Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

Not only students, but teachers also suffer from end of sem blues:  wrapping up lessons, checking papers and exams, calculating grades, beating deadlines.

Year after year, I notice that the course that barely fits into one semester given its subject matter and scope, is my Philippine history class.  Because of time limitations, I end my lessons (regretfully, often hurriedly) with the Martial Law era (though I would still have liked to discuss all the way up to Erap, whose All-Out-War against the Muslim insurgency is especially significant for Mindanaoans, or Gloria Arroyo and the culture of impunity that reigned under her [non]watch, exemplified by the Ampatuan Massacre, but one semester is just so, so short!). Hence, the last batch of student essays that I get to read, often late into the semester, or even after the end of formal class sessions, is about this period.

This semester, to my horror, many of my students looked upon this period positively, citing the infrastructures built during this time, and the discipline of the citizenry.  Though formal classes were over, I knew I couldn’t let it pass.  I called them for a quick meeting.

What I told them was this:  this will be the first, and hopefully last time that I will spoon feed information to you, my students.  Martial Law was bad, period.  Any supposed “benefits” it had were definitely off set by the incredible evil that happened to make it possible.  The discipline was instilled because people were afraid.  The infrastructures were built because of massive foreign loans – much of which ended up as ill-gotten wealth – which we are still paying for, by the way.  Marcos “promised” to banish the oligarchy, but he replaced it with one of his own.  And just because we talked about Hacienda Luisita and how the Cojuangco-Aquinos continue to lord it over poor peasants does not mean that I prefer Marcos over them.

Being a particularly bright class, they took the points well, and the unscheduled meeting turned into an interesting discussion about current events, particularly about the possibility of a Duterte presidency.

Several days later, I ran into a senior at the local student pub.  He had been my student more than once, most recently under the Rizal course that had also just concluded.  Being that the semester was already over and we had known each other for a relatively ample time, we fell into relaxed conversation in the “now it can be said” vein.

One particular discussion had struck his class, he said.  It was the one about what Rizal thought of sex and gender relations.  The national hero had been open-minded for a nineteenth century man, seeing no harm in following one’s natural instincts even if outside holy matrimony, and unequivocally saying that it was Christianity that made sex to be “a mortal sin”, dirty and immoral.  We had also tackled Arnold Azurin’s essay “Hypervaluated Hymen”, a quirky yet intelligent exposition of how the gender double standard, as embodied by that fetishized membrane, arose in the Philippine context:  from friar chicanery, to Maria Clara role models, to modern songs, movies, and advice columns that tell girls that virginity is their best gift to their future husbands, as it valorizes suffering women who continue to give their all (ibinigay na ang lahat) to the man who had taken them first, no matter how deadbeat he is, because, after all, first love never dies.

I myself had read that article as a freshman, and saw no problem with assigning it as a reading in a senior class.  I knew that several of my students were fervently religious, so it wouldn’t do to take them head-on and wave the flag of radical feminism.  What I sought to do instead was to invite them to think about what Rizal said, and to think about their own values:  does a higher being need to exist for us to know right from wrong?  Do you believe in those values because somebody taught you to and that you are afraid of punishment, or do you believe in them because you know that they are right, and they are just, and for the welfare of yourself and others?

I could now say these things because we are no longer under Martial Law or a frailocracy.  But just because direct assaults on our right to freedom of expression are absent doesn’t mean that subtler ways of constricting our space for critical discussion are, too.

In the formal university set-up, the general education curriculum is one such important space.  UP in particular had always been proud of its GE, boasting that it instilled both critical and creative thinking that defines the “Tatak UP” education.  For UP Diliman professor Grace Koo, under the UP GE, she “learned how to read, what made good writing, how to ask questions, how to think, how to argue; I learned about possible answers to the meaning of life, why people were different, why they were the same…” – a simple yet eloquent statement about what makes UP graduates excel no matter where they ended up, professionally and geographically.

But of late, this space is shrinking, quite literally in terms of number of units.

What is the culprit?  This drive for increasing specialization (and lessening the unnecessary or redundant) is spurred by globalization, with its emphasis on market, profit, and self-improvement defined in terms of income, client satisfaction, and the corner office (preferably in another nation).

This is by no means an isolated occurrence.  In other countries we see this in the closure of humanities departments.  Worldwide there are declines in the enrollment in not-job-ready disciplines in the arts and social sciences.  Closer to home we have the K to 12 program that arguably does not aim to produce holistic and conscientious citizens, but fodder for the contractual job market.

This is why it is so questionable why these drastic changes in the curricula of higher education institutions are premised upon the K to 12.  We see that arts and social sciences are the first to be cut in this shrinking space because one, they are thought to be easy enough to have been taught already at the level of basic education, and two, they are deemed not to have any immediate pragmatic application (I have heard before, shockingly enough from other fellow teachers, that these are the subjects that “you get it over with”).

What is alarming is that these changes (the reduction of units, the K to 12 program) haven’t even been implemented yet, but we can already spot deficiencies that we can anticipate to be exacerbated, and not solved by, the proposed changes in the UP GE.  What bothered me more about my history students was not that they came to an unsound historical conclusion (per se) about the Martial Law period, but rather the ease with which they accepted arguments such as:  most road systems built = best president ever.  With the discussion about women and sex I thought that leaving them with an open-ended question would excite and stimulate their critical thinking, and not have them fall back upon their comfort zone of “unquestionable” rules.  And most of all, I was disturbed that I was forced to spoon-feed college students in the premier Philippine university.

These are my end of sem blues, or, in the words of writer Lars Iyer (whose satiri-comic—if there is such category—novel Exodus deals precisely with the eradication of arts and philosophy in most universities), this is my despair.  And – he continues – if we are to confront this despair, we’ll have to understand its conditions, “which is to say, capitalism itself.”

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