Penman No. 331: Opening up to Taiwan

 

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AS IT happened, I was in Taiwan twice last month to represent the University of the Philippines in two conferences that underscored the importance of our academic partnerships with our Taiwanese counterparts—and the importance they accord to improving relations with Philippine universities.

Over the past decade, the Philippines has been sending scores of graduate students to various universities in Taiwan for their masteral and doctoral degrees, mainly in the sciences, where Taiwan has a lot to offer the world, given its cutting-edge technologies and laboratories. This also plays into one of the island’s growing predicaments—a demographic dip that has encouraged its policymakers to draw students for its universities from around the region, embodied in its so-called “New Southbound Policy” of promoting relations with South and Southeast Asia and Australasia.

Southern Taiwan has been especially aggressive in opening and developing academic relations with Philippine universities, banking on its geographical and cultural proximity to us. (It always amazes me how closely their aboriginal costumes and folkways resemble ours.)

The first conference I attended was the Presidents’ Forum of the South and Southeast Asian and Taiwan Universities (SATU), a consortium organized 15 years ago and since led by the National Cheng Kung University based in Tainan. This year’s meeting was devoted to strengthening linkages between universities and industries, with experts from Thailand (medical sciences) and India (engineering) supporting their Taiwanese counterparts in providing models for cooperation. SATU universities match experts who then work collaboratively on projects ranging from robotics and wind tunnels to dengue and stem cell research.

The second and larger conference was held in the port city of Kaohsiung, even farther south (both Tainan and Kaohsiung are easily reachable from Taipei by high-speed train). This was the 3rdInternational Conference on Open and Distance e-Learning (ICODeL) with the theme “Technology-Enhanced and Inclusive Education in the Digital Age,” and while it took place in Taiwan, it was actually organized and run by the UP Open University (UPOU), with support from the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO), the National University of Kaohsiung, the Open University of Kaohsiung, the Southern Taiwan Universities Alliance, and Taiwan’s Edu-Connect Southeast Asia network, among others.

This is as good a time as any to highlight the work of UPOU, one of UP’s eight constituent universities—one that happens to have the smallest physical footprint (it occupies a small lot in Los Baños, Laguna) but the largest global reach, because of its online presence. Founded almost 25 years ago to democratize access to quality higher education through distance education, UPOU came fully online in 2007, with 25% of its enrollees spread out over 70 countries. It offers three undergraduate, about 30 graduate diploma and masteral, and three doctoral degree programs, from which it has produced close to 3,000 graduates, mostly from its Multimedia Studies and Education programs.

All of this happened, former UPOU Chancellor Grace “Gigi” Javier Alfonso told me, without compromising UP’s high educational standards. “Applicants to our undergraduate degree programs still have to pass the UPCAT,” she said.

There’s a persistent impression out there that open universities and distance education offer cheaper but also lower-quality education and easier-to-pass courses, but UPOU has been working hard to prove this stigmatization wrong. “We offer the same quality of education as any other UP CU,” said current Chancellor Melinda Bandelaria, who also presides over the Asian Association of Open Universities (AAOU). “What open universities like UPOU provide is a chance for working professionals, housewives, entertainers, and OFWs to acquire a college or graduate education at their own pace, wherever they may be in the world. It’s not a replacement for, but an alternative to, traditional residential colleges.”

Many of UPOU’s students are OFWs working on their degrees, which will boost their skills and employability where they are and when they come home. One of the highlights of ICODeL was the inauguration of a Philippines Learning Commons in Kaohsiung where UPOU students could access their materials online. Much of the instruction of UPOU and other open universities is done through Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, which have become increasingly popular in the global academic landscape. UPOU now has more than 70 MOOcs on its roster, with 3 MOOCs typically covering a 3-unit course. It typically takes three years to finish a master’s degree with UPOU.

Mandated by RA 10650 or the Open Distance Learning Act to assist CHED and TESDA, UPOU had engaged industry experts help it in designing Open Educational Resources  or OERs which are free to use by teachers and students; UPOU then develops MOOCs using these OERs. “When industries work with universities, they create a powerful engine for economic growth and innovation,” said Dr. Bandelaria.

The point of bringing ICODeL to Kaohsiung was also to match UPOU and the many Philippine SUC officials who attended the conference with their Taiwanese counterparts. The chief matchmaker was Edu-Connect’s indefatigable Executive Director, Dr. Eing-Ming Wu, a political scientist and Chair Professor at Shu-Te University who has been one of the most energetic promoters of the Philippines abroad that I’ve ever met.

