2 September 2010: A Tale of Two Books
IT DID NOT OCCUR TO ME until I was nearly done with book number 2 that both books I was finishing nearly simultaneously were deep-down very much alike though at the surface different.
Ray Raphael's A People's History of the American Revolution (Part of Howard Zinn's People's History series published by the New Press) and Greg Mortenson's Stones into Schools are both about bucking authority to achieve a dream--a collective dream, of a whole people.
Raphael's book should really end with an s, as in American Revolutions, because so many were going on here, back in the late 1700s. The patriots were rebelling against the Tories as well as England. The Indians were rebelling against the white intruders and the slaves were rebelling against the white pillagers and slaveholders as well as attempting to ally with the British, sometimes gaining their freedom and sometimes ending up worse off than before. Farmers were fighting as patriots and to keep their farms going and their families safe. Few people were really safe during the revolutionary years; slaveholders feared rebellion as their unwilling chattel tried again and again to escape and/or flee to the British ships.
Mortenson's book takes up where Three Cups of Tea left off as he lives a totally hyperactive, off-the-wall existence between his family in Montana, fundraising voraciously all over the country, and traveling to the remotest, most inaccessible places in the world, its rooftop, to build schools for girls, in whose hands he is convinced the future of their countries rest. Well, especially in the case of girls, the Taliban prefer schools into stones, though the author is more subtle about this frustrating aspect of his crusade. They will stop at nothing: buildings, lives, ideals, until everything is in even more dire straits than before. Stones into gravel?
It is amazing how much these tribal societies, living Stone Age lives in such remote, well-hidden areas surrounded by the highest mountains of the world, are so eager to educate their children, especially their girls. Mortenson never really gets to the bottom of this, beyond the fact that the parents equate success and transcendence with education--that much contact with the rest of us they have had, that much frustration in their own lives--these so capable people who can handle every aspect of life in the wilds and survive through every possible artifice.
Having grown by leaps and mountains himself since the day he staggered into the tiny village of Korphe half-dead from having lost his trail on the second-highest peak in the world, K2; having climbed so many other more important mountains and helped others climb with him, Mortenson is the real hero of his narrative, a factotum nurse, mentor, builder, foreman, organizer, athlete, fundraiser, public speaker (something he does not enjoy), as well as loving husband and father who could not sit still for one minute until his young son, named for the Khyber Pass, crossed a large rope bridge before his eyes--read his first words while his father was reading with him at home. Mortenson asks himself how he can miss so many moments like this, off on the other side of the world worrying about educating other people's children. A nice eye in this hurricane he is trying to cut through illiteracy.
Education for people in central Asia is different from what we might expect: no Descartes or Plato, nor Shakespeare so much as math and science and practicality, improving the lives of those who struggle so hard to get them educated. Of course the humanities play a role in all this, but there is so much to learn from these "illiterate" people, like Mortenson's acknowledged mentor, an illiterate man in Korphe who set him on the right trail, away from K2 and into the human heart and soul. What more humanity could he have found that theTLC that brought him back to life, expecting nothing in return as he still fights to bring the world to those remote villages, to give life back to these people who saved his?
Mortenson's ultimate foe is everything that the Taliban represents. The foe of all the rebellious elements in the People's History--the patriots, the slaves, the Indians--is in many ways the opposite, the peak of the Enlightenment, His Majesty himself, the ultimate in Western culture versus the salt of the earth for the most part and a few eggheads not so much speaking for them as for themselves, our founding fathers.
Both books are primary sources--Stones into Schools right out of the horse's mouth and People's Revolution right out of the people's words--all of theirs, including their foes'. The tragedies of so many categories of the downtrodden become as close to us as the earth beneath their feet: from mountain trails whose geologic origins Mortenson explains (collision between India and central Asia millennia ago) to farmland to children torn out of their parents' arms to parents forced to watch them die to the reverse: somehow the vast majorities don't count in either scenario and in both education is the ticket to freedom. Mortenson battles to distribute it as the colonists miraculous defeat it, with some help from the French and Spanish ultimately. It's not the fight on and for your own turf per se, or the Indians would have won. It's not the fight for social advancement, or the British would have won. It's the fight over freedom, pure and simple, the ultimate antithesis to the bottom line of both the Taliban and the British hegemony nearly three hundred years ago.
Everyone in the cosmos I have constructed here wants freedom: the Indians from the whites, the blacks from the whites, the colonists from the British and from external threats posed not only by themselves and the British, but by the underclasses.
To understand the difference between the Taliban and Greg Mortenson isn't so easy to those little girls in central Asia as it is for us, yet somehow they flock to Mortenson, hijabs in place, though they know that secular Americans have so much that they want. To understand the difference between the founding fathers and their adversaries, the British, is another sort of exercise. It is their mastery of the civilization both groups partake of, its culture, its erudition, its infinite versatility that conquers the people who gave it to them. Did our founding fathers descend from aristocracy? No, but they became it and established it here, in their way. We all revere their descendants among us, including blacks and mulattoes and some intermingling with Native Americans. And so our de facto aristocracy defeated the entrenched, slightly stale, slightly smug one. Education applied to the ground as opposed to stale traditions, expectations, and costumery.
One book is about the past but teaches us that the underclasses haven't stopped rebelling, justifiably. One book is about the present and an amazing marriage between millennia and the twenty-first century. I haven't stressed enough the parallelism between young girls and the other underclasses, but all fight together to become part of the mainstream--to make a difference instead of comprise it and define it.
Mortenson's story is rooted in altruism, earth-shaking altruism. Raphael's story is rooted in rebellion against tyranny, at so many more levels than occurs to most of us when we consider the Revolution(s). One battle will always be with us and always must be, because tyranny exists at so many levels in every age. The other, for education, is of a different sort. Which is a stronger force, self-determination or education? Do they coalesce? Do those who are truly free seek it or run in the other direction? Is it a form of tyranny?
To hear all these voices first hand, watch the schools being built, read of trails of tears, read about how contagious altruism can be even in the twenty-first century--all the little girls want to go back home and not abroad with their educations, to help others like them--where is the ultimate inspiration? I would say Mortenson wins though far fewer are benefiting from his work so far. The Enlightenment's own values are killing it before our eyes, even though across the ocean and over the Himalayas we are watching their seeds planted in a new world. If ever a beacon shown that priorities are shifting, it is through a comparative study of these two books rather than each one alone, that brings this out.
So don't be afraid to read more than one book at a time. The truth has many sources and poses many challenges, and the last shall be the first and somehow transcend the decadence that so far has prevailed as a result. That is our true path toward salvation. In this way Muslims are leading us forward and Mortenson is clearing the path for them, a nurse at the birth of something new and something wonderful . . . or so it seems for now.
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