The shackles of Grammarian-hood

The Grammarian mindset is something that needs to be evolved out of; a skin that needs to be shed

Ali Bhutto May 16, 2016
Karachi Grammar School logo. PHOTO: FILE

Jawaharlal Nehru, in his autobiography, recalled an Indian society at Cambridge University in 1907, known as the ‘Majlis’. The society was a forum where Indian students of the university, like him, would discuss political issues. He described that Indian students would often take a radically anti-establishment stance in political debates, longing to break free of the shackles of colonial rule. To his dismay, however, these very individuals went on to occupy the most pro-establishment, “staid and sober” positions in society — lawyers, high court judges and members of the Indian Civil Service. These “parlour-firebrands”, instead of carrying forth their zeal into real world struggles and movements, conveniently opted for status and security when offered.

The imperialistic exclusivity of the Karachi Grammar School

This timeless observation somewhat captures a specific sentiment and school of thought that exists in elite circles in Pakistani society, particularly amongst those who have attended Karachi Grammar School (KGS). Having attended the institution, I have observed that although this may not apply to all Grammarians or individuals belonging to similar elite alumni groups, it does apply to the majority of them. This article focuses on the mindset bred by the institution, which can last a lifetime.

There is much that lies beyond the standard cliched analogy of the snobbery and exclusivity of Grammarians/ex-Grammarians. There is almost an unspoken understanding (or expectation) of an adherence to a rigid path, deviation from which can result in a degree of isolation from the fraternity. The biggest pitfall of the Grammarian psyche is that it discards a large part of the culture that surrounds it. The general concept of the ‘brown sahib’ has already been written about extensively. What I want to focus on, however, are other, less obvious yet equally important elements.

Consumed to a large extent by social pressures, Grammarians’ intolerant attitudes and inter-competitiveness become the tools of their own unhappiness. There is disenchantment with living in Karachi, due to the fact that it falls short of expectations based on Western standards. Focus is placed on select social dynamics. As a result, we see the same circles of acquaintances mixing with each other — for decades.

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There is no doubt about the fact that exclusivity and haughtiness are not restricted solely to KGS, or solely to elite institutions. Such behavioural patterns are global and exist across the board. Yet, at the same time, every culture has its unique characteristics. Similarly, every institution within a culture, inevitably, has its own unique set of norms that do not exist elsewhere and are a result of a specific set of circumstances. For example, the sentiments inculcated in local elite schools such as KGS or Aitchison College will be different from those of the British public schools on which the former are based. This is because locally, we are being trained in the ways of a foreign culture, which clashes with the indigenous and results in a hybrid. This is applicable to schools in other former colonies as well, such as India, Nigeria and South Africa, to name a few.

Many Grammarians who complain about and rebel against the superficial nature of the Grammarian ‘shell’ during their ‘A’ level and university years, later, in their twenties and thereafter, conveniently immerse themselves in the cushy social clique formed by the extended group of classmates and acquaintances whom aren’t really ‘friends’ and with whom they share few or no common interests. This kind of networking only recycles old names and faces, giving you very limited exposure, rather than enabling you to meet people from different walks of life. When confronted about this, many Grammarians acknowledge it and are critical of ‘the system’ and their peers, yet continue with silent cynicism to do exactly the same.

This social dynamic of the extended group of ex-Grammarians — former classmates and others — thrives largely on an indulgent mix of narcissism, nostalgia and the exhilaration that comes with exclusivity. The problem with networking in such an environment is that although it may help you progress in your career, accumulate wealth and take you higher up the social ladder, it comes at a great cost. In focusing your time and energy on such sensibilities, you are effectively closing doors that would lead you to think independently, to explore yourself outside of the herd mentality and to find your true calling — as opposed to trying to fit the Grammarian mould. Such a mould will not contribute towards attaining enlightenment, a sense of fulfilment, or self-satisfaction — in fact, it will only reduce your chances of doing so. Ralph Waldo Emerson aptly described this concept in his essay “Self Reliance”, explaining, “The objection of conforming to usages that have become dead to you is that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character.”

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Award-winning essayist William Deresiewicz, in his piece for The American Scholar titled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education”, argues that elite institutions develop in their students “one form of intelligence: the analytic” and that “social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite”. This analogy is applicable to KGS.

Those who do rebel, do it in a very ‘Grammarian’ way, through which they hope to achieve the nodding approval of their peers. They prefer to sit on the fence as being on the other side of it decreases their sense of self-worth. The fear of falling out of the Grammarian shell and into the dreariness of the ‘rest of the world’ is what drives them on, at the cost of their inner peace, to do everything they can to ‘keep up’. Even the soft rebellion within the system is careful not to overstep certain norms or ‘trends’ out of fear of being completely ostracised or rejected from the group.

It is considered ‘fashionable’ to socialise with crooked influential people. Other than the obvious analogy of ‘contacts in high places’ being the partial driving factor behind this bureaucratic mentality, the practice is justified by romanticising the persona of the dishonest and corrupt, by placing emphasis on the awe of fame and spectacle. On this basis, even relations with those of an allegedly ‘feudal’ orientation are cultivated by the very individuals who are highly critical of their values.

The Grammarian mindset is something that needs to be evolved out of; a skin that needs to be shed. Yet the fear of standing apart from the herd keeps us glued to the familiar and the accepted. The courage needed to shed the Grammarian skin is brought about by intellectual enlightenment. Intellectual enlightenment is driven by introspection and the attempt to understand the self, exposure to people from different walks of life, meaningful friendships, risk and failure, pain and suffering and most importantly — reading. Reading classic novels and other works through which you can gain a deeper understanding about life and people; through which you learn that it is worth overturning certain boundaries and norms and facing the backlash because there are greater and more interesting things to explore.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 17th, 2016.

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Enjum Hamid | 5 years ago | Reply The authors closing comments about the importance of reading being somehow contrary to the benefits of a KGS education is ridiculous. The whole point of a KGS type education in Pakistan is that this tight environment enables the ability to think independently and the students have been urged to read from the outset.
NS | 5 years ago | Reply It is erroneous to think this one opinion piece accurately defines the 200+ grammarians that graduate from the institution each year. I encourage the author and readers to seek out the many alumnus that are doing fun / different / great things all across Pakistan and the world. You will be pleasantly surprised.
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