Penman No. 184: Degrees and Diplomas

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Penman for Monday, January 25, 2015

 

 

IT WAS with much interest that my eye strayed last week to a story on the BBC website with the headline ‘Penguin scraps degree requirement.” The article went on to report that publishing giant Penguin Random House—presumably one of the world’s most literate employers—was no longer requiring applicants for any job in the company to show college diplomas.

“The firm wants to have a more varied intake of staff and suggests there is no clear link between holding a degree and performance in a job. This announcement follows a series of financial companies dropping academic requirements for applicants. Neil Morrison, human resources director, says they want talented staff ‘regardless of background’,” the article noted. The report went on to say that leading accounting firms such as Deloitte and Ernst & Young had also relaxed their educational requirements, with Deloitte changing its selection process so recruiters would not know what schools its applicants had attended.

It’s a novel idea that sounds fair and makes sense, but I’m sure it will take some time before Philippine businesses catch on, as obsessed as we Pinoys are with college diplomas, especially those that come from certain schools. Just scan the Sunday classifieds in any local newspaper—for jobs of any real economic and social worth, your typical non-equal-opportunity employer will demand a piece of parchment from a “Class A” university, which will count more than any previous experience you may have acquired.

Arguably, that wasn’t always the case. We baby boomers belong to a generation—probably the last one—for whom gutsiness and scrappiness was still the best way forward, rather than degrees and diplomas. Just ask any taipan how many of them have Wharton MBAs. One of them whom I happen to know, because I’ve written his family’s history—Filinvest founder Andrew Gotianun Sr.—didn’t go beyond two years of college at San Beda, and had to drop out because of his father’s unexpected demise. His wife Mercedes, Filinvest’s other dynamo (Andrew was the visionary, Mercedes the executor), graduated from UP with a BS in Pharmacy, magna cum laude—but what led to her success as a banker wasn’t college but streetsmarts. “I made friends with the owners of banks abroad and convinced them to lend me their operations manuals,” Mercedes told me, “which we then adapted to local conditions. That’s how Family Savings Bank began.”

Indeed it used to be that you could get places without a college degree, as long as you had talent and guts (you needed both—just one wouldn’t have done it). Among writers, in particular, a degree was a bonus, maybe even a demerit, in those pre-MFA (Master of Fine Arts, the writing degree of choice) days. The old conviction was that, to know how to write, you had to know how to read, and the serious would-be writer read a lot outside of school without having to be told. The real test of the writer was, well, in the writing—in the quality and the consistency of one’s craft, rather than in the number of English units one could present.

There was no finer example of this than the late National Artist NVM Gonzalez, who never finished college (he did go to National University), but who went on to a distinguished writing and academic career here and in the US. The late journalist I. P. Soliongco was another such titan in his field. My friends Pete Lacaba and Krip Yuson, both dropouts by choice, deserve honorary PhDs for all their work as far as I’m concerned—not that they would care—but more valuable is the fact that they’ve been asked to teach and to share their expertise with younger Filipinos.

My own dad Jose Sr. also dropped out of college—he was the smartest kid of his time in our province of Romblon and could have gone on to become a de campanilla lawyer, but was too poor and also perhaps too confident in his abilidad to go the full distance, and soon fathered me and my four siblings. Seeing him write as well as he did—he was a keen reader of novels and magazines—I grew up believing that I didn’t need a college degree, either, to get where I wanted, so I dropped out of UP in my freshman year to get a job as a newspaper reporter. My younger brother Jess, also a talented writer, obviously had the same impression and did exactly the same thing, dropping out of UP before landing jobs with San Miguel’s PR department and later becoming editor-in-chief of the Mindanao Cross. I went on to work with the National Economic and Development Authority for ten years, even earning a graduate UP diploma in Development Economics as a special student and working on special detail with the United Nations Development Programme, doing project studies. I began writing plays, stories, and screenplays and winning Palancas, and felt that I could have gone on for life with little more than my 21 undergraduate units in English and 30 grad units in Economics.

But one day in 1981—after attending the Silliman Writers Workshop and falling under the spell of Robert Graves—I decided to go back to school as a returning sophomore, at the age of 27. I found school exhilarating, and later quit my job to study full-time, with my wife Beng taking up the slack. To be honest, it wasn’t the fiction that roped me in, but the poetry of Sidney, Wyatt, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, and James Dickey, among others. Having tasted such ambrosia, I craved more, and so I went on to Michigan for an MFA and to Wisconsin for a PhD, both on fellowships, making up for lost time (BA at age 30, MFA at 34, PhD at 37). I told myself that there was nothing more that I wanted to do for the rest of my life but write, teach, and spend time with family. There was, I must say, a great material and emotional cost to these degrees, which had I known it then I might not have been willing to pay. But with the deed done, I can’t regret the fact that these degrees have allowed me to move up the job ladder and gain the respect of people who haven’t the faintest idea what I do.

