Sabahat Quadri Works


An Unintelligible Multitude

I spent an evening with a group of teachers who were struggling with the implementation of a new style of teaching, one where subject boundaries were blurred and classwork had to be activity-based. They were teachers from my mother’s former school—where she was a teacher for 15 years—trying to make sense of a classroom without delineations between language and math and science and art.

From what I can tell, the programme itself (the International Baccalaureate Programme for Primary Years) is an excellent idea. It’s based on the concept of ‘International-mindedness’ with such broad subject areas as ‘Sharing the Planet’, ‘Where we are in place and time’ and ‘How the world works’. The idea is to create inquisitive, independent students who take responsibility for their own learning. Brilliant, in theory. The teachers, however, had no idea how to go about incorporating these ideas into their regular curriculum. I gathered that part of the issue was a lack of direction from the team leader, no doubt someone struggling with the implementation aspects of the programme herself. The foundation of ‘show and do’, or ‘action and exhibition’ just wasn’t translating itself into a workable teaching plan.

As of today, the teachers have gone back to the old way of teaching—lesson plans, tests, standard lectures and lots and lots of homework—and after three months of training, are no closer to working out how to integrate life lessons with algebra and possessive nouns. The school itself is one of a chain, with over 90,000 students enrolled in its branches throughout Pakistan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and, though I’m not sure about this, South Africa too. A botched implementation of the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme could have massive repercussions for our nation’s future, as we may be straddled with an entire generation of students with no definitive standard of education, no base of knowledge and confusion where clarity is needed.

I wonder at the inability of our educators to accommodate change, to learn new techniques or to update old techniques themselves.

I wonder at the need for teachers to be told that learning can and should be fun, that school should be more than a dry collection of ‘assessable’ skills.

The Intractable Mrs. D.

I loved school.

From grades 1–8, I hopped through six schools in four different countries, with teachers from Nigeria, Germany, England, Scotland, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and the US. Learning was fun, and I have a long list of favourite teachers who inspired me in school, and continue to inspire me in a myriad different ways.

When I got around to selecting subjects for my O’ Levels, I chose art & English literature. This was a bit of dilemma for my school in Pakistan, because it turned out that, out of about 60 students, I was the only one who chose literature. The administration accommodated me with two-hour classes in a small, airless room with one of the toughest and most feared teachers in the school. My teacher, Mrs. D., was, even for 1989, a strict disciplinarian, a throwback to the days of the Industrial Revolution, where you sat and listened while the teacher lectured, where you never, ever, interrupted her or contradicted her.

Mrs. D., however, would have been the perfect teacher for the IB style of teaching. The unusual class of one that she was asked to conduct didn’t faze her at all. While she maintained a frosty facade with a full class of 30 students (she taught English language as well), she was a different person in the ‘literature room’. The two of us would sit across from each other and discuss passages from St. Joan and Julius Caesar. We watched Marlon Brando play Mark Antony together, and she explained how inflexion and emphasis helped decipher Shakespeare’s language. She was a big fan of G. B. Shaw, which was a strange coincidence, because when my grandfather passed away (in 1988), I inherited a leather-bound set of Shaw’s Complete Works. When we weren’t in the mood to study, we’d compare notes on our favourite plays.

In between assigned texts, we read poems from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, to broaden my horizons, she said. I still have the Treasury and spend random hours flipping through it, especially when I have writer’s or designer’s block. It’s a wonderful source of inspiration, and a great companion on a rainy afternoon with a mug of hot tea and some crisp samosas.

The Shield of Achilles

Today was one of those days. I needed inspiration, and when I opened the Treasury, I landed on Auden’s The Shield of Achilles. The poem is Auden’s reply to a description of Achilles’ shield in Homer’s The Illiad. It’s a powerful statement on totalitarianism, but when I read it now, Hephaestos is the slick PR man hired to spin illusions of peace and love while Achilles is the poster boy for the corporate war machine. Thetis represents the average person, horrified but largely helpless to halt the death and destruction wrought upon the world.

It shakes me, sometimes, when I read books like 1984, plays like Man and Superman and poems like The Shield of Achilles, that so little has changed in 60 years (Auden wrote the poem in 1952). As fast as the world is moving, as much as has happened around the world through the past century, how are these works still so relevant, so relatable?

And it worries me even more if our teachers are up to the task anymore. Is today’s education going to create minds like Orwell, Auden or Shaw? Closer to home, will we ever read another Faiz, or Iqbal or Manto or Ghalib? In another 60 years, will the world remember today’s writers and gasp in awe at their prescience?

Some answers elude me.

Bring Diversity Home

I do, however, have an idea for the IB programme, and for schools in general: teachers must travel. They must spend at least a year in countries and schools around the world. They must bring their techniques, their ideas and their knowledge with them. They must not follow a set curriculum. International-mindedness cannot be taught in closed environs, or through a series of complex virtual manoeuvres. Diversity should not be taught by one person. I am not sure what the standard practice is elsewhere, but in Pakistan, grades one through five have what we call ‘class teachers’—one teacher for the whole school year, with the exception of Urdu and Islamiyat.

There must be more than a virtual sharing of ideas. True international-mindedness would come with world travel, and since that’s impractical for students, the only option left is to start a teacher-exchange programme.

Failing that, students must be encouraged to read; to read fiction, to read poetry, and to read works from across the world. I think they could even start with the bloggers from #MondayBlogs.

For Your Pleasure

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

She looked over his shoulder
For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

She looked over his shoulder
For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But a weed-choked field.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

The thin-lipped armorer,
Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.

2 responses to “An Unintelligible Multitude”

  1. Such a wonderful post, Natasha! And what a heart-wrenching poem!

    A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
    No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
    Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
    Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
    An unintelligible multitude,

    What their foes like to do was done, their shame
    Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
    And died as men before their bodies died.

    1. Thank you, Ruchi. It is a great poem, isn’t it? Draws vivid pictures in my mind every time I read it.

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