WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Education is for liberation

I have been tasked to discuss with you today the situation of tertiary education in the Philippines. The invitation came on a short notice. Prudence advises I should pass on this opportunity due to lack of time to thoroughly prepare. However, if there's anything that I would willingly give my wisdom tooth for, it's the chance to talk to the young rather than be subjected to the torture of dental surgery, which
I had on schedule today until your invitation came along. So having said that, I hope you would allow me to charm my way through this. In return, I promise to really try and not to lend you my toothache.

What is the tertiary education situation in the Philippines these days? I'll give you the broad strokes because you are old enough to fill in the details. This is going to be depressing, but look at it this way – dealing with this first thing in the morning gives you the rest of the day to try and improve the mood. After all, when you're down, the only way to go is up.

Let me begin by absolving you of any blame. Your generation is not at fault here. You entered college at a time when the Philippine education system still has to unshackle itself from the parameters put in place by the colonial powers that subjugated this land in centuries past. However, the masterful ties that ensure that their requirements continue to be served by this nation remain in place, propagated by state policies crafted to meet the interests of the first world-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Education is for liberation. Education is intended to give the student the knowledge and skills to prepare him for the future. It follows then that what the school tries to give you is preparation for what it understands to be the future for you. And we say the best schools are those that equip you with life skills to allow you to care for you and yours someday.

What is this hopeful future for the Filipino as the Philippine tertiary education system understands it? Well, in a nutshell, the future for you is to be a member of the cheap exportable manpower to English-speaking countries where you will earn and send back the precious dollars to prop the Philippine economy. This future had been decided for you even before you were born.

Part of the foreign debt incurred during the Martial Law years – which each of us continue to be accountable for – had been to undertake educational reforms toward this end. Of course, part of the US$202.7M was also used to align technical training for Philippine agriculture and industry to be reliant on western technology and input that could only be provided by MNCs.

Since the Martial Law years, the products of our tertiary school system have not been going to other countries to run their companies or to make a mark in pushing back the boundaries of knowledge or to take part in the international discourse on global disarmament or environmental protection. Our people go there to work as technicians, service personnel, caregivers, cooks and drivers, and for this the
nation accords them the dubious distinction of being the bagong bayani, pag-asa ng bayan.

Last Monday, I was at the NSO (National Statistics Office) to have my daughter's birth certificate authenticated for enrolment in high school. A lot of people were there to have their birth certificates authenticated so they could apply for passport. So it does look like many want to belong to the ranks of heroes. Labor migration is a trend
that will continue.

Why so?

Our neocolonial worldview conspires to make this phenomenon something that will feature in our communal life for a lot longer than would be beneficial to us as a national community. As a social scientist, I cringe to envision a future when our young and vigorous are wasting away their youth and vigor exiled from their needful homeland where their strength and ability are needed to make a difference. It is like
leaving the home in disarray while we go out to clean someone else's mansion.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Filipino can. This constant need to emphasize, underscore, and bludgeon to death the slogan popularized by former President Fidel V. Ramos is an articulation of a massive inferiority complex, masking a deep-seated, hard to shake off doubt that more than likely the Filipino can't.

Let me be clear on this: Yes, we can. Oracion, Emata and Garduce – in that order – can climb the Everest. Pacquiao can knock Morales out before the tenth round. Aragoncillo can steal US state secrets and share it with the Philippine opposition. (He got caught, but that's not the point. The point is, he could and he did, and there must be some personal pride there in his pleading guilty to the charge.)

In a nation hungry for heroes, we find it acceptable to bask in the reflected worldclass glory of the Filipino achievers. We conveniently forget that individuals succeed in what they do largely on their own merit. For Oracion, Emata, Garduce, Pacquiao, and yes, even Aragoncillo, the only ones they needed to convince that they could do what they had to do was themselves.

Still, we have been socialized to value first and foremost someone else's opinion of our own worth. So we turn around and do our part to raise the Filipino in the estimation of the world  – that is to land in the Guinness book of world record for the highest national average of text messages that go out in a day. Or we mount the biggest gathering for the purpose of simultaneous public kissing for and in behalf of a toothpaste company on Valentine's Day. Yes, the Lovapalooza was, for all intents and purposes, a college phenomenon. This, I take it, is our understanding of how to shake the world and make it pay attention.

As I said, it is not your fault. Our socialization to life in these islands teaches us the range of acceptable values and the limits of alternatives available in the pursuit of these. As your generation works to realize your present, you cannot escape the blueprint of the values and aspirations you imbibed in socialization. Nurtured by the
elite-dominated, consumption-oriented media that prepare you for second class participation in a culture alien to where we are, it is not a surprise that national surveys consistently reflect the youth's intention to be out of here just as soon as they could and partake of a lifestyle that extracts from this world more than the earth could regenerate in our lifetime. Obsessed with the present, the only future
we can see is one that still features us.

It is also not a surprise that a significant percentage of the youth has given up on this nation even before your fight for it has begun, as evidenced by countless surveys that track the Filipino youth's pessimism over future prospects for this nation.

