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Commencement Address, May 24, 2009
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Greg Mortenson is the subject and coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace. . . One School at a Time. Cofounder and executive director of the nonprofit Central Asia Institute and founder of Pennies for Peace, Mortenson has dedicated his life to promoting community-based education and literacy programs, especially for girls, in remote mountainous regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.A Salam, ali kum, which means “peace be with you.” And thank you, Dr. Adams. And to Rabbi Krinsky, thank you for your blessing. And to Joe Boulos, who’s the chairman of the Board of Trustees, and to all the trustees. To the administration, and to the parents, and grandparents, uncles, aunts, sisters, and brothers. And, most of all, congratulations to all of you in the Colby Class of 2009. This is a great day of celebration.
In 1993, Mortenson climbed Pakistan's K2, the world's second-highest mountain. After his climb, while recovering in a local village, Mortenson met a group of children writing with sticks in the sand. He made a promise to help them build a school.
From that grew a remarkable humanitarian campaign. Mortenson has established more than 60 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan that provide education to more than 25,000 children, including 14,000 girls, for whom few education opportunities existed before.
Martin Luther King once said, “Even if the world ends tomorrow, I’m going to plant my seed today.” But I guess you guys have already been planting your seeds, and now the rain is falling to start spreading your good hope around the world.
I love history, and I go talk to many schools around the country. Last year I visited about two-hundred thirty schools, from kindergarten all the way through the Air Force Academy. And one of the first questions I ask students is, “How many of you”—and I guess I can ask this to the class here—“have spent a lot of time with your grandparents or your elders talking about the Depression, or World War II, or the Vietnam War, or the civil rights movement?” Or Qiam, perhaps the times in Afghanistan during Najibullah or something like that. But how many of you have spent a lot of time talking to your elders about those periods in history? You want to put your hands up here? Okay, that’s really high. About thirty percent? That’s actually very, very high.
Generally in the U.S. only ten percent of the hands come up. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a public school, private school, urban school, or rural school. As Qiam would know, if I asked that same question in Afghanistan or in Pakistan, or even those of you who have been in Senegal or Cameroon or Tanzania, ninety percent of the hands come up. And I think it’s a great tragedy in our country. We’ve lost that tradition where we can learn from our elders about our heritage, our folklore, our traditions, our faith, and many of the important lessons that we’ve learned in history. And so, in honor of that today, I’d like to share with you a little bit about Three Cups of Tea, the book that I wrote.
What Three Cups of Tea means is that the first cup you’re a stranger, the second cup a friend, and third cup you become family. And for a family, we’re prepared to do anything, even die. Now that doesn’t mean you just go around the world drinking tea and having peace and prosperity. What it means is that we have to build relationships with each other. We have to listen. And we have to have, as Qiam said, we have to have humility and respect.
General Patraeus, who’s the CENTCOM commander, he read Three Cups of Tea last year and he said he learned three things from the book, and he sent me an e-mail with three bullet points in it. You know, military generals send you bullet points. He said: Number one, we need to listen more; number two, we need to have respect; and number three, we need to build relationships.I was very lucky to grow up in Africa for fifteen years. I grew up in Tanzania. I went there when I was three months old, and my father ended up starting a hospital. My father worked very hard to get the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center started in Tanzania. But one thing he always insisted on is having local people in charge. And often he got in trouble with the Europeans and Americans, because they said you need to have an American in charge. And finally when the hospital got ready to open in 1971, my father got up and he gave a speech and he said, “In ten years I predict that all the department heads of this hospital will be from Tanzania.” Well, eventually he got fired for saying that, because they said, you know, “How could you set these people up for such an unrealistic expectation?” So we came back to the States, and my father died from cancer in his mid-forties. But we got the annual report from the hospital ten years later, and all the department heads were from Tanzania. And even today, forty years later, all the department heads of the hospital are from Tanzania.
The first chapter in Three Cups of Tea is an “f” word. Anyone remember what the word is? We don’t like to talk about it here in the U.S. “Failure.” Today is your day of success, but I think also failure—I’m going to talk to you just about failure a little bit—because I think failure’s very important.We all make mistakes in our lives, and we all fail sometimes. All of you have not failed—I mean you have graduated—but some of us don’t end up graduating. Some of us burn cookies in the oven, some of us fail in our relationships, some of us fail in our tenures, and some of us fail—I was in New York two months ago and I mentioned some of us fail in our investments, and there was no laughter there.