I finished college not so I could get a good job, which I already had, or so I could append little letters to my name, which I hardly use outside of work. (No self-respecting writer, as far as I know, has ever flaunted his or her PhD; you’d simply be laughed out of the place.) I did it for love—for the love of knowledge, especially the kind of knowledge for which there exists no practical utility and which is therefore the purest and sweetest, and for the love of my parents, who deserved some payback for all their hard work and sacrifice.

Make no mistake: I do agree with Penguin in broadening their search for good people to those without diplomas from Harvard or Oxbridge to show. You could miss out on a Steve Jobs, a Bill Gates, or a Mark Zuckerberg that way. But you could also always drop out of college, do your thing, and go back when you have the time to finish up—like Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Shaquille O’Neal did. Make that “Dr. O’Neal”—Shaq even went on to pick up a doctorate in Education in 2012.

And what about my brother Jess? He went back to school, too, earning a BA in Journalism at age 49, and a Bachelor of Laws at age 55. A published author, he now practices and teaches law, completing our father’s dream. Sometimes, those degrees and diplomas do count—for all the right reasons.

 

Penman No. 161: To Be a Journalist

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Penman for Monday, August 10, 2015

I WAS very sad to hear of the recent passing of an old colleague from my first foray into journalism—Nemesio Dacanay, who was then the City Editor of the Philippines Herald, one of the pre-martial law period’s smaller but pre-eminent newspapers. A relative of his texted me about his death and interment, but I was out of town and felt bad that I couldn’t even pay my respects in person, so I’ll do it here.

Five years ago, in this column, I had to issue an apology—and I was happy to do so—having inadvertently suggested in a previous piece that “Dac” had passed on to the hereafter. As it turned out, he was still very much alive, as his daughter Christine reminded me. This time, unfortunately, the news was real.

The story of my connection to Dac and of how I got into the newspapers is something I may have told before in bits and pieces, but here it is in full. The time was early 1972, and I had just turned 18. I was already a full-time activist, having dropped out of my classes in UP, a lanky, chain-smoking lad who was already a veteran of many a Plaza Miranda march and of the Diliman Commune.

In UP, I hung out with a group of older Journalism majors who were close to graduating and who would, very shortly after, begin to make a name for themselves as reporters—people like Wilson Bailon, Rolly Fernandez, Jun Engracia, Efren Cabrera, Rod Cabrera, and Val Abelgas, among others. I had great respect and admiration for these guys, but at the same time, it annoyed me to know that they were soon going to find and land jobs, while I—technically still a freshman, with but 21 completed units to my name (3 of them good for a “5.0” in Math, the consequence of absenteeism)—was going to be left behind.

I should explain that at 18, I had no greater ambition than to become a journalist. I’d written some stories, poems, and plays, but I had no plans of becoming a creative writer, and might even have thought journalism superior to poetry (and why not?). I had been editor in chief of the school paper at Philippine Science High (following in the gargantuan footsteps of Rey Vea, Mario Taguiwalo, and Rodel Rodis), and I found that I savored the romance of printers’ ink and hot lead (that’s “lead” with a short E for you young ones, the molten metal that magically turned into letters in reverse).

As soon as I stepped into UP, at 16, I did the three things I’d put on my agenda, after enrollment: join the Nationalist Corps (and later the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan, or SDK), join the Alpha Sigma Fraternity (to which high school heroes like my Physics teacher Vic Manarang and firebrand Gary Olivar belonged), and join the staff of the Philippine Collegian.

It was in the nationalist movement and those long nights of proofreading at Liwayway Press that my desire to become a reporter flourished. Never mind poetry and fiction; I wanted to feel and to record the ground shaking beneath my feet from the steps of a thousand marchers, to trace the arc of tear gas canisters flying across the plaza, to bear witness to what we were all convinced was the forging of a bright new future, with all the sparks and all the smoke that came with the process. To be a reporter at that time was to be in the very womb of history, and I thought nothing was more thrilling and more important than to be there on the frontlines, notebook and ballpoint in hand and a barely stifled battle cry rising up my throat: “Pierce the enemy with your pens!” (That was the slogan silkscreened on my jacket.)