With these connections in place, Philippine educators may not have to look much farther than our closest northern neighbor for vital help in raising their educational standards.

Penman No. 330: From Parrots to Maroons

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Penman for Monday, December 3, 2018

 

I HAD a whole other column lined up for this Monday, but that’s going to have to wait after last Wednesday’s titanic ballgame—you all know what I’m referring to, that heart-stopping semifinal do-or-die clash between the Adamson Soaring Falcons and the UP Fighting Maroons for a spot in the UAAP finals. Without a ticket to the live game at the Araneta Coliseum, I watched the nailbiter on a giant screen at the UP Theater with 2,000 other maroon-shirted fans, and screamed my head off as shrilly as the girls around me when UP sealed the 89-87 win with a shot in the closing seconds.

I can’t say that I’m a huge basketball fan—I hardly know what’s going on in the NBA or PBA—but I’m a big fan of school spirit, and have cheered for UP since my mother (BSE, 1956) indoctrinated me by playing a 78 rpm record of “UP Beloved” and “Push On, UP” every day when I was a boy. I do have to confess that I wore green and sat with DLSU last season, having reconnected with my grade-school classmates, but UP just wasn’t a serious contender then.

The victory over the Falcons sent me scurrying back to my UP history files, the last time we had been in the UAAP basketball finals having been 1986, when we emerged champions. Since then it’s been a long and frustrating story of losses and thwarted ambitions, reversed only this year by the Maroons’ Cinderella appearance in the finals which began last Saturday.

I dug into UP’s unpublished history and discovered some interesting factoids—one of the most interesting and rather unfortunate tidbits being that back in the ‘60s, as UP oldtimers may still recall, the Maroons were briefly called the Parrots, the emblems worn by the cheering squad. They were already known as the Maroons in the 1930s, when UP was part of the Big Three Basketball League (the other two being UST and NU). UP team captain and later Senator Ambrosio Padilla, who also played baseball, led the Philippine team in the 1936 Olympics and in the 1934 10th Far Eastern Championship Games, where we came out champions, beating Japan and China.

A bit of a spoilsport, UP President Jorge Bocobo pulled UP out of the Big Three, citing complaints that players had begun sporting a “star complex” and that the spectators had become too rowdy. Intramurals between UP Manila and UP Los Baños took over, as well as two annual “playdays”—one for boys, and one for girls. When the UAAP was founded in 1938, UP rejoined the big league. When we lost a game, we told ourselves (and others) that it was okay, because we were smarter anyway—a lame excuse we’ve fallen back on way too often down the decades.

But the evidence was there to show that our athletes had, indeed, as much brain as brawn. The unpublished history notes that “Alfonso Ybañez, varsity football captain of 1939, placed second in the board examinations for mining engineers in 1940. In that same year the spirit of sports enthusiasts was further lifted when Ambrosio Padilla joined the law faculty. And, while there might have been some excitement among the law freshmen at the news that he was going to teach the introductory course on family relations, his appointment was taken more as ‘an auspicious sign for their local basketball team.’”

Given our country’s crazy infatuation with basketball, few remember that UP actually won the general championship of the UAAP in the 1977-78 season, having bested all others at volleyball, track and field, baseball, football, and women’s basketball.

But UP’s 1986 basketball championship—powered by the likes of future PBA stars Benjie Paras and Ronnie Magsanoc—still glimmers in the memory of many Maroons of my generation, harking back to a golden age when we had just ousted a dictator (ironically also one of UP’s own) and were looking forward eagerly to a bright new future not only in sports but also in society itself. Neither of those expectations materialized—not so easily and not so quickly.

As I walked back to my car after the Adamson game, the cheers and chants of the crowd still ringing in my ears, I savored the extraordinary sense of solidarity that sports can bring to a community all too easily fractured by politics. Everyone needed the relief after a couple of weeks dominated by horribly bad news about misogyny and brawling among frat boys—a discussion that can’t and shouldn’t go away, but which also can’t be everything that defines a university.

After the 1986 victory, UP went wild, holding a big motorcade featuring three bands and capped the night with a bonfire. I’d have to wonder how we’ll top that in the event that the miracle continues and we rout our favored Katipunan neighbors. Raze the arboretum? Just to annoy the mighty Eagles, I think I’ll look for a parrot, dye it maroon, and train it to screech “Atin ‘to! Atin ‘to!

