WSU Common Reading A Solid Choice

U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan unveiled a convoluted PowerPoint presentation last spring that depicted what needed to be accomplished in the war-torn country for the U.S. to claim “victory.” The presentation featured a slide with an intricate maze of arrows and policy jargon that was indecipherable to even Gen. Stanley McChyrstal.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” McChrystal said at the time.

In reality, the solution is far simpler. It requires time and the uncompromising will of a few good people. Humanitarian and author Greg Mortenson tells us why in this year’s common reading book — “Stones into Schools.”

Mortenson’s story has become legendary. His failed K2 climb led to him immersing himself in the lives of Central Asian school children, which he described in his first book, “Three Cups of Tea.” Since then, his Central Asian Institute has built more than 131 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, educating more than 58,000 students, most of whom are girls and the victims of oppressive religious dogma.

Picking up where “Three Cups of Tea” left off, deep in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, “Stones into Schools” chronicles Mortenson’s efforts to build a school in one of the most desolate regions of Afghanistan. In a land besieged by religious extremism, Mortenson brings hope to thousands of women and provides a firsthand account of why just one year of primary schooling can increase a woman’s income by 10 to 20 percent.

Even more importantly, the infant mortality rate plummets and lower population growth appears in the regions where Mortenson builds his schools, providing proof of the African proverb, “If you teach a boy, you educate an individual; but if you teach a girl, you educate a community.”

Along the way, Mortenson introduces us to an array of companions who are as vividly painted as any character in classic fiction. Mortenson’s dedication to this incredibly worthy cause pours off every page, making the reader feel every triumph and setback a little bit more. With every setback — whether it’s an earthquake or ineffective leaders like Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf — readers find themselves rooting for Mortenson and his ragtag crew of misfits as they try to improve the quality of life in the Wakhan Corridor.

Such an intimate memoir from a man who is armed with little more than dedication makes readers wonder why the American military’s misadventures in Afghanistan have lasted eight long years. By simply engaging with the multiple religious factions and clans in the region, Mortenson accomplishes more than a thousand unmanned drones and missiles will ever accomplish.

The results of his work are not instantaneous. The fruits of Mortenson’s efforts will become more apparent decades from now as these educated women transform their societies, pushing back the archaic beliefs that currently enslave their country.

After reading a couple chapters, it is obvious why Mortenson’s previous work has become required reading for all officers enrolled in counterinsurgency courses at the Pentagon. If only the State Department would follow WSU’s lead and make Mortenson’s work required reading for its employees, American diplomacy in the Middle East wouldn’t be in shatters.

With the selection of “Stones into Schools,” WSU’s Common Reading Program is finally hitting its stride in its fourth year. Its first two selections (Gina Kolata’s “Flu” and Mary Roach’s “Stiff”) were less than fulfilling reads because better books existed on the topics, and they were basically second-rate material. Both titles served as prime examples of how academics surround themselves with books, but often the wrong books.

“Stones into Schools” doesn’t have the same cross-department appeal as last year’s selection, “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” but it is more reader friendly and will serve as a good bridge for incoming students. The book also delves into the melodramatic a little too often — which should be expected from a story like this — but Mortenson infuses the book with enough current events to keep even the nerdiest policy wonk’s attention. Future selections will hopefully have a little more intellectual heft. As admirable as Mortenson’s story is, it’s about as challenging as a summer beach read.

Mortenson pens a heart-warming portrait of hope besieged by religious tyranny. The girls who find personal fulfillment in Mortenson’s schools grow into women with an unbending determination to take control of their lives. All incoming freshmen should read and take the principles of “Stones into Schools” to heart.

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