Penman No. 361: Intelligence Without Values

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Penman for Monday, July 8, 2019

 

IT’S NOT very often that a writer or artist gets invited to talk to an audience of science people, so I feel privileged to have done that a few times, most notably in 2004, when I spoke before the National Academy of Science and Technology on “The Role of the Humanities in Our Intellectual and Cultural Life,” and these past two years when I addressed the graduating classes of the UP College of Science and College of Medicine.

But I didn’t feel as personally invested in those talks as when, last week, I spoke at the curricular review workshop of the Philippine Science High School, being someone who had dreamed of becoming a scientist and who actually tried to become an engineer and an economist before settling for an English major.

I entered the PSHS in 1966, long before there was a Philippine High School for the Arts for the artistically inclined, but even given the choice today I would have stayed with the PSHS, to which I’m forever grateful for giving me a dry-eyed, rationalist outlook to ballast my more extravagant impulses.

I reminded my PSHS audience that despite the best efforts of our science managers and educators, we Filipinos continue to live in an environment largely indifferent if not hostile to science. Indeed our artists and scientists have something in common—they don’t figure in making national policy in this country, which is lorded over by politicians, businessmen, generals, priests, and even entertainers.

This establishes a special and urgent mission for our graduates—to matter not just in the laboratory, churning out papers for academia and products for industry, but in society itself, to help Filipinos make more intelligent and responsible choices based on truth and reason. They should not only be proficient in the traditional academic disciplines, but should—even and especially at this early stage—be potential thought leaders, citizens of conscience, champions of truth, reason, and justice.

I recall, with both pride and sadness, the kind of such public intellectuals that our first batches produced—the likes of Rey Vea, Mario Taguiwalo, Roberto Verzola, Rodel Rodis, and Ciel Habito; some became scientists, some did not. But their sharpness of mind was matched by a breadth of spirit that saw them engaged in the larger discourses of our national life, addressing with authority and passion the great issues of our time.

I am worried that apart from the fact that we produce scientists who are not listened to and are even manipulated by politicians for their ends, we may be producing scientists imbued with talent and professional zeal but without values—smart people who cannot tell good from bad and right from wrong. Recall Dr. Faustus, the medieval progenitor of Hollywood’s mad scientist whose insatiable thirst for knowledge comes at the expense of his soul.

The most dangerous thing in our world today is intelligence without values. We have geniuses aplenty, many of them employed by those in power, but like their despotic bosses they are moral idiots who have lost their sense of outrage and their fear of God. They laugh at jokes that degrade women, condone if not encourage rape, and betray everything we have been brought up to believe about decency, honor, virtue, and patriotism. There is sometimes no one more corruptible than an intelligent person, because that person believes that he or she can explain and rationalize everything away, including complicity in mass murder and the propagation of falsehood.

Values are a humanist concern; right and wrong, good and bad are established not in the crucible of the laboratory but in the corridors of debate. One of culture’s loftiest functions is to remind us of something larger and worthier than ourselves, something worth living and dying for, like God, family, and country. It will be the humanities that will provide that vision, in all its clarities and ambiguities; and it will be science and technology that will provide the means.

Humanizing the scientist in training, our young PSHS student, involves more than infusing the curriculum with Humanities and Arts subjects, as important and today as imperiled as they may be. Certainly they need to be exposed to poetry, to painting, to music, to philosophy, and to history as we all were.

But humanizing the PSHS student also means treating him or her literally as a human—as a complex, bright but vulnerable being whose life yet stretches far ahead, an unfolding adventure whose most interesting moments are yet to come.

At this point I brought up what I call the stupid, unscientific, and counter-productive contract that incoming PSHS students are required to sign, binding them to take a science course in college. Indisputably the main mission of a science high school is to produce scientists in training, which our country sorely needs. But I’ve also seen how some kids, bright as they are, burn out in college, dejected by having signed away their option to pursue their heart’s desire. You cannot hold a 12-year-old to a contract that will define what he or she will become for the rest of his or her life.

I’m sure my fellow vagrants like the writer Jessica Zafra, the dancer Nestor Jardin, the indigenous people’s activist Vicky Tauli Corpuz, the historian Rico Jose, the film director Auraeus Solito, the composer Joel Navarro, the model Anna Bayle, and the former SGV partner and Accenture chief Jaime del Rosario, among many others, would agree. Our minds were challenged and enriched by our science education, and that training remained with us for the rest of our lives.

Trust the student; trust his or her intelligence to make the best and most responsible decision for himself or herself. Whatever happens, the great majority of them will move on to a career in science, in any case—not because they have to, but because they want to.

Penman No. 217: We Were Young Together

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Penman for Monday, September 18, 2016

 

I HAD the honor of being asked to speak at the 50th anniversary reunion of my Philippine Science High School batch (we chose to celebrate our entrance year, 1966, fearing that there’d be fewer of us to gather in five years). It was, I joked, the valedictory I never got to deliver, for reasons that will be shortly obvious. You’ll forgive the chest-thumping; every high school has a right to think it’s the best on the planet—perhaps some more so than others. Herewith, an excerpt:

I’ll begin with a shameless boast, and the boast is that over these past four decades, I’ve won quite a few awards and prizes for my work as a writer and teacher. But none of them has given me as much pride and pleasure as the knowledge that once upon a time in 1966, for one brief shining moment and for some miraculous reason, I topped the entrance exam to the Philippine Science High School.