 

 

Penman No. 325: Free to Think, Free to Speak

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Penman for Monday, October 29, 2018

 

I’VE BEEN seeing frothy messages on the Internet calling for the University of the Philippines to be shut down because it seems to be producing nothing more than anti-government critics and rebels (and, uhm, five out the seven new National Artists announced last week).

It’s no big secret that rebellion and resistance are coded into UP’s DNA, because it has always encouraged critical thinking, which in turn encourages—at least for a while, until complacency sets in—an attitude of dissent, of anti-authoritarianism, of rejection of the status quo. That’s how knowledge happens, as every scientist since Galileo has affirmed. Learning to lead requires critical thinking; learning to follow demands nothing more than blind conformity.

Apply that to the political sphere, and not surprisingly, UP has for the past century been a crucible of protest, against both internal and external forces seeking to influence its constituents’ thoughts and actions. Those protests and their causes have ranged from tuition fees, uniforms, and substandard facilities to unfair dismissals, Malacañang interference, foreign control of our destiny, and the overhaul of Philippine society itself.

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In 1928, a law prescribed the wearing of uniforms by students in all public schools, including UP. The uniform for men was a white suit (khaki on rainy days); for women, a white blouse and dress reaching three inches below the knees. UP students opposed the measure, and President Rafael Palma supported them.

In 1933, the first student protest against a tuition fee increase, from P30 to P50 per semester, took place at the College of Education in the form of a boycott led by, among others, Fe Palma—the daughter of the President.

The resistance got more serious when it came to political interference in UP affairs. In the early ‘30s, in a tussle over differing positions on Philippine independence, then Senate President Manuel Quezon punished Palma—and the entire University—by removing UP’s lump-sum allotment. Quezon was a notorious meddler in UP matters, often coming to Padre Faura from Malacañang when he was President astride a white horse. A young UP law student even attacked Quezon for his “frivolity,” accusing Quezon of throwing lavish parties in Malacañang while the country suffered under the Americans. The student’s name was Ferdinand Marcos.

This didn’t stop with Quezon. When President Quirino demanded courtesy resignations from all government officials, UP President Bienvenido Gonzalez refused to tender his, to protect UP’s autonomy.

In the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism, the Congressional Committee on Anti-Filipino Activities conducted a witch-hunt for communists in UP; the committee was led by Cong. Leonardo Perez, himself a former Collegianeditor. A throng of 3,000 students led by Heherson Alvarez and Reynato Puno marched to Congress in protest.

Diosdado Macapagal made few friends in UP when, upon assuming office in 1962, he announced that his choice for next UP President was Carlos P. Romulo, practically bypassing the Board of Regents. Macapagal got his way.

About Macapagal’s successor Marcos, I can only say that as a 17-year-old participant in the Diliman Commune, I carried but never got to throw a Molotov cocktail—but I would have if I had to, firm in the belief that the military had no right to drive their armored vehicles onto UP grounds.

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True, since the 1940s, many of the leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines have come from UP, from the fascinating Lava brothers to the English major Joma Sison. But UP has also bred Presidents Laurel, Roxas, Macapagal, Marcos, and Macapagal-Arroyo. Ramon Magsaysay and Fidel Ramos both spent time in UP before moving elsewhere. We can add hundreds of senators, congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet secretaries, and icons of industry, the arts, the sciences and the professions to this list.

In other words, UP has attracted all kinds—communists and socialists, yes, but also capitalists, ultraconservative Catholics and born-again Christians, Rizalist cultists, military agents, the Ananda Marga, and Muslim separatists. Our 300,000 alumni can count saints as well as scoundrels, Jedi Masters and Sith Lords, democrats and demagogues.

And the same thing can be said of top global universities like Cambridge, which in the 1930s was home to what came to be known as the “Cambridge Five,” led by the top Soviet spy Kim Philby. There’s a Communist Party of Canada Club at the University of Toronto, alongside an American Culture Club and a Chinese Christian Fellowship. Even Wharton has a Marx Café, an underground club of Marxist enthusiasts.

When you think about it, apprehensions about UP in 2018 are no more tenable than the charges laid against freethinkers on campus back in the 1940s. And we actually do a lot more than rebel—look into our breakthroughs in research on www.up.edu.ph, which has helped boost our ranking to the top of Philippine universities.

