This piece is both a salute and an apology.
I wish to salute and express my deep admiration for the University of the Philippines students who have stood up against the so-called General Education (GE) reforms currently being imposed upon the entire UP System.
For the past several months, UP campuses across the nation have been grappling with approving drastic changes in its GE curriculum. At the heart of the matter is the large reduction of the number of units (or subjects) of GE future UP students will be required to take: from the current 45 units to as low as 21 (or, from 15 subjects to just seven). Many UP educators have questioned this reduction of time during which the foundations of a genuine UP education are laid down, noting that it is in GE subjects that general proficiencies and frames of mind that serve students anywhere they end up (meaning, regardless of their specialization) are laid down, like critical thinking, abilities to analyze texts, art forms, mass media, a consciousness of social and historical processes, among others.
On the surface, in the official UP documents we have seen so far, there are no overly contentious changes in the spirit and objectives of the GE. The fundamental values are still there: nationalism, leadership, love of knowledge. But there is this befuddling leap between these lofty statements and the sudden assertion that GE subjects must be reduced. What is unwritten is that these changes are being done because of externally-sourced policies, namely, the K to 12, new CHED policies, and ASEAN integration.
Of course these are reasons that will not make it on to any formal UP documentation. Indeed, in our experience, these reasons have been verbally expressed only. These are unsound and even embarrassing premises upon which drastic GE changes (indeed, changes in the entire flavor of UP education in general) will be based. It is implicit agreement with the K to 12, a program that is only superficially educational in nature but neoliberally economic to the core. It is relinquishing the autonomy and trailblazing role of UP education by kowtowing to the external agency that is CHED. It is prioritizing foreign needs and students as it neglects our countrymen’s need and Filipino students.
And it is these that a large number of UP students, particularly UP Mindanao, are protesting. That they chose to fight this fight is significant for two reasons:
First, they actually don’t need to fight this fight at all. The so-called GE reforms will be implemented only in 2018, for what is expected to be the first batch of K to 12 graduates. Students who are currently enrolled will not be affected at all. They could just choose to step aside, graduate with ease, and let what will be, be.
But instead, they have chosen to take up the cudgels future Iskolars ng Bayan for the latter to continue receiving a holistic and truly liberal education. They have taken it upon themselves to lend their voices for those who as yet have no voice in the UP System. I am tempted to call them true “Ates” and “Kuyas” (older sisters and brothers), but the kinship reference may highlight the weaknesses of their “elders”, which I will tackle a little later below.
Second, unlike other popular campaigns in the education sector, this defense of the holistic GE (as opposed to the “reformed”, reduced version) does not appear to have immediate practical implications. Unlike, say, the campaign for greater state subsidy for SCUs, which, if granted, may have direct and tangible effects in terms of reduced fees, better facilities, and others, this campaign is couched in the abstract, of promoting the desired values of nationalism and public service, of fostering critical perspectives in knowledge-making.
This is in stark contrast to the arguments of some of their elders, which are simply steeped in pragmatism: less units will mean less fees (missing the point that the monetary cost of education must never be used as a basis for tweaking its quality); the GE “reforms” have been cooking for three years now, all the time and resources poured into formulating it will go to waste if it is not approved (as if three years is a fitting trade-off for the indeterminate number of years a potentially ill-conceived program will be implemented).
If there is a fight in the UP right now that is almost purely for ideals, this is it. And who better to defend these ideals than the most idealistic among us?
And this is where I must set my apology. The faculty members who are one with these students in rejecting these so-called reforms are admittedly the minority. Most of my fellow teachers have been swayed by the rhetoric of specialization as the only path to global competitiveness, of monitoring standards that prize the marketability of graduates over their having been molded as well-rounded human beings.
I fear that, despite our efforts, this will be a losing battle. For it has become, as pragmatic as ever, a battle of numbers during voting at the University Councils in each UP campus. I apologise now, for letting my students down, for a future that already seems to be written.
Good thing my students (sometimes!) hear only what they choose to hear.
Because I am counting on them to miss hearing this overpowering pessimism of mine, this despair for a failure anticipated. I am counting on them to listen to their own conscience informed by the analytical tools they have garnered from their UP education, and maybe, just maybe, they end up the ones educating those who claim to be their educators.
I am counting on them to reject the pragmatism of their elders and the overwhelming calculative sense of win or lose that this fosters, and say that “We will fight not because we think that we can win, but we will fight because it is the only right thing to do.”
(Note: For those who want to know more about the General Education revisions of the UP System, you may read these essays by UP educators Randy David (http://opinion.inquirer.net/