Why Three Cups of Tea are Not Enough

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I will be the first to admit that I was an early adopter of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea. When it first came out I reviewed it for TIME, and named it one of the 10 best books of 2006. I gave it out as Christmas presents, and encouraged my mother to read it in her book club. By no stretch of the imagination was it a work of great literary import, but I loved it because it revealed a different Pakistan than the one dominating headlines at the time. It proposed an alternative to the American anti-terrorist predator drone program that had started up that year in the mountainous tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It demonstrated why spending on schools was just as important, if not more so, than defense spending.

I won’t claim the same level of suspicion evinced by Jon Krakauer in last night’s 60 Minutes piece. No, I bought Mortenson’s tale of rescue and promises kept wholesale. But there was always something that bothered me about the book, something that left me, well, a little thirsty. It wasn’t until a few years later that I figured it out. On a hike in northeast Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistani border, I came across one of Mortenson’s school buildings, complete with the trademark white star. Eagerly I asked my guide about it, hoping to hear a heartwarming tale of girls in school. Nope. My guide dismissed it as a well-appointed sheep corral. Why? There were no teachers.

True or not, Greg Mortenson’s books have done more to promote the cause of education in developing countries than any other organization I have come across. That said, his books, his speaking tours and his NGO, the Central Asia Institute, have overlooked the most essential part of education anywhere: good teachers. Be it a charter school in Queens or an elementary school in Sarhad Broghil (where I first saw a Mortenson school), a school is just a building if it doesn’t have teachers.

Sure, it tugs at the heartstrings to see girls studying in tents, or sitting under trees. And eventually, it does keep older girls from attending  but at least they are learning. The problem is, there are not enough well educated teachers to fill all the schools that Mortenson, and international donors, have built in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The problems are obvious: lack of salary, lack of higher education, an unwillingness to send older female students to male teachers and the resulting lack of educated female teachers to instruct the next generation.

So now that Mortenson’s book has been thrown open to investigation, let’s not forget to tackle the central premise: that building schools is enough to make a change.