and stumbled into a local village feeling dejected and very weak. In the impoverished mountain village -- where the literacy rate was only 3% and one out of three children born died before the age of one -- the locals nursed Mortenson back to health; in return, he vowed he would raise funds to build them a school. His goal was to improve the quality of life by providing education, especially to young women. [Download Video: "The Sad Facts" - 1921kb]
[Download Audio: "The Man and His Cause" - 344kb] "I'm just like any of you," Mortenson said as he looked into the audience. "I'm a veteran, I'm a husband, I'm a father, I make a lot of mistakes, but most of all I'm really passionate about education. And I don't do this to be a modern-day Indiana Jones; I do this because when I talk to the women [in Pakistan], I ask them, 'What would you like? I'm here as your servant and how can I help you?' And you'd think most women would say, 'I want a good husband' or 'I want a big house.' But most women tell me they want two things: 'Number one, we want schools and education, and number two, we don't want our babies to die.'"
According to Mortenson, providing young women with at least a fifth grade education reduces infant mortality, keeps exploding populations in impoverished areas in check (as educated women tend to have fewer children), and improves the area's quality of life.
[Download Video: "Promoting Peace" - 1311kb] "Fighting terrorism is based in fear, but promoting peace is based in hope," he declared. "And the real enemy -- whether it's in Africa or Afghanistan or here in the U.S. -- the real enemy is ignorance, and it's ignorance that breeds hatred. And to overcome ignorance, we need to have courage, we need to have compassion, and most of all, I think what's so important is that we need to have education."
Today, 6.4 million children in Afghanistan are going to schools -- eight times more than in 2000 -- and two million of the pupils are girls. Sadly, the Taliban has damaged or destroyed hundreds of schools.
[Download Video: "The Pen" - 1,012kb] "So why would a group of men want to bomb a girls' school and not a boys' school?," Mortenson asked. "Because I think their greatest fear is not the bullet, but it's the pen. Even more they fear, if that girl gets an education and grows up she'll become a mother, the value of education will go on in their community."
Mortenson has received two fatwehs by Mullahs angered by his work. In 1996, he survived an eight day armed kidnapping in the tribal areas of Pakistan. He even received hate mail and death threats from fellow Americans after 9/11, who saw his efforts to improve the lives of Muslim children in a negative light. In March, he will receive Pakistan's highest civilian award, Sitara-e-Pakistan (The Star of Pakistan), in a civil ceremony.
A U.S. Army medic in Germany during the Cold War (1977-1979), where he received the Army Commendation Medal, Mortenson later graduated from the University of South Dakota, and pursued graduate studies in neurophysiology at Indiana University. In his lecture, described how he has been consulting the Pentagon on cultural issues in the Muslim world, and told of an e-mail he recently received from Gen. David Petraeus, who had read and enjoyed Three Cups of Tea.
The author's humanitarian work is supported by two not-for-profit organizations he founded, the Central Asia Institute and Pennies For Peace. Through the latter, children in 3,200 schools across the nation collect pennies for a variety of projects designed to increase opportunity for people in the world's most underprivileged nations.
[Download Audio: "On Poverty" - 521kb] "There are about 140 million children in the world who are deprived of education due to slavery, poverty, religious extremism (and) gender discrimination," the Ubben Lecturer noted. "And if we wanted to help every single child be able to go to school and become literate, the investment would cost about $6 billion a year for 15 years -- about $90 billion. That sounds like a lot of money, but it's about one or two dollars per month, per child." Mortenson says a professor estimated there are "enough pennies in the U.S. that we could eradicate global illiteracy two times over."
He added, [Download Video: "Poverty Up Close" - 1212kb] "There's a lot of media, there's a lot of interest now in alleviating or tackling poverty. But the only way to really understand or deal with poverty is that we need to touch poverty, and we need to taste poverty, and we need to smell poverty. And we can't solve poverty from a think tank in Washington, D.C."
Greg Mortenson's day at DePauw included an afternoon forum with about 50 students at the Pulliam Center for Contemporary Media, a news conference with DePauw student journalists, and a dinner hosted by President Brian W. Casey.
Co-authored by journalist David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea was TIME magazine's Asia Book of the Year, received the Kiriyama Prize Nonfiction Award, was a Banff Mountain Festival book finalist and a "critic's choice" of People magazine. The book's title comes from a Balti proverb: "The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family."
[Download Video: "Exuding Hope" - 1322kb] "I'm working on another book that will be out late next year," Mortenson told the crowd of students, alumni, faculty members and others who drove from as far away as Cincinnati to hear his speech. "What I'm trying to share in there is that, really, all of us can make a difference, and I also think that's is so important that we exude hope, love and compassion -- all of those things -- it's really what's going to bring about a better world."
Mortenson cited statistics which indicate today's college students are more determined than their predecessors to be engaged citizens of the world and do their part to be agents of positive change. [Download Audio: "Positive Signals" - 361kb] "There is this incredible desire in students to really go out and make a difference in the world, and I think there's also some trepidation and also concern about how can we do that. And I think as adults or grandparents or parents, since 9/11 we've somewhat exuded fear or trepidation. We really can't do that. What we need to do is exude hope, and we need to exude compassion; that it's OK and it's good thing to live of a life of service to others," he stated as the audience applauded.
Mortenson donated a portion of his honorarium from his speech to his two non-profit organizations. He continues to spend three to four months each year in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.