By Zubeida Mustafa
CAROL Loomis, an American financial journalist, who retired in 2014 as senior editor of Fortune magazine, once wrote, “Writing itself makes you realise where there are holes in your thinking.”
She added, “I am never sure what I think unless I see what I write. I believe the analysis part of you kicks in when you sit down to construct a story or even a sentence.”
This is a succinct but profound statement which, unfortunately, our education system operating in a largely oral environment does not recognise. When we cannot even understand the link between language and communication how can we ever realise the significance of articulating our thoughts accurately and cogently. Obviously, no one cares because our education is not designed to inculcate critical thinking in our students. The less they think and question, the happier are the educators who can continue to operate in their comfort zone.
Against this backdrop, a visit to The School of Writing in Karachi was a positive experience. Established in 2010, TSW has reached out directly to 2000 students and engaged 500 teachers in training programmes in 2015, so Mohsin Tejani, the founder and executive director tells me. It has addressed specific writing needs of students, professionals and organisations.
We seem to be moving away from the culture of writing.
Paradoxically, the more education spreads in this country, the more we seem to move away from the culture of writing and documentation. Social media, the Internet and television have emerged as the worst enemies of the written word. Where writing is unavoidable, it has to be brief for sound bites are all that the readers’ attention span allows them to concentrate on. Even the elitist English-medium schools which are required to teach their students the art of writing, encourage the skills of ‘copy pasting’ from the Internet. If plagiarism is so common, is it surprising?
And yet institutions of higher education have to address this deficiency in their students very specifically. The IBA, which recently celebrated 60 years of its successful existence, has set up the Ardeshir Cowasjee Centre for Writing “to facilitate the academic writing needs of its students and faculty”.
What needs to be understood is that there is more to writing than just expressing something in beautiful language using grammatically correct sentences. It is the content of the written passage that is equally important. Ahmad Ali Khan, who edited this paper for more than 27 years, wrote in a letter to his wife Hajra Masroor (reproduced in his book In Search of Sense) that writing refined one’s ideas since it follows a thought process and deliberation.
Closely connected to the writing process is the language one uses and the confidence with which one has to say what has to be said. Given the language conundrum in Pakistan, we are not even clear about the language we want to teach our children and the language that should be the medium of instruction.
This ambiguity has created serious problems. Since English is the international language, it is rightly considered to be important. But quite erroneously, it is believed that English can be taught only if children are taught every subject in English.
We need to understand that to learn a language we need some basics that are missing in Pakistan. The most important are the presence of the language in the environment and the availability of teachers proficient in it.
With both elements not there we have failed to teach English to our students, and in the process, have also destroyed indigenous languages, making our children ‘bezubaan’ (without a tongue) as a wit once said.
We cannot write because we lack command over at least one language. Hence writing schools, a network of which are needed according to Tejani, will in effect have to be language schools.
Wisely, he has promised to facilitate both English and Urdu writing. The principles of good writing are the same irrespective of which language one writes in. But it is stating the obvious that the language you are familiar with is easier to write in.
Language is closely connected with the degree of confidence a writer possesses. In our society, languages have been hierarchised. English is at the top, followed by Urdu and then the other tongues. Minority languages have been pushed to the bottom rungs in terms of the esteem they receive. What that does to a person’s confidence has been described in Zubair Torwali’s lucidly written book Muffled Voices.
He writes of a small child who comes to school speaking her mother tongue Torwali (spoken in northern Swat) finds herself totally bewildered by the multiplicity of languages (Pashto, Urdu and English) she is bombarded with. Worst of all, “the mediocre teacher looks down upon the child and laughs at the way she speaks Pashto”. The baggage of shame this child carries with her for life will shake her confidence. Will she ever be able to write well?