For me, the true heart of UP lies neither in the Right nor the Left, but in that great liberal middle—“liberal” with a small “L”—whose members value the freedom to think, to speak, to study, and to teach, subscribing neither to State propaganda nor to Party doctrine, but trusting their own reason and education to illumine the way forward.

In its editorial of April 14, 1962, the Philippine Collegian wrote this about outgoing President Vicente Sinco, a visionary who fathered what came to be known as the General Education program and who fought to maintain UP’s secular character:

“Dr. Sinco is one of the most liberal of UP presidents. He has stood for intellectual freedom, for the autonomy of the mind…. This particular achievement of Dr. Sinco in… protecting the freedom of intelligence from the infringements of lies, orthodoxy, and mediocrity is a challenge to anyone in the future who will occupy the office.”

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

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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. 321: That “K” Factor

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Penman for Monday, October 1, 2018

 

I WAS  in Bangkok last week among a delegation of Filipino academics to attend the 8th meeting of the Korean Studies Association of Southeast Asia (KOSASA), and it was a good opportunity to reflect on the history and growth of Philippine-Korean relations, which have seen a major boost over the past 20 years. While economically driven, much of that growth has been cultural—let’s call it the “K” factor—which accounts for both the proliferation of little Koreatowns and Korean restaurants in major Philippine cities and my wife Beng’s insatiable addiction to Koreanovelas like Boys Over Flowers.

Younger Filipinos enamored of K-Pop probably won’t be aware of this, but our diplomatic ties with Korea (I mean South Korea, of course) will mark their 70thanniversary next year. Those ties were barely a year old when the Korean War erupted, and as an American ally, we sent a contingent of almost 7,500 soldiers to join the fight—the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (PEFTOK), which famously included a young lieutenant by the name of Fidel V. Ramos. After the war, Filipinos also contributed to the economic rehabilitation of South Korea. For example, Filipino engineers helped build the Jangchung Gymnasium—Korea’s first domed sports arena—that opened in 1963.

Korea has since given much back to the Filipino people. In 2013, the Korean government readily sent troops and NGO workers to help in rehabilitation and recovery projects after the devastation wrought by Typhoon Yolanda.

The Philippines has seen an influx of Korean tourists and migrants, who now make up 25 percent of total foreign arrivals, reaching more than 1.6 million in 2017. The Korean community in the Philippines is also flourishing, growing to over 93,000 residents as of 2017.

 For all these reasons, over the past decade, Korean studies in the Philippines have developed both in quantity and quality. With the Philippines hosting one of the largest expatriate Korean communities in the world, Filipino scholars are studying the Korean diaspora and interrelated phenomena in the Philippine context.

 The University of the Philippines leads in the study of Korean social sciences, humanities, and language in the country. Korean studies are lodged in four colleges in UP Diliman: the Asian Center, the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, the College of Arts and Letters, and the Center for International Studies.

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The Asian Center offers MA and PhD programs in Asian studies, which include Korean topics and concerns. Korean language courses were first offered by the UP Department of Linguistics in 1990 as an Asian language elective. Until recently, only four courses in Korean were offered in UP, but higher-level courses have just been added to the curriculum. The Center for International Studies also offers a Korea-related GE (General Education) course for undergraduates, now titled “Global Studies 197: From Kimchi to K-Pop.”

In 2016, UP launched the Korea Research Center (UP KRC) aiming to lead and harmonize Philipine-Korean research and link Korean academic institutions and Korean community organizations in the Philippines. It also publishes HanPil: Occasional Paper Series on the Philippines and Korea, which has now produced three issues. Bringing all of these resources together, the First Philippine Koreanist Congress was held on May 26, 2018.

UP’s engagement with Korean academic institutions is part of a broad and strong initiative on the part of UP to internationalize its offerings, its faculty and student body, and its academic and institutional network. While UP, in decades past, traditionally looked westward—particularly to the United States and Europe—for these connections, it has increasingly sought to strengthen its relations with Asian universities. Since 2012, we’ve sent 123 students and 14 faculty members from UP to South Korean universities for study. The 14 faculty members went there for their doctorates—again a marked departure from our old practice of sending our faculty to the West for their PhDs.

On a personal note, while I’m in no way a Korea expert, as a journalist and novelist I’ve maintained strong personal relationships with my Korean counterparts, and have participated in several literary conferences in Korea. (I’ll be returning there in November for a writers’ conference on Peace in Asia in Gwangju.) Time and again, in these meetings, I’ve realized how much we share with Koreans—in terms, for example, of our experience with martial law and our emergence from it. So what happened since, and what accounts for the palpable difference in our two economies? That’s what we need to learn from them.

