Daniel F. Sullivan Remarks to Graduates 2008

May 18, 2008

Colleagues and distinguished guests, faculty, trustees, parents, friends and family of graduating seniors and masters candidates, members of the wider St. Lawrence family, and—most of all—graduating seniors and masters candidates, a very warm welcome to this, the commencement ceremony of the Class of 2008.

I think there must be at least some parents in the audience today for whom this story about Ole and Sven from Minnesota might have been relevant when you dropped your son or daughter off here in the North Country four years ago:

Ole and Sven were talking over coffee at the Chatterbox Cafe one morning. Sven said to Ole: “I see Ole Junior is off to college this year. What is he going to be when he graduates?” “Oh I tink 35 or 40,” said Ole!

The Class of 2008 has done pretty well against that standard I think you would all agree!
Ole and Sven notwithstanding—and my colleagues here know that I could happily regale you with a whole slew of tales involving Ole, Sven and Lena—I want to use my time this morning to recommend a book to you—an inspiring, serious book filled with “on the ground” lessons for how to forge a more stable, equitable world, thinking globally but acting locally—lessons Americans already know or have known but seem to forget all too easily when confronted with challenging world issues. The book is Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. It begins with a failed attempt in 1993 by Mortenson, an American from Minnesota, and a group of other highly experienced mountaineers to climb K2 in the northeast of Pakistan almost on the China border in what is called Baltistan. K2 is the second highest mountain in the world and, according to many climbers, perhaps the most difficult of all to climb. As the book says:

Compared to Everest, a thousand miles southeast along the spine of the Himalaya, K2, they all knew, was a killer. To climbers, who call it “The Savage Peak,” it remains the ultimate test, a pyramid of razored granite so steep that snow can't cling to its knife-edged ridges.
Mortenson came within 600 meters of the summit, but had to quit. On the way down to the base camp, he lost contact with his group, became disoriented and, after spending the night, wandered off alone. To his great good fortune, and very much by accident, he encountered Mouzafer Ali, “his renowned Balti porter,” who then led him off the glacier toward safety in the village of Askole where Mortenson expected to be able to find a jeep to return to Akardu, Baltistan's capital. But Mortenson and Ali became separated again, Mortenson took a wrong turn, and thinking he had reached Askole found himself at the edge of a small village named Korphe, “perched on a shelf eight hundred feet above the Braldu River, which clung in unlikely fashion to the side of the canyon wall like a rock climber's sleeping platform bolted into the side of a sheer cliff.” (24-25) Greeting him at the village entrance was its chief, Haji Ali who, with his family and the rest of the villagers in a show of extraordinary hospitality, would nurse Mortenson slowly back to health after his ordeal on the mountain.

One day near the end of his recovery Mortenson asked Haji Ali to show him Korphe's school, and so he did—82 children (78 boys and 4 girls) kneeling on open, frosty ground, sharing a teacher with a neighboring village three days a week. Korphe had no school. Mortenson said: “I felt like my heart was being torn out. There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them . . .” (32), and Mortenson began to hatch a plan. As he prepared to leave for home in America, Mortenson turned to Haji Ali and said: “I'm going to build you a school. I will build a school. I promise.” (33)

About a year later, having raised the $15,000 or so necessary to purchase the materials to build the school, Mortenson did indeed return to Korphe and that begins the second part of the story, which has led since to the building and staffing of dozens of schools and the education of thousands of rural Pakistani children, especially girls. It led also to some remarkable lessons—retakes, really, of lessons we should have learned from The Ugly American, and other self-criticisms of American behavior abroad in the Vietnam era. First published in 1958, The Ugly American became a runaway national bestseller for its slashing exposé of American arrogance, incompetence, and corruption in Southeast Asia.

To get all the school-building to happen, Mortenson had to learn not only how to raise money in America but also how to work with local villagers in Pakistan—to wait for them to ask him to help them build a school, then to let them shape the project and provide the sweat equity necessary to turn building materials into actual schools using their own considerable building skills and ingenuity gained from centuries of living and surviving in one of the world's most challenging environments. It is in a conversation with Haji Ali, the leader of Korphe village, that we first encounter the reference to three cups of tea.

