Jordan needs a culture of creative debate that starts in school

Ruba Saqr
The writer has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.(Photo: Jordan News)
When I was in 10th grade, something extraordinary happened. A new English teacher joined our school and, as serendipity would have it, became our class teacher. She added a new ritual to our five-day week; in addition to grammar, dictation, essay writing, and literature, the last class of the week was reserved for “debate”.اضافة اعلان

Although this was a private school, it had a distinct public-school mentality, meaning it was completely authoritarian. Self-expression was considered another name for blasphemy, and being an all-girls school (with a nearby all-boys department where boys were visibly freer than us), we grew up with the constant reminder that we were the lesser beings (until we rebelled one day).

But this teacher, a graduate of British universities and an American school system in a neighboring Gulf country, thought otherwise. She came with an agenda; to free us from educational tyranny.

Nothing in her rhetoric was classically feminist and that was the power of her mentorship. She saw us as people, and above all, respected us.

Assuring us with her motherly smile that we were capable of civilized debate, she spoke to us like we had minds that worked, a rare occurrence in our school. Most of our teachers treated us like we were half-witted convicts in a large prison. Our main role was to make management more profit; the boys department was where the real education happened. But when the boys failed to make top grades at country-level in their Tawjihi exams, the school changed strategy and suddenly girls were the golden goose that promised to build up its reputation as a school of winners.

Every debate class, our teacher wrote the rules with a piece of chalk on the blackboard: “Respect the other person’s opinion” and “explain your point with a well-constructed argument”, among several other principles.

Her debate class was the most popular in my 12 years of school. We waited for it with great anticipation and passion. We woke up earlier than usual to prepare for our arguments, and chose our outfits carefully for we were allowed to wear a pair of jeans and the top of our choice on that day, without the belted navy-blue uniform that we hated with a passion. Our teacher was able to lobby the unbelievably stubborn and dictatorial school management for a no-uniform day – which they ended up regretting at a later stage when a uniform rebellion destroyed their ability to control us.

I guess her philosophy was that, for a successful debate to take place, we needed to eliminate a layer of oppression to free our minds.

Like an oxymoron, uniform in my school (of mostly Middle class children) was a tool of classism. Like in “Animal Farm”, all students were equal but there were those who were “more equal” than most. Special treatment was reserved for the daughters of well-off businessmen and merchants who had bigger homes with swimming pools and hired private chauffeurs to drive their children to school. Those were allowed the florescent shoe laces and the fashionable belts, while the rest of us looked bland in comparison.

The debate class was divided into two camps: pro and con. The topics for that day were jotted on the blackboard for another ritual; voting on our favorite topic. We knew the themes beforehand. At the end of each debate, we would brainstorm three topics for the week after. This meant we had a full week to lobby each other to garner as many votes for our preferred discussion. This helped the naturally born leaders to shine through as they took charge of mobilizing the class. Losing votes at the very last minute meant next time they needed to work harder to secure the undecided votes.

As for the topics the teacher gave us, school management had no clue, at first, about what was going on. That was why we were free to discuss themes that were considered taboo in the Jordanian society. We debated capital punishment, abortion and arranged marriages, among a long list of topics that we could not even discuss with our parents.

The teacher acted as a moderator who jotted down the pros and cons on the blackboard. You could see her face beam and her eyes dance seeing our crazy enthusiasm.

But, of course, this small window into the wondrous world of freedom of thought was short lived. Our teacher made the fatal mistake of leveraging our classroom experience into a “debate club” for other classes to join in, which caught the attention of the head of the English department. The popularity of our teacher, coupled with the unconventional topics and the fact that we stopped being the scared little women the school wanted us to be were too much for the management to bear.

Out of jealousy and a strong desire to keep us from developing threatening minds that started questioning and challenging the givens, the head of department shut the program down after making a series of condescending comments that targeted the self-esteem of our English teacher.

Our beloved mentor resigned her post before the end of the year, leaving a hole in our hearts. To honor her memory and mourn our loss, we broke into a full-on uniform rebellion that spread all the way from primary to high school the minute she left us. We used our newly acquired skills of public debate to convince the whole school to show up the next day wearing whatever they liked.

Our epic rebellion left the school with an all-girls department that refused to wear the uniform for many years to come. We unraveled the system and empowered hundreds of girls in our oppressive school to stand their ground.

This experience helped shape the future of many young women in my class. Almost all the girls from the debate teams went on to have successful career lives, as opposed to our peers from classrooms with conventional education who got engaged at age 16 and competed to show off the pictures of their fiancés.

This is an anecdote for Jordan’s educational and political systems. To build a partisan life with political parties that know how to construct an argument, Jordanians need to start at ground zero, in school. This is where young girls and boys can start expanding their horizons by learning the principles of respectful debate, while daring to discuss difficult topics with self-confidence and a free, inquisitive mind.

To my 10th-grade English teacher who helped free our minds from low expectations and fear, thank you! You gave us wings, and for this, we shall forever be grateful.

The writer has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.

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