In the words of UP professor Bienvenido Lumbera, "A people indoctrinated in the American way of life cannot ever assert their sovereignty over affairs of politics, economy and culture." Not in their own country, and most definitely not in the 192 countries where we find overseas Filipino workers today.

Desperate Housewives, Brokeback Mountain, DOTA and all these other representations of alien culture that we have deluded ourselves to think as ours… These hypnotize us with instant solutions to gratify hedonistic impulses, turning us into individual cauldrons of self-absorption who neither have the time nor the inclination to look beyond ourselves and see our connection to the community and to the world. We resentfully interrupt the self-absorption to spend time in the classroom because we have to, but many of us would rather not.

The work of the mind requires concentration, reflection, and judicious discernment. There are no instant solutions to the materials that we need to deal with real life sans the distorted oversimplification purveyed by pop media. Of the almost two million who enter college every year, only around 40,000 would have the strength and wherewithal to see it to the end.

Much has been said about the decline in the quality of tertiary education in the Philippines. We used to have the National College Entrance Exam or the NCEE, but when it started to return mean performance by high school graduates that fell beneath the educational system's expected benchmark, they scrapped it. The bottom had fallen out, so we threw out the early warning device because it kept sounding
out the warning and for some that was very irritating because it called attention to their ineptness. Our decision makers did not want to know that we had a problem.

Today, we still witness the continued spiral to oblivion in the performance of the young in math and the sciences. Hardly a surprise. When the students' minds are conditioned from birth to want instant pushbutton solutions, one could hardly expect it to devote concentration and reflection for abstract concepts, much less condition itself to apply mental effort when calculators, computers, cellphones and external memory holders are the way to live. We, too, do not want to know anything beyond what our technological appendages were designed to do.

Recently, we were sufficiently alarmed to see that we are losing our edge in English proficiency. But then again, that is hardly a surprise as we don't seek to master the language in order to communicate, apply grammar rules, work out logical meaning, or measure our growing ability to think with increasing complexity. Mass media teaches us that we use the language to entertain. It is a tool to evoke visceral
excitation and instant laughter. The more mangled, the more incongruous, the more it serves our hedonistic purpose. Besides, if it's merely for the purpose of meeting academic requirements, it's a lot easier to cut and paste someone else's communicative facility from the Internet.

Yesterday's paper had former Senate President Edgardo Angara saying that official achievement tests show that only 6.59% of our graduating high school students could read, speak, and comprehend English well enough to enter college. Citing the same source, he said that 44.25% had no English skills at all.

So? This is not alarming per se. What is alarming about it is what it implies for the objectives of tertiary education in the Philippines. Just because you don't know English does not mean you can't deal with college material. Math and the sciences, however, are another thing entirely.

The Filipino child is an intelligent child. But many who come to the college classroom are hardly prepared for college work. The increasingly mandatory bridging program is proof of that.

Many who get to college were not at all culturally deprived. And even if they were, a fine mind soon catches up were its intention is to catch up. However, to my observation, that is not the case for many who view the classroom as a prison and life in college as jail term that they have to serve.

What we teachers have going against us is the increasing devaluation for the mind at work and the preference for visceral excitation and instant gratification, preferably packaged as Britney Spears before she got pregnant.

The insistence for instructional methods to present information in ways that the audiovisual mind can process humors the immature brain into relying on lower order cognitive skills, and there it stays in that comfort zone. It is a mind prepared to follow and execute orders, not to evaluate reality and generate creative solutions. Imagine what kind of thinking output we could expect from minds that have yet to
individuate. Imagine which rung in the organizational ladder that kind of mind would be good for. It is a mind that would constantly look to others for direction and would be totally comfortable to execute sequences and procedures that do not make sense, so long as it is not given the responsibility to think.

In the mad scramble for solutions, tertiary education came to be increasingly deregulated since 1972 to loosen up the investment of private capital for facilities needed to train for global competitiveness. Today, around 72% of higher education institutions are privately run. This translates to the Filipino family increasingly
shouldering the cost of educating the youth. Class, political, and cultural boundaries increasingly mark off access to college. Only the more affluent families can send their children to higher education. The ARMM ( 1.69%) and the CAR (3.57%) contribute a measly 5% of the college population in school. The increasingly uneven access to professional training ensures that our marginalized communities continue to be excluded from the opportunities for social uplift.

With no unified national objective, deregulation and autonomy have allowed many schools out there to be market-driven and profit-oriented. Classroom training is barely linked to industry needs, thereby creating a large group of educated unemployed or underemployed who are inexorably pushed to see the value of overseas employment. Who can blame them? After all, they were not trained to
serve this nation's needs.

And so we come full circle. This is the role they have written out for the young. This is the tertiary education situation in broad strokes.

This is real life, so I cannot give you the instant gratification of pat prescriptions to make you feel better or to make you see the light at the end of the tunnel.

First we have to define who we are as a people and what we want for our children. Yes, it is a difficult problem, one that would require our entire lifetime to comprehend. I totally understand why many of your generation would rather find it a lot more gratifying to return to MTV and take no part in this. It takes a lot of effort to buck the ways of the world and change it for the future generation. (Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to gail@mindanews.com. "Send at the risk of a reply," she says).