Anyway, if you go to Afghanistan there’s a very beautiful Persian proverb that says, “When it is dark, you can see the stars.” And I think that’s a good thing to hold onto. From my example, my first semester of college I got a GPA of 1.89, but I did manage to get up to 3.4 by the time I graduated.
I have some really good news and I have some really bad news. The first good news is, of course, that you’re graduating today, but would you like to hear the bad news first or the good news? Bad news. Okay.
The bad news is that in Afghanistan and in Pakistan the Taliban have bombed, destroyed, or shut down over five hundred schools in Afghanistan and over three-hundred fifty schools in Pakistan in the last two years. What’s interesting, though, is that nearly all those schools are girls’ schools.
So, why do a group of men want to bomb a girls’ school and not a boys’ school? Because, I think, their greatest fear—it’s not a bullet, but it’s a pen. And what they fear the most is if that girl gets an education and grows up, the value of education will go on the community. In Islam there’s something called the hadith, and the hadith says, which is a tribute to all of you today, that “The ink of a scholar is greater than the blood of a martyr.” It actually says “holier than.” “The ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr.”
Here’s some good news. In Afghanistan, in 2000, there were eight-hundred thousand children in school. Today there are seven-point-six million in school, including two-point-six million females. It’s the greatest increase in school enrollment in any country in modern history. So were any of you here aware of that before I told you that? One person here. I think it’s a tragedy we focus on so many of the negative things, but there’s really good things happening. That’s the good news. That’s the candle. That’s the light of hope for a country like Afghanistan.In 1970 one out of three college graduates said, “I want to go out and make the world a better place.” And that was the day of—some of you might remember, you know—peace signs and bellbottom jeans and guitars. By 1990 that dropped to eighteen percent. That was the day everybody wanted to go out and make a buck. Today in a U.S. News & Report study it says forty percent of college graduates, like you, want to go out and make the world a better place. And just for a survey here, how many of you want to go out and make the world a better place? All of you? Alright. Give a big round.
I was talking to President Adams a little bit ago—there’s been this phenomenon going on in college where young men and women, even old men and women—the disciplines are becoming much more integrated. Rather than looking at just disciplines they’re at looking a problems. Poli Sci is turning into international relations; engineering, architecture is turning into holistic, sustainable engineering; nursing and medicine is looking at holistic health rather than symptomatic treatment of diseases. If you ask college administrators why this is happening, they like to take credit for it, but the main reason is because it’s being driven by the students themselves. It’s being driven by you. You really want to go out and make the world a better place.
For example, at Colby here, there’s many programs, I won’t even list them, but all the countries that you’ve been to—how many of you during your college career have got to another country? Look at that. Isn’t that amazing? Give a big round. And also, how many of you have maybe worked in a soup line in a kitchen or were involved in the Colby Cares About Kids program, or were involved in all the frying oil collected for biodiesel fuel for tractors on farms? You no longer have trays in the halls, is that right, in the mess room? And you saved over fifty tons of disposable issues, and this year you collected eight-thousand three-hundred and twenty-seven pounds of food for the local food banks. And that was just done by this class here. And you saved one-hundred fifty thousand paper cups. Now that sounds like a small thing, but those are the things that are going to make a difference in the world.I think the most important thing is that we all have to have hope, and you represent the hope for the future. When I first wrote Three Cups of Tea, the subtitle was One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism ... One School at a Time, and I was very opposed to that. And I went to the publisher, I summoned a jirga—it’s like a tribal council, the CEO, and the head of engineering, head of marketing. And I said why I wanted the subtitle to be One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time. Well, they disagreed with me, and they said, “Greg, only one out of eight nonfiction books makes a profit, and two thirds of all bestsellers are pre-chosen by the publisher. So we’d like to promote this book, but you need to be fighting terrorism so we can go out and pitch the media.” Finally I conceded. But having worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan many years, you never settle a deal without driving a hard bargain on the side. So I said, “If the hardcover book doesn’t do well, I want the paperback subtitle changed.” So the hardcover came out, it didn’t do very well, and they changed the subtitle to One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time two years ago, and it’s been a New York Times bestseller ever since.
Now, fighting terrorism is based in fear, but promoting peace is based in hope. And the real enemy, whether it’s in the U.S. or Afghanistan or in Africa, the real enemy is ignorance, and it’s ignorance that breeds hatred. And to overcome ignorance, we need to have compassion, we need to have courage, and we also need to look up to all of you, the forty to fifty percent of you who really want to go out and make the world a better place.