Of course, we also have much to share with Korea. One of my best graduate students, Sandra Nicole Roldan, had one of her essays translated and published in the Korean literary journal ASIA a couple of years ago, where one of my short stories, “In the Garden,” was also published in Korean in 2015. They’re small starts, but hopefully this exchange will grow in the other direction. Right now, a visiting professor is teaching Filipino language courses at the Busan University of Foreign Studies (BUFS), laying the foundation for Philippine Studies there. Maybe Koreans will soon discover Sarah Geronimo and some of our best pop artists as well!

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. 314: Sourcing the Pinoy Crowd

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Penman for Monday, August 6, 2018

 

ART CRITICS often like to write about the Pinoy penchant to fill up vacant spaces—our horror vacui, evident in everything from our front yards to our jeepneys and desktops. And when there’s nothing to fill up a nice big void like an empty hall or open street with, heck, we fill them up with our own bodies, to form a healthy crowd.

We Pinoys usually don’t think too much about being caught in a crush at the LRT, the ballgame, or the rally. Indeed, students of crowd psychology will point out that while they may be uncomfortable, crowds can also generate positive synergies, and that even in the most seemingly unruly mob, an inner logic eventually emerges and prevails.

But we also know that crowds can turn ugly and deadly pretty quickly, as the stampedes that every and then convulse English football show. Even much less than that, there’s nothing funny about people fainting in a queue or in a surging mass of bodies desperate for one thing, whether it’s a glance from a rock star or a little slip of paper that could be a ticket to a first-rate college education.

All this was on my mind last Monday as I dealt with one of my busiest days as a school administrator at the University of the Philippines, where an estimated 40,000 people converged at the Office of Admissions in Diliman in one day to submit their applications to take the UPCAT, UP’s entrance exam, in mid-September. To wrap your head around that figure, Diliman has 25,000 students on a normal day. But my guess is that at least half of those 40,000 were anxious parents taking a day off from work to accompany their kids.

It was actually the extended deadline for students of private high schools in Metro Manila (not public as erroneously reported—a lot of fake or unverified news went out that day and after, and a woman presenting herself as a network news reporter even urged the crowd to chant for an extension as her camera rolled). As a torrent of tweets soon reported, the lines kept growing longer, tempers flared, and panic seized more than a few people in the area. The media calls came soon after, and—as UP’s equivalent of, uhm, Harry Roque—I spent the rest of the day and part of the evening fielding questions.

Did we expect the size of the crowd? Well, yes and no. The surge in applications was unprecedented—in years past, we’d get something like 80,000 applications; last year it was 103,000, and this year, our estimate runs to about 167,000. What accounted for the sudden bulge? Free tuition, for one, and K-12, for another. (The actual number of qualified exam takers could be about 20 percent less, and the admission rate—those who “pass,” although there’s no fixed passing grade—about 17 percent of all takers, which is a function of UP’s carrying capacity.)

We did see that coming, but I guess what we didn’t anticipate was how many students (and/or parents) would choose to appear and line up in person, rather than avail themselves of other less stressful options clearly stated on the application webpage—to submit applications online, or by mail or courier, or in bulk with the help of their school. (UP provided the extra option of a drop box when it saw how large the crowd was.) That was probably because queuing up guaranteed—if all your papers were in order—a test permit at the end of the line. But that also meant that the line could take all day.

So we Pinoys are seguristas, willing to sacrifice comfort for the certitude of paper in hand. We still mistrust electronic processing, and can’t wait a couple of weeks to know our fate. I went onsite to see for myself what was going on, and was told by one exasperated guard that “They won’t listen! There’s a drop box right there, and we’ve told them they can courier the forms, but they’d rather line up for hours!”

You’d also have to wonder why Pinoys like to wait for deadlines to do the inevitable; July 30 was already an extension from July 27, and applications had been open for three weeks. But to be fair to the students and their parents, it wasn’t entirely their fault to have waited so late in the day to submit their papers. Some told me that their high schools had held their papers up; some were charging rather stiff fees for handling UPCAT forms.

And was there a class factor at play? When the turn of the public high school applicants came, the huge crowds dwindled, and the lines got shorter—and far fewer parents appeared, because they probably couldn’t afford a day off, or trusted their children to fend for themselves. Things moved more smoothly.

