In the time I’ve spent as a teacher and interacting with younger people, the one thing that has struck me the most is how tentative they are when it comes to their own mind. Either they don’t have opinions about things, or if they do, they aren’t quite sure of them. Our education systems are driven by success, and often success does not involve any thinking outside the box. You follow a system: you take the classes, write the papers, sit the finals, get the grade and repeat until it’s over. You learn the correct answers, because education has come to mean knowing the right answers, and that’s it. You aren’t meant to think outside the answer that has been presented as the correct one. Like two plus two equaling four, we are trained to be diligent and acquiescent to whatever information is supposed to be right. Couple this with certain cultural expectations—respect for one’s teacher and the way questioning anything is automatically seen as disrespect, specifically—and one is left with students who have zero critical thinking skills. Where are the philosophers, the poets, the scientists, the academics who are trailblazers and innovators, the young people with fire and ambition, we ask, wringing our hands. They don’t exist, because we’ve hamstrung generations of young people by telling them that no matter what, asking “why” is Not Allowed. Saying “I disagree” is Not Allowed. And since both those statements are predicated on having one’s own opinion or thoughts about something, thinking for yourself becomes Not Allowed too. We haven’t produced another Iqbal because he would have had a ruler slammed across his palms for being disruptive and learned early on that there was no point in ever asking questions, because it just was Not Allowed, because it was outside the course and therefore irrelevant.

At this kind of bleak intellectual juncture come the literary festivals, and they could well save our intellectual lives. The new kid on the block is Afkar-e-Taaza, the phrase taken from Iqbal’s “Takhliq”. The phrase means ‘new thought’, and ambitiously proposes to “rescue the past and shape the future” in the first weekend of April in Lahore. The part I like best is that it seems to be a combination of literary festival and academic conference, so the tone of Afkar-e-Taaza is one where they aren’t going to let you off easy—if you’re at a panel, you’re going to be engaged intellectually willy-nilly. I like a challenge, and heaven knows there are enough hungry minds in the city to flock to discussions ranging from conservation and Mughal architecture to Bollywood and geopolitics. Something for everyone, and none of it easy to swallow, cute little soundbyte nuggets that look good on social media.

It’s heartening and hopeful that Afkar-e-Taaza is set to join the ranks of a more academically-driven kind of litfest, like the Khayaal Festival is and the LLF can sometimes be. We need everything we can get, and Lahore does full justice to whichever festival comes their way, be it the eagerly anticipated LLF or the also-imminent Lahore Music Meet. What is also particularly uplifting is that these festivals are not just creating spaces where dialogue can happen and ideas—real, academically sound, original ideas—can be exchanged. They are the events that are bringing Lahore (and by association, Pakistan) back to its roots. They are giving Lahore its heritage back— Lahore, that city of thinkers and artists, the Lahore of Pak Tea House and Government College and Amrita Sher-Gil painting in her townhouse and chai-khaanas bursting with conversations. And best of all, it is showing young people the rest of the world in the shape of the people who fly in to the city to take part in these festivals—women and men who are really, really good at what they do, who have ideas that have changed the way people think and the way we see the world and read history and see art. The kind of people who can inspire any of us.

Lahore’s festivals can save us from ourselves. They can do what our tired teachers in their underfunded schools and abysmal curriculums and biased textbooks cannot possibly even begin to: help us all to start to learn how to ask “why”, and even better, “why not”. They can help us find the words to articulate our own thoughts, ones that have weight, ones that aren’t based on foolish hearsay and Zaid Hamid style rhetoric. Afkar-e-Taaza takes its name from Iqbal, and the couplet, in translation, reads like this: “New worlds derive their pomp from thoughts quite fresh and new/From stones and bricks a world was neither built nor grew.” Here’s to new thoughts, here’s to breaking out of our somnolent minds to finally make a new world possible.