Friday, April 16, 2010

Notes from Greg Mortenson Lecture

On Monday, April 12, 2010, the UT Tyler campus hosted Greg Mortenson, author of the book Three Cups of Tea, as part of the the Betty and Louis A. Bower Lecture Series. I had the opportunity to attend. For one, the ticket was free for staff, and two, I have read the book (I reviewed it over in Goodreads). These are then my notes from the lecture.

The event started with the customary remarks by the University President, Dr. Mabry. Dr. Mabry described Mr. Mortenson's life as a testament of service to others and a beacon of hope to children. He also provided a recap of Mr. Mortenson's story; if you read the book, you already know the details. Dr. Mabry noted that the visit is very timely given that we (the campus) just had our campus visit by the accreditation agency, and part of what we presented to them was our QEP (Quality Enhancement Plan) which has a global focus, known as the GATE Program. I have to admit that I did find the visit to be timely as well.

Greg Mortenson then took the stage. These are some of his remarks and statements. Any comments I make will be in parenthesis.

  • Began the lecture with a vignette about a 4th grader who said to him that "peace is noisy." The kid, who was actually from Tyler, TX, has military parents.
  • He explained the meaning of the three cups of tea (read the book, or you can visit the official website here).
  • General David Petraeus read the book. He said that he got three bullet points from the book: listen more, respect, and build relationships. (Personally, this seems a bit like common sense, but it is nice to see the military is finally getting it. Mortenson did make the observation as well about the military "finally getting it.)
  • Lesson: People can be empowered.
  • We are driven to help people, but it is necessary to empower people. There is a difference between helping and empowering.
  • (He asked at one point if there were any first generation college students in the audience. There was no evident show of hands, which does make me wonder. To be honest, this is the kind of event that more college students should be attending, but they do not. From what I have seen, these lectures usually attract a lot of seniors, usually the wealthy types in town, some VIPs, and maybe some community members depending on their degree of concern or interest in current affairs. I could say more, but that is better left for another time).
  • To make the world better, start by taking care of yourself. This is vital.
  • On failure: It is just a means to success. The Balti language has no word for failure. The equivalent would be "fork in the road," and success means you got to your destination.
  • You have to touch and experience poverty to solve it. You can't solve it from a think tank in Washington, D.C. Civic engagement is important as well.
  • A tragedy: Losing the tradition of learning from our elders, which is something mostly lost in the United States. Education (meaning formal education) often eradicates oral education though.
  • His heroes: librarians and teachers.
  • In the end, it was children and pennies that funded his first school, and the idea lives on in the Pennies for Peace program.
  • You need local buy-in for projects. The Taliban and other warrior groups tend to be reluctant to bomb a school they built themselves or that has very strong local support (i.e. the Taliban does not wish to make another enemy by pissing off a village after blowing up their school).
  • If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. Educate a girl, you educate the community. (I am not sure how this makes me feel since I have dedicated my life to educating others in one form or another. However, having said that, I do see his point).
    Educating a girl also means you can reduce the population explosion and reduce the infant girl mortality rate.
  • In Pakistan, they use less than 2% of their GDP for education. There is no national initiative to educate all children. Meanwhile, the Taliban bombs about 3 schools a day in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the end, the Taliban fears the idea of the "ink of the scholar is mightier than the blood of martyrs," which is found in the Hadith (and yes, this is a variant of the old phrase.)
  • In the end, it is the tenacity of mothers who send their daughters to schools, often risking their lives to do so.
  • Education is the long term solution to terrorism; this is a lesson from a military officer Mortenson met. The Taliban recruits in the most illiterate areas, so the recruits are then more easily indoctrinated. But the tide is turning.
  • The Independence Day parade in Afghanistan: First come the widows, the orphans, and the wounded veterans from the armed conflicts of the nation. After they come, only then, you get the soldiers. (Can you imagine if they actually did that here in the United States? I am sure the jingoism would decrease considerably when it comes to war).
  • Mortenson believes that God is on the side of widows, orphans, the wounded veterans, the illiterate children. Until this is solved, no nation has a right to say God is on their side. (I wish the U.S. would actually hear that idea.)
  • Playgrounds also have power. From getting Taliban warriors to relax for a bit to letting children have fun and play. Children need to go outside and actually play.
  • Learn and listen to the elders, then impart it to the kids. Kids are the future.
Some notes from the Q&A after the lecture:

  • There is no simple military solution in Afghanistan. The civil sector and the government need to pick up their roles. Even the military commanders are saying this. The village elders in Afghanistan are crucial. Whether you agree or disagree with them, you have to speak with them. The elders are asking to be involved more. They ask for the military not to bomb civilians (this antagonizes people, duh). Also, it may be risky, but the troops do need to go out to the villages.
  • We cannot run a democracy in secrecy. War is the ultimate decision that a nation makes, and thus the society needs to be informed as they make and carry out the decision. (Then again, this also means that people need to take some responsibility to educate themselves and be informed citizens.)
  • Poverty is the inability to make decisions due to restraints. Money, or the lack of it, is not the only restraint. To start changing things, make a habit to do a daily good deed (I knew that part of Scouting would pay off for me) and teach it to your children.
  • Mortenson's schools teach the basics--math, science, so on--as well as languages, including Arabic. If you teach Arabic, the kids can then learn to read, write, and thus understand the Qur'an. The mullahs hate this because then the kids actually understand that the book says instead of just having to accept what the mullahs may say.
  • Mortenson's greatest fear: that he will get harmed or killed in the United States. He gets tons of hate mail from Americans. White supremacists have lobbed molotov cocktails on his home because he helps Muslims. But he keeps going and speaking anyways. You have to go out and build bridges. He says, if he dies in Afghanistan or Pakistan, it will not be a bullet but a car accident (treacherous roads. And the fact he feels how he feels makes an extremely sad commentary on the American nation that often tolerates such ignorance and bigotry.)

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