Three Cups of Tea chronicles the life and work of mountaineer-turned-humanitarian Greg Mortenson. After failing to reach the summit of K2 and stumbling upon a Baltistan village named Korphe, Mortenson observes the dire conditions the people live in and promises the people that he will return to build a school for them…
Mortenson then returns to the U.S. to raise the funds necessary to fulfill his oath. Even after securing the finances needed for the first school, however, Mortenson faces a series of hurdles in his attempts to complete not only that first school, but many more. While the book tells a fascinating story, it offers more than an interesting plot.  In addition, Three Cups of Tea is both a commentary on the danger of ignorance and a showcase on the importance of relationships.

The book demonstrates that at least two general types of ignorance exist, and both can create serious problems. The first type of ignorance is associated with things like literacy, mathematics, and other basic skills that many Americans are taught in primary or secondary school. Let’s call it “educational ignorance.” This is the type of ignorance that Mortenson is so passionately trying to eradicate among the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan by building schools. Without any education or skills, these children grow up with very few opportunities to bring themselves out of poverty and increase their standard of living. Surrounded by an impoverished environment, these youth are more susceptible to the teachings of radical religious schools and more willing to become mujahidin (fighters). By building schools and combating educational ignorance, it is possible to empower students to pursue other opportunities and to reject extremism.

The second type of ignorance that Three Cups of Tea highlights is what I will call “national ignorance,” or the ignorance of other nations, other groups of people. Combating national ignorance in Baltistan is something that Mortenson does primarily without even realizing it at first. Nonetheless, for the people of that region who had very little contact with Americans, Mortenson acted as an example for the entire nation. By respecting Islam, respecting the local culture, and working to help people in need, Mortenson did more to increase the local people’s positive image of America than any “liberation mission” could ever hope for. Without Mortenson’s positive influence, the people of Baltistan would have little else to judge Americans by other than pre-existing negative stereotypes and extremist propaganda.

In Three Cups of Tea we also see huge amounts of evidence of national ignorance on the part of Americans when Mortenson receives letter after letter of hate mail condemning his work with Muslims and declaring him un-American. Much in the same way that Muslims hating Americans can create dangerous problems, Americans hating Muslims spreads violence and causes problems as well. This hatred, enabled by widespread ignorance of what Islam truly advocates, creates the kind of environment where the word “Muslim” starts to be equated with the word “terrorist” and Americans stop caring about civilian casualties on the other side. This ignorance produces remarks like “nuke em’ all and let Allah sort them out.” The basis of peace is understanding, and while this kind of ignorance persists among the world’s societies, the chances of reaching a lasting peace will never improve.

Related to the fight against national ignorance is the process of building relationships. As I mentioned earlier, Mortenson managed to reduce the Baltistani’s national ignorance of Americans. This reduction is the product of the relationships he built there. By building relationships people begin to understand and trust one another. The title of the book itself is a description of this process: the first time you share tea you are a stranger, the second time you become an honored guest, and by the third cup of tea you are regarded as family.  For Mortenson, the relationships he built served not only the purpose of improving the perception of America in the region, but they also were essential in enabling him to continue his work. While many discuss the book as “one man’s mission to promote peace…,” it seems clear that Mortenson would have accomplished very little without the help he received from the local people that became his devoted friends and supporters.

I enjoyed Three Cups of Tea very much and as a matter of fact, I can personally relate to the principles of combating ignorance and promoting relationships. While I do not build schools around the world, I am a member of an international organization called AIESEC which seeks to instill the values of international understanding and cooperation while developing young leaders to their full potential so that they might have a positive impact on society. One of the most important functions of AIESEC is its exchange program, which gives students the opportunity to live and work in a foreign country. Through exchange, a student can genuinely experience another culture and develop relationships with the people who belong to that culture. In my mind, this is one of the most effective ways possible to reduce national ignorance and to expose people to a number of different opinions and sets of values.

I myself participated in an exchange experience to Tunisia in part because I felt like I didn’t understand Arab culture or Islam and wanted to learn. Going there enabled me to gain a better understanding of the people than any media broadcast ever could provide, and I was also able to help them understand Americans as well. Through this process of building mutual understanding between our cultures, I feel strongly that the prejudices that each group holds for the other will start to fade away as we realize that our societies are characterized by generally good people with many of the same values, not the hate-filled extremists that we focus on so much.

Overall, Three Cups of Tea offers an inspiring story and important lessons on how soft power can be just as important in a “War on Terror” as guided missiles and infantry troops.