It was a fleeting glory, and if I ever imagined myself a real genius I would be quickly disabused, because as you all know, after our first year, my grade in English was 1.0 and my grade in Math was 5.0. Only the kindness or perhaps the embarrassment of our administrators persuaded them that I was worth giving another chance and putting on probation, a break I’m forever thankful for.

I have never felt in more distinguished company than yours. Individually and collectively, you are the smartest people I have ever known, and it has nothing to do with PhDs or awards or high positions in government and business or least of all material wealth—although I’m sure we could all use a little more money. I know that I can sit with anyone of you and have an intelligent and funny conversation about anything from interstellar travel and Dutertean diplomacy to hugot lines and Pokémon—well, maybe not Pokémon.

Long before buzzwords like “world-class” and “globally competitive” came into fashion, there were smart kids who passed an entrance exam that decimated whole regiments of lesser beings, leaving a few good boys and girls standing after the slaughter, calmly noting the distinction between cousins and cosines, avocados and Avogadro, halitosis and mitosis.

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Hey, these kids were us—gangly, smelly (after a good day’s work at the biology garden, or the agawan-base arena), cocksure in the classroom, and curious as hell about the opposite sex. Not surprisingly, boy-girl questions dominated the school’s philosophical life.

“What Is a PSHS Boy?” asked the Science Scholar ca. 1969, and the soul-searching answer came (courtesy of someone who should have known—a PSHS girl): “A PSHS boy is a new sociological specimen of the human race… a hardworking nekti achiever [who keeps] a well-tended garden near the bio pond…. a longhaired mod swinger around the campus [who] wears kooky sunglasses, stylish baggy pants, and necklaces… He crams love letters in his notebooks. When Mr. Mozrah asks him ‘What is social interaction?’, he recites his lovelorn adventures with Jennifer, Corrine, Paulette, etc….”

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This penetrating study naturally occasioned a companion piece, published a year later under the thought-provoking title of “What Is a PSHS Girl?”, written by an expert on the subject, a PSHS boy.

“A PSHS girl,” this savant said, “is a rare biological specimen… She is only emotional, temperamental and irrational sometimes (well, half of the time… would you believe almost always?). Anger is not a word in her dictionary. You see, her dictionary starts with ‘boy’… A PSHS girl is the reading type. She reads Emily Loring and the like.”

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It didn’t take too long for a PSHS girl—uhm, PSHS young woman activist—to trash that silly, bourgeois, sexist view. “Now is the time for awakening,” this budding feminist would write in the same Science Scholar just a year later. “Do you realize that today you are a mere tool of the man?… Our bourgeois-oriented society adds insult to injury by picking up things for you and opening doors for you—reminders of sexual disparity—the very chains you should set out to break.”

We don’t know how many chains were broken; some precious objects certainly were (er, windows, petri dishes, innocence, and rules). Talk about rules! A famous one—dated September 29, 1970, and issued by the PSHS Board of Trustees—decreed that PSHS scholars “remain single and be discreet about their boy-girl relationships in order to continue their studies at the PSHS.”

Perhaps another topic of passionate discussion—“Should Smut Movies Be Allowed?”—had something to do with this heated  state of affairs.

The guidance counselor warned: “If they only display the human body for art’s sake, then there’s nothing wrong.  But if what they show are the acts sacred to man and woman, and those which arouse man’s sexual instincts and cause him to do something about it, then definitely, smut movies should be banned!”

Not too definitely, a freshman objected: “In European countries, especially in Scandinavia, sex movies have become so ordinary that they now seem to be part of the people’s lives.  In the Philippines, there is indifference towards these movies.  The Board of Censors should allow more of them and let us see what the attitude of the public toward them will be in the future.” [Brilliantly said, young man, an answer truly worthy of a science scholar—we’re not watching smut movies, here, we’re watching popular attitudes!]

Ah, the times, they were a-changing.  “The opening of the intramurals ushered in a new sight on our campus,” reported a sports columnist (a distraught boy) in the Science Scholar in 1970.  “Where once only boys were seen, girls have materialized…. The girls’ presence cannot be ignored…. In so short a period, many can be said to equal the boys at their own game. Complaints have been heard from the girls that the boys have been monopolizing both the basketball court and the ping-pong tables.”

That should’ve told us that the days of the Young Gentlemen’s Club and the Girls’ Club—no one had the gumption then to set up a Young Gay and Lesbian Club—were coming to an end. Some brazen soul in our freshman class organized the UBAG (United Boys Against Girls), but that didn’t last too long. Biology would teach boys that uniting with girls instead of fighting them was the more natural and pleasurable thing to do.

For a few of us after high school, life may have been a breeze, but for most, I’m sure it’s been an uphill climb, full of rough patches, and you were just as astonished as I was to find that a high IQ did not guarantee happiness or prosperity or success and may even have made things worse because of our more acute awareness of the meaning of things. We learned that the smartest people can make the dumbest mistakes in love, money, and politics, and that sometimes we just don’t know squay about the things that truly matter. I even learned that you could be happily married to someone from UP High.

Most important of all lessons and legacies, we learned to serve the people. Whether we grew up to be NPA cadres or CEOs or lab rats or barrio doctors, we knew that our high school scholarship had to be repaid in faithful service to community and humanity, employing the scientific, rationalist outlook that even those of us who strayed from S&T never quite lost.

We were young together, and we will grow old together. As we’ve all learned from life, it isn’t who leads at the start of the race but who finishes first at the end who wins—although again I suspect that in the race of life, we’d rather finish last.

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