There are lessons for everyone to be learned here—by the students, by the parents, and by us, most of all—and we’ll continue seeking ways to ease procedures for everyone in the years ahead. Eventually, I foresee a time when all submissions will be made online, like visa applications—something we can’t enforce until every Filipino has access to the Internet, and overcomes his or her mistrust of information technology. Until then, we’ll all have to learn better crowd management, provide lots of water and Portalets, exercise patience, take the media brickbats, and soldier on.

Maybe this was a crowd that didn’t really need to be there, but on the other hand, and to put it positively, it was a stark visual reminder of the intensity of our people’s aspirations for a good college education. The best way to disperse it long-term would be to meet those needs, in UP and beyond.

Penman No. 313: A Life-Affirming Mission

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Penman for Monday, July 30, 2018

 

TWO SUNDAYS ago, I had the privilege of serving as commencement speaker before the 2018 graduating class of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine. You’d have to ask them why they chose to invite a writer and professor of English to speak to a corps of medical professionals, but I was happy to accept. It was likely the last time I would wear my sablay as a UP official, as I will be retiring six months hence after 35 years of service to the university. So this, too, was my valedictory, my final opportunity to share with the audience some insights gleaned from my life in UP as student, teacher, and administrator.

Here’s a brief excerpt, about a third, from that talk. Email me if you want a copy of the full text.

Thirty-six years ago, as a young and aspiring writer, I wrote a story about a doctor. The story was set in the Philippine Revolutionary War, and it dealt with an old, cynical doctor named Ferrariz who had made a mess of his life and, seeing few other options, had signed up to become a doctor with the Spanish army, fighting the Filipino insurgents up in the mountains. His unit is taking heavy losses, but one day they capture a rebel—a fifteen-year-old boy named Makaraig, who is badly wounded. Ferrariz’s superior, a major, orders Ferrariz to save the boy’s life.

Let me quote briefly from the story:

… For three days he worked like a driven man, cleaning out and dressing the boy’s wounds, setting the arm, packing cold compresses upon the swellings. He felt godlike in that mission. He unpacked his books from their mildewed boxes, brushed off the fungi and reviewed and relived the passion of the way of healing. He watched miracles work themselves upon the boy and stood back amazed at his own handiwork. When he was through, when he faced nothing more than that penance of waiting for the boy to revive, Ferrariz realized that his eyes were wet. Not since he stepped into the University, knowing nothing, had he felt as much of an honest man.

In other words, this doctor, who had lost faith in his talents and in his hands, suddenly finds himself revived and redeemed by his mission of curing a battered boy. By saving Makaraig, he saves himself.

But the story doesn’t end there. The major has his own reasons for bringing a rebel back to life—to torture and interrogate him, and eventually to kill him, and that’s where the story closes, in a long scream that pierces the doctor’s newly awakened soul.

That story, titled “Heartland,” went on to win in the 1982 Palanca Awards for Literature. But why did I write a story about a doctor who saves a patient, only to have him murdered by others? Why did I write a story about self-redemption?

The story behind the story was that while I was only 28, I felt like Ferrariz, an old man who had gone adrift and who was just going from job to job with mechanical indifference. It was martial law, and despite the fact that I became a political prisoner at 18 and spent seven months in a camp in what we now call Bonifacio Global City, I had been working as a government propagandist for the past eight years, churning out press releases, speeches for President Marcos, and glowing articles about his New Society.

I needed to remind myself that I could write good fiction (what I was writing for work was bad fiction), that somewhere in me was truth waiting to be said.

… For the past 110 years, that has been part of the mission of the University of the Philippines, our national university, the bearer and champion of our people’s hopes. Through our general education program, we try to produce graduates who can be as conversant about Greek tragedy as about the Law of the Sea and thermodynamics. The premise is that a well-rounded, well-educated student will elevate not only himself or herself but also his or her community and society, bringing people together in common cause.

At least, that’s the noble intention. We know that, in practice, while UP has produced scores of such exemplars as Wenceslao Vinzons, Fe del Mundo, Jovito Salonga, Manuel and Lydia Arguilla, and Juan Flavier, and while we graduated 29 summa cum laudes from Diliman this year, we also know that many UP students and alumni have flunked, and flunked badly, especially in the moral department.

