Penman No. 324: Where Have All the Great Minds Gone?


Penman for Monday, October 22, 2018


I’M TAKING stock of my latest acquisition of old books and magazines, delivered to my office by a seller who seems to have hit upon a trove of scholarly materials from the 1950s and 1960s, very likely from the estate of one or two of that period’s leading academics.

They include copies of the Diliman Review, a prominent journal of the University of the Philippines since the early 1950s; the University College Journal, from the early 1960s when UP still had a University College in charge of implementing its General Education Program for the student’s first two years; the Philippine Social Sciences and Humanities Review, established in 1929; and Comment, a liberal quarterly from the late 1950s. There’s a special issue of the Philippine Collegian from 1957 devoted solely to the topic of academic freedom. A unique bonus is a copy of the Golden Jubilee issue of the Diliman Review from 1958—UP’s 50th anniversary—a handsome hardbound volume I didn’t even know existed.

As I leaf through the yellowing pages of these journals, a troubling thought looms increasingly larger in my head: Where have all the great minds gone? Indeed, where have all the great debates and discourses gone?

In an age of short attention spans, dominated by tweets, where “likes” and “retweets” have taken the place of scientific verification, there seems to be little room for these ponderous journals and the topics they embrace, whose complexities our times would demand to be reduced to ten-word “hugot” lines or 280-character tweets.

A cursory scan of the contents of these journals and their authors reveals the prevailing anxieties and ambitions of half a century ago: “The Chinese Exclusion Policy in the Philippines,” by Tomas S. Fonacier, PSSHR, March 1949); “The Scientist as Filipino,” by Federico Mangahas (Comment, 1957); “The Filipino Struggle for Intellectual Freedom,” by Leopoldo Y. Yabes (Collegian, 1957); “A Republic Within the Republic,” by Salvador P. Lopez (Collegian, 1957); “A Portrait of the Filipino Composer as Artist,” by Ester Samonte-Madrid (DR, 1958); “On Contemplating a Life: The Study of Biography,” by Nieves B. Epistola (UCL, 1961-62); and “Imagination in History,” by Teodoro A. Agoncillo (DR, January 1965).

What’s interesting is that we’re not just talking about ourselves, to ourselves. A man summarily described in the notes as “a Japanese fiction writer,” Yasunari Kawabata—the Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1968—contributes a short story, “The Moon in the Water,” to the 1958 DR issue. The foreign scholars Ernest J. Frei and Francis X. Lynch, SJ essay the development of the Philippine national language and the Bikol belief in the asuwang, respectively. The legendary Ricardo R. Pascual dissects Bertrand Russell, Marinella Reyes-Castillo takes on Andre Malraux, and Juan R. Francisco—later to become an Indologist—explains the philosophy of Mo Tzu. And displaying what it takes to be a true intellectual, Agustin Rodolfo, a professor of Zoology, writes about “Rizal as Propagandist” and “The Sectarian University.”

I see that even government bureaucrats then were expected to be literate and to be able to articulate their policies beyond press releases and interviews. The 1958 DRissue includes essays by Amando Dalisay, then Undersecretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, on “Economic Controls and the Central Bank” and by Sen. Lorenzo Sumulong on “The Need for Economic Statesmanship.”

I wonder how many of these names will still resonate with Filipinos below 40, even within UP itself. I’m guessing that “Agoncillo” might trigger a vague notion of nationalist history, but that will likely be it, which means that we have lost our sense of an intellectual history and of the traditions that colored it—say of the great debates between the University and the State on the issue of academic freedom—and of our sense of quality or even greatness of mind, and what it takes to achieve that standard. Sadly, our academics today are too often trapped in theoretical jargon, in Party doctrine, and in self-obsessed mewling to make truly insightful, original, and meaningful contributions to national discourse.

As I contemplate retirement three months hence, these books and journals remind and make me proud of UP’s past and hopeful for its future, if it doesn’t forget its basic mission as a producer not just of smart employees but of new and bold ideas.