Mortenson was impatient to move the school construction in Korphe forward, and complexity was everywhere, most significantly because all the building materials had to come from far away and be transported over impossibly difficult terrain up to the remote village. Haji Ali gave Mortenson this advice:

Haji Ali said, blowing on his bowl of scalding butter tea, “If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways. The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die.” Laying his hand warmly on Mortenson's own, he then said: “Doctor Gregg, you must take time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time.” Mortenson said: “Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.” (150)

So Mortenson worked with one village after another, building relationships, and then building schools to educate the children of northern Pakistan—including most importantly growing numbers of girls—so that they could think and perform for themselves in a world where even remote northern Pakistan is impacted by global issues and so that they could resist the fundamentalism of the even faster growing number of schools being constructed by the Taliban. The biggest message of the book is how, for perhaps no more than $1 million total over a decade, Mortenson worked with roughly 50 villages, built and staffed 50 schools, and at the same time built a foundation of connection and respect between an American and many different rural Pakistani peoples. It is a testament to the admonition to walk in the other's shoes before judging.

Contrast that result, Mortenson argues, with the results of America's pursuit of El Qaida in Afghanistan, and the results of our ill-conceived and disastrous war in Iraq. At an ultimate cost projected at more than $1 trillion, we have accomplished no peace, and have struggled to lay a foundation of relationships on which lasting peace might be built. Think, Mortenson says, of what might have been accomplished if we had long ago begun to work with villages to build schools that fostered independence of thought and the skills leading to self-reliance instead.

Two other messages also leap from the pages of this book. The first is “keep your word.” When Mortenson left Korphe after his recovery in Haji Ali's home he said: “I will build a school. I promise.” When he kept his promise, at great personal sacrifice, his credibility with the people of northern Pakistan grew dramatically—a simple thing to say—keep your word—hard to do sometimes, but so powerful in impact.

A second message is “learn the language—speak in the tongue of those with whom you are living.” Mortenson is blessed with a wonderful facility at learning languages and dialects, and there are many language differences from one sub-region to the next in Pakistan. Mortenson took the time every time he encountered a new local language to become fluent as quickly as possible. In many ways, learning another's language is one of the ultimate examples of walking in another's shoes, of showing the kind of respect for the other that makes real relationships possible.

None of these insights is new, really, but how often, nonetheless, we have honored them more in the breach than in their accomplishment.

You get by now where I am headed: this is what liberal education is all about. The qualities of mind and human commitment at the center of Mortenson's success are some of the goals and objectives of liberal education—the education for a life to which St. Lawrence is committed. You see in Mortenson's story the immense global stakes that are involved, and you know instinctively that what happens in northern Pakistan has impacts all the way back to Canton, New York—impacts on the lives and possibilities for all of us gathered here today to share this great commencement ceremony.

Three Cups of Tea is a wonderful read, a deeply moving book—a book that will affect your thinking for a long time. You graduating seniors understand, I'm sure, how hard it is for the President, as a member of the faculty, not to give one last reading assignment before you go and so I have done my duty!

At last Monday's quad experience I reminded you that St. Lawrence has wonderful University songs, all written by alumni. One that I failed to mention then that seems worth mentioning now in response to behavior I've noticed among some members of the senior class this week, and one of my favorites from the early 1900s, is entitled “Sucking Cider Through a Straw,” and the words go like this:

The prettiest girl I ever saw was sucking cider through a straw. Said I to her, “My dear, what for do you suck cider through a straw?” Said she to me, “Why, don't you know that sucking cider's all the go?” Then cheek to cheek and jaw to jaw, we both sucked cider through a straw. And if by chance the straw did slip, I kissed sweet cider from her lip.
Of course, in those years, it would only be sweet cider they were sucking . . .

Another beautiful St. Lawrence song, from 1908, has this as its last verse: “Ev'ry friendship you have blest, Ev'ry joy remembered best, These shall crown the days we knew, Old St. Lawrence, Here's to you.” You are indeed a remarkable senior class. My wish for you is that you will think of St. Lawrence as home throughout your life, no matter where you are and what you are doing, and that you will come back home here many, many times in the years to come. We are going to miss you, the great class of 2008, very, very much. Heres to you! Thank you!