While visiting a friend and catching up on our collective immediate pasts, a conversation arose, as it does, about what we were up to.
Now, this friend, who works at Edge, the Foundation, a non-profit which promotes the arts and education, spoke of an essay competition, aptly titled “A Paper for Progress,” that they were hosting to encourage the sharing of creative ideas. The competition, which sought essays on education, was aimed at promoting work that would “add value to society.”
Competitions such as these, of course, bring in work from all walks of life, but: Weren’t people who could truly write too far and few in between?
Having taught composition classes at university level for well over a year now, I must say that whatever aspirations I had for changing the way teaching was done (not that I had much conviction beforehand) went out the window by the second week.
At its most basic level, my job is to teach people how to write. Now, contrary to what some may believe, writing doesn’t merely require the “bhalo” English. Just because a person can either speak in English without a broken accent or write without grammatical errors doesn’t mean they’re good writers.
Writing requires not only that, but also understanding, empathy, knowledge, amongst a host of other things (and I say this not as an expert, but as someone who believes he has read enough to know the difference).
But, as the classes went on, and I tried to engage with them on an “interesting” level that would be deemed more interesting, I realised that this was a futile task. Much of the basics needed to find the teaching interesting was missing: They did not care for ideas, they did not care for learning, they did not even care for good English much of time.
The importance of cultivating a writing habit, which encourages so much within any individual, be it escapism or realism, creativity or anger, cannot be denied
What they cared about were grades and marks.
“Sir,” they would pleadingly inquire, “will there be ‘common’ questions in the midterm?”
“Sir,” they sadly bemoaned, “how many marks will the quiz consist of?”
“Sir,” they desperately begged, “how do I improve my English?”
Dear child, I would condescendingly think at the young age of 24, improving oneself in a language cannot take place over the span of a three-month course -- enough so that not only can you speak and write in grammatically correct sentences, but to be able to write well -- is an impossible task.
I would tell them to read fiction (for that’s the best kind of writing there is), to talk in English whenever possible without caring about what other people thought (which they didn’t do for I must admit, we are a cruel society when it comes to this), and to get themselves out of the box of what they had been put in at school (another impossible task at such short notice).
Why the void
Therein lay the problem of their inability to write in English: It was in their schooling. This problem was most stark when I would give them any sort of freedom. If I told them, for example, to write about whatever they wished, they would stare blankly at me before staring blankly at their page, their pens in their hands, struggling to decide what they could do.
During narrative essays, I told them to use their imaginations. Give me conflict, give me dragons and monsters, give me a protagonist who wants to die, an antagonist who is really the hero, a beautiful princess who knows martial arts, anything at all.
But, when the essays are returned, and I sit down to check them, this is what I see: “I was late to the exam” and “I once had an accident.”
Since birth, society has taught them conformity, both in spirit and in education, which was so crucial to acceptance that, at the age of 19-20, when they came to university, they had no idea what to do with this immense world of possibilities but no direction.
Some might think that this is a purely Bangla medium problem; it is not. Could they write something of worth and value in Bangla, if they were given the same freedom?
And I have, of course, run into plenty of English medium students who can talk the talk, but can barely write the write.
At every step, these students look for patterns. This is more easily done in other subjects and courses perhaps, but not when it comes to writing.
Since I am a writer, I may have a bias, and that is fine. But the importance of cultivating a writing habit, which encourages so much within any individual, be it escapism or realism, creativity or anger, cannot be denied.
Think out of the box
So, maybe, when a competition such as “A Paper for Progress” does come along, instead of it being the daunting challenge that it may seem, it could be an opportunity not just for the few, but for the many, to portray their ideas on a pressing matter.
Much of the problem, a problem that I myself have faced, stems from the fact that writing is seen as a purely “creative” avenue of expression, like other forms of “art.” This is not true. It is merely the most easily done.
It is no more creative than physics or math, geography or chemistry; all subjects require creativity.
And writing is a beautiful way of nurturing that creativity, of allowing students and other individuals to break out of the mould that so many of us find ourselves stuck in.
If given the opportunity, who knows what beautiful words will come out of the pens of these generations losing themselves in the rat race?
Who knows where these words will lead, what kinds of innovations and inventions will come forth, the likes of which our country has not even imagined, just because they weren’t allowed to?
SN Rasul is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune.