Previously, the kids had been given a project to picture a utopic Pakistan, think on its various facets and share it with the rest of the group. Day Ten, therefore, began with Tamkeen coming forward with her well thought-out vision of universal, affordable education, and textbook standardization.
Maliha used this as an opportunity to ask the participants what they would do to fix the education crisis in Pakistan. Some said that they would "fix the system," some others said that they'd "get better teachers" while others planned on "building more schools." Varied as these plans were, Maliha pointed out that they were all too vague.
Vagueness, Maliha explained, is what weakens a proposal or a statement. Clarity, on the other hands, strengthens a proposal, a clear proposal mentions exactly how you define the terms you use and outlines exactly what you plan on doing and how you will execute said plan.
Maliha quickly told the kids that one of them had arbitrarily been appointed the Minister of Education and that everyone else was part of a council of policy advisors to the Minister. She told the group that they had to work together to come up with plausible, concrete and practical solutions for the education crisis.
The first problem the council came across was what the "system" that needed to be fixed really was. Who or what was part of it and how was this determined? Did it have stakeholders?
Once this had been tackled, some progress was made. The council, with some guidance, concluded that a public forum would have to be set up where people's complaints and suggestions would manifest themselves. The needs of the people would be assessed, prioritized and dealt with accordingly.
When Maliha asked the group where the funding for all of this would come from, Taha remarked that people asking for money were beggars. Maliha talked about various scenarios - tax collection, charities, disabled people unfit for employment, sponsorships and grants - and asked him if each of them, in turn, counted as beggary. Although he did not really reply, it was clear that he did not feel the same way about each situation.
Somehow the conversation morphed - rather organically - into a debate about what someone had to have for them to be able to get a job. After the debate had gone on for a good ten minutes, Rauf, who had been quiet all this time, spoke up and asked, "What kind of job are you talking about?" It became clear that everyone had been debating with a different kind of job in mind. Maliha took this in stride and explained that this was exactly why vagueness was bad.
As the conversation was brought back onto track, Maliha began to talk about symptoms and causes. Symptoms, she explained, are the signs that something is wrong, with that something being the cause. Fixing the latter is only palliative (aaand I just used an SAT word I never thought I'd ever use) and does not ensure that the symptom disappears for good or not other, similar symptoms do not pop up.
Monday's session began with Maliha addressing an issue the kids had been facing. She had given the kids research assignments in the past and said that they often called her up saying that they could not find the information they had been asked to look for.
Thus, Maliha shared tips and tricks of online research with the group. She taught participants how to phrase questions while using search engines for the best results. The group also discussed various types of information that could be found using the internet such as newspaper articles, blogs and encyclopedia entries. Maliha explained that, since anybody could publish articles online and edit Wikipedia entries, all information accessed via the internet was to be regarded with a degree to skepticism.
"What is a library?" Maliha asked when that was finally over. "What can a library be?" She asked the participants to close their eyes and picture the perfect library.
"I've never been to a library," said Mohtashim. Many others raised their hands in agreement. It was clear that a lot of the group did not know what to expect from a library. Maliha then asked the group to imagine a comfortable and warm place where they could learn and study and think in peace and then to write their ideas on the blackboard.
For our eighth session, we had asked Ms. Aisha, a history teacher at Lead High School, to come in and have a story-telling session with the group. We had asked her to recount the history of the subcontinent, briefly, without unnecessary dates and names. Ms. Aisha began at the start of the Mughal Empire and went through the British invasion, our subsequent colonization, the War of Independence 1857, the efforts of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Allama Iqbal and finally ended at the creation of the sovereign states of Pakistan and India.
Although Ms. Aisha talked for a good three-quarters of an hour, it did not feel as if she were delivering a lecture or teaching a class; it was entertaining. However, like most talks on the history of this region, it stuck very close to what our history textbooks say.
So it was up to Maliha to complicate matters. For example, the kids have been taught for most of their lives that the Mughal Empire had crumbled because the rulers had "strayed from Islam." Elaboration on this, I believe, is extremely necessary. Maliha explained that the Empire did not fall because its rulers had stopped praying five times a day, but because they had become corrupt and lazy and arrogant (all three of which are, undoubtedly, against the teachings of Islam).
Maliha began talking about Zia-ul-Haq but, surprisingly, the kids knew very little about who he was and what he had done. Therefore, she gave them a research assignment to find out what his dictatorship - one of the darkest periods in Pakistani history - had been like.
Maliha then discussed some of the irrational things we had done in the past, from the rejection of 'Western' education during the British Raj, to frequently mixing culture and religion into a confusing mess and to our habit of blaming others for our problems. They were irrational, Maliha explained, because they have been clearly against our favour.
"Who here is a Mohajir?" Maliha asked suddenly.
Nobody raised their hand. Either none of them really identified as Mohajirs or they were already one step ahead of the game. Maliha explained that the term was still used today and caused unnecessary ethnic divide. Most people could not truly identify as such, she said, because very few people alive today had actually, physically left India and migrated to Pakistan. Most Mohajirs today were born and raised in Pakistan and should not, therefore, consider themselves migrants.
Nobody raised their hand when Maliha named various other ethnic groups and asked who amongst the group identified with those groups. Clearly, the group was onto us. Sure enough, when Maliha asked, "Who here is just Pakistani?" hands rose in unison.
Day Seven began with a reading of an article titled "More Than Just Words: This Is What It Really Means to Talk Like a Lawyer." Initially, the participants had some trouble understanding the text. However, once Maliha had demonstrated how to do a close reading, paragraph by paragraph, things began to go more smoothly. The article talked about how to frame arguments and be efficient and effective with words.
"What do lawyers do?" asked Maliha once the reading was over.
"They fight for justice," someone offered.
"If I were to tell you that Ashar stole Ayesha's exam paper you are likely to believe me whether that is true or not. That is unfair because it is a serious allegation against someone and one that demands evidence before it can be believed," said Maliha. She then explained that, therefore, everyone was entitled to a lawyer, even those who had indeed committed a crime. A case only makes it to court, the group was told, if there is a serious disagreement or if it is controversial. In either case, people will have strong opinions regarding the matter. A lawyer's job, therefore, was to use language to change people's minds.
This idea, along with the other techniques mentioned in the article, was discussed with the context of the arsenal of skills the kids should have if they are to carry out projects to improve their communities. Maliha also turned towards other professions - namely politicians, orators, and teachers - that also involved changing people's minds and opinions. Examples of the oratory techniques used by people in these fields were discussed. Mohtashim even did an impersonation of Altaf Hussain and used his all-too-familiar habit of really elongating the final word of a phrase or sentence to deliver a speech. Maliha pointed out that this was a technique used to clarify, emphasize and to make the message easier to remember.
In the previous day’s session, the kids had been given a hypothetical situation in which they were the residents of a neighbourhood with a park that had many unreasonable rules. For instance, it forbade picnics. Maliha had divided the group into a four-member Park Committee – consisting of Alishbah, Taha, Ruqueia and Usman – and a group of public representatives which consisted of everyone else. The public representatives, unhappy about the no-picnic rule, had gathered together, written a formal letter of complaint and had presented it in an official public meeting. The letter had been well-written and -structured and the Committee had not been left with much to say other than point out that the letter did not clearly define some of the contested terms. The meeting had ended in a deadlock, however the silence of the Committee had been taken by the public as a sign of defeat.
Tuesday's session began with Maliha explaining that in such a situation there was no winning or losing. She asked the group what they thought the objectives of the public had been at which the participants immediately stated that it had been acquiring the right to have picnics in the park. Maliha then pointed out that if the meeting had indeed been a case where one side would win and another would lose, then both sides would have opposite objectives. By that logic, the objective of the Committee would be to be hell-bent on denying the public picnics in the park. Ruqueia countered this by saying that, as a Committee member, it was her job to keep public interest in mind. Maliha explained that using the terms "winning" and "losing" in such a case was incorrect because, at the heart of it, both parties were working towards public interest.
The meeting reconvened, the letter was revised to include a specific definition for the word "picnic," and, after some discussion, the Committee acceded to the public's request. In return, the public had agreed to only be allowed to have picnics on one particular day of the week and be fined in case of littering or damage to the park's property.
Maliha explained this this was a victory. In such cases, she told the participants, winning meant reaching an agreement through negotiations and compromise. Such agreements did not necessarily completely please each and every individual they affected because, after all, a compromise was reached and it would be unreasonable to demand perfection. Maliha then had everyone flip through their dictionaries and look for the word "utopia" and drew attention to how the definition stressed on the fact that such a perfect world was only imaginary and could not truly exist.
The concept of compromising was used to segue into a discussion about Kashmir. Maliha asked the group why decades of negotiations had not led to a solution.
"Because neither side is ready to compromise," said Ruqueia.
"And who should be the ones to decide what to do about Kashmir?" asked Maliha.
"The Kashmiris, of course," said someone.
"Yes. We should leave it alone," said someone else.
The group then read an excerpt from a series of articles produced by the Communication Institute for Online Scholarship (available at www.cios.org) entitled “The Nature of Attitudes and Persuasion.” Different strategies of persuading someone were discussed. This was followed by a brief role-play activity in which Maha and Rehan acted as mother and son respectively. Rehan, after hours of studying for an exam he had the following day, wanted a break and needed Maha's permission to do so. Rehan was able to get her permission by phrasing his argument in a way that it played on Maha's objective which was to see her son get a good grade. He told her that he needed a break as he felt it would refresh his mind and help him study better.
Tuesday's session was cut short significantly as the kids had been promised that they would be shown a movie of their choice. At around noon, the group settled down on the floor with a plate of biryani each as they watched The Grudge.
Monday's session began with an activity borrowed from the following scene in the brilliant movie, Dead Poets' Society.
The participants, to their bewilderment, were asked to step outside the school building. Maliha instructed Taha, Usman and Tamkeen to walk around the school’s backyard as if they were a group of friends strolling about in a park while the rest of the group looked on. Sure enough, it was not long before the three began to keep pace. Maliha pointed out how they had subconsciously begun to follow each other.
Back inside, the group was introduced to the concept of conformity. Conformity, it was explained, is something people do naturally and reflexively. Conformity is neutral and, like most such things, can be both good and bad. In some ways it keeps society knitted together. However, it becomes counterproductive as soon as people begin to blindly conform and do things a certain way just “because that is how it’s always been done.” Conformity can stop people from thinking and simply give up their personal opinions and choices because it is convenient.
Another concept introduced to the participants was that of coordination. Coordination, Maliha explained, is a good thing. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing - as seen in flash mobs and synchronized swimming - but also practical and efficient - as seen in soldiers. Change, too, cannot arise from uncoordinated pockets of well-intentioned activity.
Coordination, however, is difficult to achieve and often requires a lot of effort, especially in a large group of people. To demonstrate this, the kids were taught how to do the Cha-Cha Slide, a fun little jig that involves following the singer's instructions and performing actions such as clapping, stomping and sliding. It was only after a number of attempts that the group began moving somewhat in synchrony.
Day Four began with talk of the assignments that had been given during the previous session. One of them had been to research the life of Steve Jobs, a personality that had been discussed earlier. To ensure complete participation, Maliha had paired kids who could not easily access the internet with those who could. She then started an activity when a participant, chosen at random, would begin telling Jobs' tale and would be stopped abruptly only to have another participant take over from where the story was left off.
At first, the kids began to recite dates, names and small irrelevant details. However, once Maliha explained to them that they had not needed to memorize Jobs' biography for the assignment, the telling of the tale truly began. It was when the participants shifted from the rote-learning prevalent in our education system that they really told the story of a man who failed many times only to persevere and eventually make it big. It was also then that they truly began to appreciate it.