As you can see, as a teenage Maoist, I had no idea of and no patience for “objective” and “dispassionate” journalism. I hadn’t even taken one formal unit of Journalism in UP (I was an Industrial Engineering major, and still plowing through my GE subjects) and had embraced the notion that journalism was and had to be a partisan activity, convinced that Malacañang had bought 90% of the Philippine press, with the notable exception of progressives like Tony Zumel, Satur Ocampo, and Rolly Fadul, and young blood like Roz Galang and Millet Martinez. We were going to be the vanguard of what we called the Second Propaganda Movement.

But I didn’t want to be stuck on campus; it was a wide-open arena beyond Diliman, so when my friends began applying for jobs with the newspapers shortly before graduation in early 1972, I tagged along, hoping to land something, anything. (I’d already written and sold a teleplay to the TV drama anthology Balintataw in 1970, when I was 16, so I didn’t lack in self-esteem.) I remember walking up to the editor of the Manila Chronicle, Amando Doronila, and boldly announcing that I wanted to apply as a reporter. “How old are you?” the man asked in all reasonableness. “Eighteen,” I said. “Come back in a few years,” he suggested, not unkindly.

It was like that, one prospect after another, until my path led to the old Philippines Herald office in Intramuros, sometime in March or April. It was must have been around one in the afternoon, because the only person in the newsroom was Nemesio “Dac” Dacanay, whose name I didn’t even know at that point. He had a groovy look about him: dark shades, a colorful, open-necked shirt, and an impish grin. I told him what I was there for, and I can’t recall how long I begged to be given a chance, but finally, if only to get rid of the pesky walk-in, he said: “Where do you live?” I said, “Quezon City.” He said, “Okay. Go back to Quezon City, then come back in three days with a story. Understood?”

I stepped out of the Herald on a floating cloud—I was positive I would deliver as directed. Over the next three days, not knowing anything about real newswriting, I walked around the Quezon Memorial, waiting for some dreadful accident to happen that I could breathlessly report on. The world remained blissfully peaceful, and the only thing that came crashing down was my dream of becoming a journalist. On the third day, I was so tired and depressed that I took a jeepney to the Delta Theater, and decided to cool off in the moviehouse. I watched the screen. The movie was so awful I can’t even remember its title. When it was over, I went home, collected my thoughts, and pulled out my typewriter.

Then I took a bus to Intramuros, and handed Dac my story—a movie review. Damn—I could hear him mutter, and I could see him sizing me up through his shades—okay ka, kid. “I’ll pass this on to Nestor,” he said, referring to the venerable Nestor Mata, who handled the features page. “He’ll take care of you.”

And so I was hired at 18 as a general assignments reporter, the greenest of greenhorns in a roomful of veterans that included editor in chief Oscar Villadolid, news editor Joe Pavia, reporter Lito Catapusan (who took me under his wing), and a deskman who moonlighted as a songwriter named George Canseco. Over the next few months, I would make the rounds of the police, sports, and City Hall beats, cramming three more years of college into a semester. Thanks to a guy who humored me named Dac, I had achieved my ambition of becoming a journalist. (By July, in a flash of activist fervor, I would resign in solidarity with striking workers, and move over to Taliba as a correspondent right up to martial law, when we all lost our jobs and the press as we knew it vanished overnight. But that’s another story.)

Penman No. 149: Advice to Freshmen

Penman for Monday, May 18, 2015

AFTER LAST week’s piece on “Why I’m not on Facebook,” I thought I should add or clarify that I’m not entirely off the grid, Web-wise. I do choose the websites or forums I frequent (and in case you’re wondering, I’ll explain the difference between forums and fora one of these days), to make sure that I deal only with things and people I’m truly interested in. For over a decade now, I’ve moderated the Philippine Macintosh Users Group (www.philmug.ph), and more recently the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (www.fpn-p.org); now and then you’ll also find me at the Philippine Watch Club (www.philippinewatchclub.org). I keep a blog at www.penmanila.ph, and send out an occasional tweet, usually about my poker fortunes and misfortunes, from @penmanila.

It was on one of these sites—Philmug, which has grown to become one of the world’s most active Apple user groups—that I came across a thread I’m tapping for my topic today. While Philmug is the place to talk about anything and everything Apple, it’s also a community that can spark very lively discussions about such motley topics as Manny Pacquiao, Manila traffic, where to stay in Hanoi, and what SIM cards to get in Europe. One such “offline” thread that perked my interest last week was one titled “College freshman tips,” started by a young member about to enter college. Was there anything, he asked, that his elders could tell him about college life?