Where are these minds today, and especially, where are they in government—in the Senate and Congress, let alone the Palace—where they should matter most? In an essay for the University College Journal (First Semester 1963-64) titled “The Filipino Scholar,” the late Prof. Leopoldo Y. Yabes—himself no mean scholar of literature and the humanities—complains that government has been taken over by mediocrities:

“It is quite disheartening to see the spectacle of puny, warped minds having anything to do with administration and direction of intellectual activity on the local and national scenes, of unemancipated minds exercising power over other minds more liberated and definitely superior to them, of parochial intellects charged with the solution of problems beyond their ken and pretensions. Their scholarly prestige seems to be built not on the basis of actual meritorious achievement but by means of press release and other mass communications media.”

I turn my TV on to witness the gaudy train of senatorial hopefuls, many bringing little to the table but their showbiz ratings and their connections to power. I turn the TV off and reach for my books.





Penman No. 320: On Academic Freedom


Penman for Monday, September 24, 2018


Let me dwell this week on the idea of academic freedom, which has been in focus again recently in the light of controversies involving conflicting ideologies on campus. It’s important because universities are the natural home of ideas, and therefore for clashes of ideas, which then take various forms of political and cultural expression.

Modern (and especially secular) universities stand on the bedrock of academic freedom, which at its simplest means one’s freedom to choose what to study and what to teach, and giving value to knowledge—not power, not money, not superstition—as our best guide to the way forward. That knowledge can be gained through research and reason, through experimentation, debate, and creative intuition. Hopefully that knowledge will yield better options for a thinking citizen.

That’s the basic concept, and while it sounds like something no one should quarrel with, the fact is that academic freedom has been under constant threat and attack over the past century, precisely because knowledge and its free expression can be dangerous to those in power. The challenges understandably often come from the Right, but even the Left—preternaturally imbued with a sense of moral righteousness—has not hesitated to throttle academic freedom when it feels justified, such as when neo-Nazis appear on campus in the US and Europe.

Two specific cases come to mind to illustrate both sides of this argument. The first (drawn from an unpublished history of UP) shows State power brazenly applied to stifle freedom of expression at the University of the Philippines.

In the early 1930s, law student and Collegian editor Arturo Tolentino got into a fight with Law Dean Jorge Bocobo over whether he could write about the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Law, which then-Senate President Manuel Quezon and Bocobo himself opposed. When the Collegian published a news item seeming to support the bill, Bocobo backed the Collegian adviser’s decision to stop printing the Collegian and to burn the 900 copies already printed, on the grounds that the Collegian was not supposed to publish political material. Tolentino appealed to President Palma, who upheld Tolentino on the basis of free speech. But Bocobo appealed to the Board of Regents, which was filled with Quezon allies, and they overturned Palma.

Dean Bocobo reprimanded Tolentino and threatened him with suspension and even expulsion if he kept violating the BOR ruling. But it was Quezon who was most infuriated by the whole affair, and his ire was unmistakably vented on Palma.

Only days after Palma upheld the Collegian’s right to discuss the HHC, the legislature came down hard on the university and imposed a new system of appropriation requiring an itemized budget. Quezon commended the Lower House for probing the finances of UP, stressing that the move was “a distinct service” to the university. Things got worse between Palma and Quezon, and when Palma finally resigned in fatigue after ten years of service, the BOR denied him a gratuity on some technicality, and denied him an honorarium as well. (When Palma died in 1939, however, Quezon stopped everything to be able to attend his funeral, at which he offered generous words of praise for his former adversary.)

The second case involves an aborted debate at Yale University in April 1974, which featured Dr. William Shockley, a Nobel prizewinner for Physics, who had openly proposed that blacks were racially inferior, and that intelligence could be measured by the percentage of one’s Caucasian blood. So repugnant was the notion to many Yale professors and students that they effectively stopped Shockley from speaking, in a fracas that resulted in some suspensions. (And here I have to thank Fareed Zakaria for bringing this to my attention in a recent CNN program.)

A committee was later set up to investigate and assess the incident, and the report of that committee is instructive in what it concluded: “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that the university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom. The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.”

The committee quoted Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who wrote in U.S. v. Schwimmer,1928, that “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

That’s a sobering reminder for anyone who professes to uphold academic freedom and human rights: knowledge moves forward not by silencing the other side, but by presenting superior arguments—not always the easiest thing to do, especially without screaming your head off.