After all the assignments had been dealt with, the group returned to Mustafa Akyol's talk regarding "Faith versus tradition in Islam," which they had been unable to watch in its entirety earlier because of an untimely power outage. One sentence in the talk that caused some general concern in the group was: "Islamization is a problematic idea." Maliha quickly explained that Islam was not the problem, nor was Islamization, but that Islamization could lead to problems. She then asked participants how they thought this might happen. People were quick to point out how not understanding religion and the Quran, and the lack of scholars in charge of clearing confusions could cause serious problems in an Islamized state.
From here, the group went on to discuss what had actually been planned for the day. Maliha asked the participants if they were aware of the nuclear weapons Pakistan possessed. They were.
"Why do we have them?" Maliha asked.
"For our enemies!"
"Who are they?"
"India!" they said in unison, as if it was the most obvious thing ever.
"If India is our enemy, why haven't we bombed them yet?"
"There are a lot of Muslims in India," said Mohtashim. "We wouldn't want to kill them."
"But those Muslims are Indian. Aren't they our enemies, then? Who is our enemy?"
"The Hindus?" someone offered.
"So, if there hadn't been Muslims in India, we would have bombed the Indians? Is it okay to just kill millions of non-Muslims?"
There was an uncomfortable silence. People shifted in their seats. Some shook their heads. "No," said some.
The Core Team reached Lead High School with barely minutes to spare before the workshop was scheduled to start. (This time, however, our reasons were more legitimate than Maliha being in bed at a time when the rest of the team was up, about, and ready to go.) The Idea Room was set up hastily and the session began.
The day began right where the previous one had left off, with the completion of the reading of and excerpt from J.K. Rowling's 2008 Commencement Address at Harvard University. I was pleased and impressed by the fact that the kids had done a thorough job of making their handouts "filthy," as they had been instructed. Almost everyone had underlined and highlighted the more difficult parts of the passage. Maliha drew attention to a powerful sentence in the speech: "We touch people's lives simply by existing."
"Do we?" Maliha asked. "How can one person affect someone or everyone else on the planet?"
Both Mohtashim and Faiq believed that one person did not have the power to cause such change. "But there are so many people in the world!" Mohtashim argued.
From here, Maliha got the group to focus on exactly how many people there were in the world. Nobody was really sure of what the human population was and, so, Maliha told them. The group was asked to imagine what the number meant and how big it was in the scale of things. Participants talked about the significance of being one in seven billion. Is the effect of one person as such a small fraction of humanity insignificant, or does it add up because we are not alone and are not the only ones performing the same actions?
To help them better comprehend this concept, Maliha asked participants how a hypothetical fifteen-year-old they had never met could be affecting their lives. Ruqueia, quick as ever, immediately pointed out that if the kid was indulging in activities that led to environmental degradation, he was ruining the environment for all seven billion of us.
Since most of the examples the group came up with involved negative impacts, Maliha explained that individuals could positively affect everyone, too. She linked this with a part of the excerpt that talked about inner and outer realities. Using examples of people like Steve Jobs, she showed how the ideas of these people (their inner realities) had radically changed life as we know it (our outer reality).
When the group reassembled in the morning, it lacked the level of responsiveness it had possessed before it had dispersed yesterday. It was probably just the morning blues, something nobody can be blamed for. Some of the Core Team members weren't all that cheery themselves. (Have you ever been in a car with a grouchy Maliha?)
So, to rev things up, Maliha banked on the success the vocalization activities had had the day before. "Rauf was an aaloo wallah yesterday," she told the kids. "Now you are all aaloo wallahs." Like any respectable street peddler, they were expected to call attention to their wares as loudly as possible. "Your aaloos are the best!" Maliha encouraged them. "Sell your aaloos." Once again, this activity was a success. A loud cry of "Aaloo wallaaaaay," rang through the Idea Room.
Once Maliha was satisfied that the group would be able to sell its hypothetical potatoes, the discussion turned towards the topic of identity. "What defines you?" Maliha asked the kids. "What makes you different from everyone else?" Attributes that might define one's identity were listed down. The blackboard filled up - fast. Nationality, gender and religion came up the most.
From here, the session meandered towards generalizations and how the natures of a few individuals cannot and should not be used to make assumptions about the group said individuals belong to.