It’s a thread that’s grown to ten pages long the last time I looked, and predictably, many Muggers (as Philmug members call themselves) recited that age-old mantra that all college freshmen know by heart (and sophomores even better): “Party hard, study harder!”

Other suggestions were more specific:

  1. Join student organizations and socialize, but choose which ones you’ll be joining wisely. These “orgs” could become networks for life, for both friendships and professional contacts.
  2. Avoid fraternities and such groups that employ physical initiation and advocate violence. You’re in college to study—not to maim or be maimed by other people.
  3. Get out of your comfort zone, and be a little more adventurous. Make friends with people who may be totally unlike you. That’s where a lot of learning happens—in knowing about how other people live and think.
  4. Manage your resources well—your budget and time, most especially. Learn how to take care of yourself, and consider taking a student job, both to earn and to learn some professional working habits.
  5. Master the freshman basics: the campus map, how to take notes, who the best (not necessarily the easiest) teachers are.
  6. Don’t confuse a college diploma with education. A lot of learning takes place outside the classroom.
  7. Don’t believe everything you hear, even from your professors. Learn how to argue, and argue well.
  8. Never plagiarize. It’ll never be worth it.
  9. Don’t be afraid to fail. Go ask a girl out if you really like her. Failure is part of learning.
  10. Don’t try to do everything in your freshman year. You’ll find yourself being pulled in so many directions that it’s easy to lose focus. Map out a clear and unimpeded path to your sophomore year.

Some other suggestions were a bit more unusual, although no less practical. “Always sit beside a female classmate and you will never regret college life, because they are lifesavers (and your immediate supply of pens, paper, books, assignments, and exams),” proposed one member (who now just happens to be one of our smartest cops in the PNP). “They smell better than boys,” another member, a retired pharmaceuticals executive, agreed.

And what did I say? Quite a bit, but among them was, “Don’t bother playing mind games with your professor (as in ‘I’m smarter than this guy, and I’m going to prove it’). You will lose; even if you are smarter than your prof, you will lose… Learn how to argue and come across as being smart without being snarky. I’m a very gentle prof myself, but nothing makes me happier some days than to give some smartypants a dose of his own medicine.”

Now, of course, like many 16- and 17-year-olds, I didn’t follow all this sound and sage advice I’m giving and hearing.

In my freshman year in UP in 1970-71, I (1) joined a frat and got beaten black and blue; (2) joined a militant student organization and went to dozens of rallies, many of them violent; (3) joined the staff of the Philippine Collegian, the student newspaper; (3) met (and lost) my first girlfriend, and did what boys and girls do; (4) got a 1.0 in English and a 5.0 in Math (for absenteeism—I was a Philippine Science high grad and arrogantly thought that Math 17 was beneath me); (5) shifted courses, from Industrial Engineering to Journalism, I think; and (6) went up to the mountains of Quezon and Bulacan to do “mass work.” It was, to say the least, an interesting year.

Within another year or so, I would drop out and divide my time between my activism and a job as a newspaper reporter (I may have been the youngest regularly-employed newspaper reporter of my time, at 18); also at 18, I was in martial law prison; by my 20th birthday, I was married, and became a father before I turned 21.

Not surprisingly, it took me forever to get back to school and finish. I resumed my undergrad studies at age 27, and graduated with my AB in English, cum laude (you could still get honors then even with a failing mark if it wasn’t in your major—I had shifted to English by then—and if your GWA could sustain it) at age 30. I made up for lost time by finishing my Master’s by 34, and my PhD by 37. Some of us like to hurry… and then to take our time… and then to hurry again.

I suppose my ultimate advice to freshmen is just to hang in there and don’t do anything stupid like get killed before turning 20, unless you’re doing it for God and country. But don’t stay too safe, either, because the best things you’ll be learning from will be your most grievous mistakes. One of the wisest things I ever heard came from a friend, now departed, spoken over beer and stale cigarettes at 2 in the morning: “Everyone should be entitled to one big mistake.” Or, as my professor in German once put it, “Ein Fehler ist kein Fehler”—one mistake is no mistake.

We made a few, and have survived and maybe even prospered despite and because of them. For a Thursday throwback, I posted a picture in that thread of myself as a lanky freshman, beside activist leader and fellow PSHSer Rey Vea (now president of Mapua University), on a boat to a CEGP convention in Dumaguete ca. 1970. My only question was, where did all that hair and leanness go?

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