When I went to secondary school well over a generation ago in Norway, we were serious students to such an extent, that one of our old teachers (or at least we thought he was old) had to remind us that entertainment and cultural activities were not a luxury. They were simply essential for a healthy and balanced life. Lecturer Knag stressed that we should not just sit in class, and read our textbooks in math, english, french, history, physics et al. We should engage in sport, go dancing, watch movies, play music and attend art exhibitions, and many other extracurricular activities. Lecturer Knag must have thought that we had become grown-up and sedate prematurely. He must have worried that we were about to lose some important part of our imagination and ability to think outside the box, or just do things for fun, explore the world and discover all that we had no idea existed. Yes; learning to see utility in futility.

I am not sure Lecturer Knag was entirely right in his assessment, because not all the students were all that serious, and we had an expanded curriculum in art subjects. There were two twin brothers playing in a pop band named ‘Saft’ (Squash in English), and there was one classmate who was taking classes in violin to become a professional violinist, being the grandson of one of the Norway’s greatest composers. Harald Saeverud. The girls were into fashion and film, admiring stars who were older and better looking than their classmates; at least that was what we worried about.

Lecturer Knag’s reminder was important though. If he had said the same to Pakistani students today, it would have been even more timely because every student seems so worried about grades and exams, especially at secondary level. They learn their textbooks off by heart in an overcrowded and stale curriculum. They do this not necessarily to learn and explore things, or to be creative and curious, but to pass tests. Are there some Lecturer Knags in Pakistan’s schools today? I hope so, but we need more.

True, we should conform and grow into the culture we belong to, but we should also be allowed to become independent and take time to make up our own minds. We should try to look over hills and fields, lakes and seas, and see other villages, towns and lands. Of course, we should stay within our own religious and moral beliefs, but with openness and tolerance towards others.

This was possible in the past too, but in the Internet age, it should be easy. And we don’t need Internet either; we just need some books, some journals, some newspapers, and our own ability to think, reflect, communicate; to see and enjoy what is around us no matter where we live.

Is it not impressive that writers from small, faraway corners of the world can create world class literature – and that educational degrees don’t always make us better writers or readers? It may help to have a good portion of education, but not necessarily all the statistical, factual and utilitarian details. What is more important, is to have a well rounded and broad orientation, an open mind, the eyes and heart for fun and creativity, and the ability to sit quietly and reflect. Perhaps the latter is particularly important.

In my home country, there is one great poet who has become popular amongst the young and old in recent years. He is Olav H. Hauge (1908-1994), with many books translated into English. He had just a basic primary school, and he suffered from some psychological illnesses as well. Yet, sitting on his little orchard farm overseeing one of Norway’s picturesque fjords, he wrote book after book with deep, universal insights. He taught himself foreign languages, including some Chinese and Japanese; he was an autodidact and a world citizen living far away from the four-lined highways and hectic metropolises. In one of his poems he reflects on that; he says you stand at the centre of the city and wait for something to happen to you, because it must and should happen, it has to happen, even without any cause or own effort. We dream “that one early morning, we will slip into a harbor that we have never known.”

Young readers too, find his short little words of wisdom, sometimes like Pashtu sayings or Japanese Haiku verses, tranquil to read in their busy and competitive century. Is it because they discover that there may actually be utility in some worthless little poems?

Jostein Gaarder is another important author. He wrote Sophie’s World (1991), translated into over fifty languages and also filmed. It was the world’s most sold book of fiction in 1995. And yet, as the under-title says, it is a novel about the history of philosophy- yes, a textbook in disguise – and this isn’t something one would immediately think would be of interest to young people, or of utility to many. It proves once more, that there is utility in futility. We begin to realize that often it is the ‘unimportant’ topics that in the end are the important ones.

But Gaarder is not only an abstract writer; he also writes and talks about topics of the day. Some years ago, during the Israel-Lebanon conflict in 2006, he created an intense debate in Norway after criticizing Judaism for being an ‘archaic and warlike religion’, and the state of Israel for its treatment of Palestine.

I believe it is essential that writers, poets, novelists, musicians, painters, sculptors and all other creative people talk about reality in prosaic form too. They create art, which we often think is futile, but they should also communicate in everyday language; they should be part of the contemporary world they live in, in their art and other activities.

It is through compassion and participation that we all contribute. But participation is multifaceted – and to be utilitarian, practical and useful is also multifaceted. To communicate in forms and formats, media and channels that attract audiences is indeed an art – and it takes artists to do it. Surprisingly, the least useful may indeed be useful.

When the Islamabad Literature Festival opens tomorrow, I am sure there will be a lot to learn. But I hope it will be far from the education, research and NGO seminars that the capital has so many of (with such an overrepresentation of idle and retired citizens, especially from the army and diplomacy). I hope the festival will not only be for the smart and famous, or the grownups and elderly. I hope many who are a generation younger than me will come - those that Lecturer Knag spoke to and those he would ask to discover the wonders of the world, or just wonder about the world, with all its mysteries and unanswered questions.

 The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.

Email:atlehetland@yahoo.com