Penman No. 320: On Academic Freedom

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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 The first (drawn from an unpublished history of UP) shows State power brazenly applied to stifle freedom of expression at the University of the Philippines.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.

Penman No. 221: Teaching the Millennials

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Penman for Monday, October 17, 2016

 

 

THERE WERE no marching bands, greeting cards, or fireworks to mark the event, but World Teachers’ Day was celebrated last October 5. As unofficial or secular holidays like Mothers’ or Grandparents’ Day go, it’s a relatively new one, proclaimed by UNESCO in 1994 to draw attention to the key role teachers play in molding the citizens of every country. My calendar shows that I did nothing remarkable that Wednesday, my day off from teaching, so I very likely spent it on a foot-massage-movie-and-dinner date with Beng. But surely teaching would have crossed my mind, as it does every day, because we keep preparing for our next class even in our idle hours, wondering how we can make our students’ encounters with us more interesting and memorable.

I’ve been thinking about teaching a lot more lately, first because of the recent deaths of some valued mentors and colleagues. Just over the past month, our department lost two of its stalwarts—Professors Sylvia Ventura and Magelende “May” Flores. I’ve written quite a bit in this corner about Sylvia, my Shakespeare teacher, who fired up my enthusiasm for Elizabethan drama and poetry. May was an English-language specialist and textbook author, a sweet, imperturbable lady with a caring smile for everyone. (Continuing the tradition, May’s son Emil also teaches with the department and has become one of our prime experts on science fiction and creative nonfiction.)

The second reason is my own impending retirement, less than three years hence. It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than three decades since I gave up my PR job at a government agency to devote the rest of my life—as I told myself then—to studying, writing, and teaching. I never did become much of a scholar—I guess I did become the writer I wanted to be—but even this close to the end of an active career, the teacher in me is still a work in progress.

That’s because every teaching day is a new performance, even if—like it would be for a theater actor—the script may essentially be the same for courses you’ve taught for years. Every new batch of students brings with it a new mix of challenges—even, over the decades, a generational drift to adjust to. For example, a teacher can’t simply blame millennials for their lack of a historical memory, which we helped create; I try to get them interested in the past not for the past’s sake, but to show them how an appreciation of the past can help their future.

Teachers, in other words, have to keep learning about their students and their interests, so lessons remain fresh and relevant, rather than boring incantations regurgitated from ages past. We need to relate the lesson to the student’s present realities, which may seem daunting if you’re talking about, say, a 19th-century short story about the French bourgeoisie, but which can be done with a little imagination (in this case, I’d begin by talking about the Filipino middle class and its aspirations—“Where do you see yourself ten years from now?”).

But as vital as it is to connect directly with millennials, it’s just as important to remind them that there are many things in this world that may seem to have little or nothing to do with them that will still affect their lives—in other words, that we’re still motes in the grand scheme of things, and that Nature can be profoundly indifferent to our noisome plaints and woes.

That’s a harder lesson to impart, even to older students—to any person who hasn’t encountered something much larger than himself or herself, like a World War, or martial law, or a terrorist attack. In a me-centered universe, no one wants to feel disempowered, so I then have to challenge them into getting out of themselves and enlarging the sphere of personal actions they can take to improve not only their own future, but also that of their fellowmen.

Back when we ourselves were freshmen and sophomores in the early 1970s, this message came down to us in the exhortatory slogan “Serve the people!” Exactly how seemed a lot simpler to figure out back then, when a predatory dictatorship was looming over everything and everyone (a dreadful specter I thought I’d escaped forever). Today a young person’s options are far richer and more complex, with all manner of personal advocacies, NGOs, weekend CSR programs, and Facebook groups competing for one’s political attention.

But whatever the chosen means may be, the overriding need for building empathy remains, for leading young urban, middle-class Filipinos to see, to appreciate, and to grow their stake in a future that they share with the millions of others who live unlike them, many without the opportunities that they enjoy. We can’t truly be a nation—much less a Christian one—if we continue to dismiss the bullet-riddled bodies of the poor as trash because we find nothing in common with them.

A teacher’s job is to help students draw the line between two points, including and especially the most seemingly disparate ones. That includes the line between teacher and student, between student and student, and between student and society. If that’s all I’ve done these past three decades, I can retire happy.

 

 

AND NOW for something liberative. According to the exhibit notes, “Ebarotika! (You are Erotic, Eve) follows the story of Eve who dared venture into the forbidden. Her defiant act opened knowledge’s connection with sexuality, the knowledge of one’s sexual and erotic desire. But it also resulted in shame and punishment. Thus, many of us cover and hide our sexual and erotic life. Those who are bold enough to come into the open are subjected to stigma, discrimination, and death. Sexuality and the erotic are a source of life, joy, and pleasure. They are not objects of fear, horror, and anxiety. They must be opened, shared, and celebrated instead of being censored, concealed, and criminalized.”

Curated by Lia Torralba, Ebarotika! features 19 Kasibulan artists: Yasmin Almonte, Lot Arboleda, Chie Cruz, Cecil de Leon Escobar, Imelda Cajipe Endaya, Anna Fer, Lorna Fernandez, Kristin Garanchon, Lorna Israel, Amihan Jumalon, Nina Libatique, Eden Ocampo, Jonabelle Operio, Fel Plata, Rebie Ramoso, Benay Reyes, Doris Rodriguez, Christine Sioco, and Lia Torralba.

It opened last Saturday, but will run until November 23 at the Sining Kamalig Art Gallery located on the Upper Ground Floor of Ali Mall in Cubao, Quezon City. See you there!