In other words—and it saddens me as a UP professor to say this—intelligence never guaranteed moral discernment or rectitude, and as proud as we may be of our nationalist traditions and contributions to national leadership, much remains to be done to ensure that we imbue our students not only with skills but with principles. In other words, just as we ask physicians to heal themselves, we educators first have to teach ourselves.

This is why I began this talk with my story about Dr. Ferrariz and his seemingly futile gesture. What that story really wants to ask is: What is life without freedom? What is knowledge without values?

What does a cum laude mean or matter if it will not be used to relieve human suffering but only to enrich oneself and one’s family? Of what use is a glittering GWA of 1.25 if your moral GWA is a murky 3.0? How can you study to save lives and yet remain silent in the face of its wanton loss—not even by disease or accident, but by willful human policy?

There is, indeed, no more life-affirming mission or profession than yours, and in a season of slaughter, to affirm life can be a radical and even dangerous proposition.

Penman No. 309: A Breakthrough in Tacloban

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Penman for Monday, July 2, 2018

 

 

LATE JUNE is graduation season under the new academic calendar of the University of the Philippines, and since the UP System is made up of eight constituent universities spread out over 17 campuses, that’s a lot of graduations to attend for officials like me. Since the President can’t possibly be at all the ceremonies—which are sometimes scheduled on the same day, or just a day apart—we VPs decide early on where we want to go to represent the System administration.

Diliman is a given, being basically home. I also attend the rites of UP Manila, partly because I’m fascinated by the number and variety of degrees we hand out under the health sciences (culminating this year in the combined MD/PhD—a physician who’s also a researcher, the very top of the heap). But also, UP Manila—harking back to an earlier tradition—still requires its graduates to wear togas instead of the now-ubiquitous sablay or sash, which means I get to drag my US-university toga, or what I call my clown costume, out of the mothballs.

Last year I chose to go to UP Baguio, only to realize, the night before the ceremony, that not only was I on the roster of visitors, but was also the commencement speaker—a little detail that no one had remembered to tell me. A faster commencement speech was never written. (I’ll admit it—I was thrilled to get the job done.)

This June, I selected UP Tacloban—not yet a constituent university but a college under the supervision of UP Visayas. I picked Tacloban because I hadn’t been there for at least 15 years since the early 2000s, and I wanted to see how the campus and the city had recovered from Yolanda’s devastation. I imagined that It was still scarred by the catastrophe five years after; instead, as soon as we landed, I was impressed by how quickly the place had gotten back on its feet, abuzz with tricycles and new construction.

With a morning to spare, I walked about town with Beng (who had come along at her own expense to see old friends) and toured the still-sequestered Sto. Niño Shrine (always more a shrine to the Marcoses), badly ravaged by the storm and by neglect. An even sorrier sight was the adjacent People’s Center and Public Library, which had been converted to a Japanese surplus store. I don’t bemoan the humbling of excess, but as Beng reminded me, “This was the people’s money.”

One happy discovery I did not expect was Tacloban as a food paradise. Wherever we went and at whatever price point—the surf and turf combo and the grilled marlin at the hotel, the fish tinola, the grilled scallops, and bulalo at the Acacia restaurant, more tinola and nilagang carabeef at the unli-rice Pinutos at the mall, and the lemongrass roasted chicken at the now-iconic Ayo restaurant—the food was fresh and flavorful, the beef amazingly tender and the tinola divinely laced with lemongrass and ginger.

All that fortified us for the graduation, which was fairly small as UP graduations go, with just about 200 graduates, two of them finishing magna cum laude, from such fields as Accountancy, Management, Communication Arts, Biology, Computer Science, and Political Science. Tacloban Dean Dr. Dodong Sabalo, a management expert, introduced me to the commencement speaker, Ms. Debbie D. Namalata, San Miguel Brewery’s National Sales Manager and Vice President for Sales, and a UPV alumna, who gave a stirring talk about how her family overcame poverty to achieve professional success against all odds. It was a theme echoed by the valedictorian, Kim Decolongon Limosnero, whose mother had sold chicharon to put him and his siblings through school.

You’d think that I would get bored going to these graduations and witnessing the endless parade of young people coming up the stage in their Sunday best with their parents in tow, but I honestly never do, especially when I listen to such stories as Debbie’s and Kim’s, and see fathers wearing denims and sneakers not because they want to look hip but because it’s the best outfit they can afford. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Kim addressed his widowed mother—who had never finished college—as “my summa cum laude,” and I recalled my own parents who had similarly labored mightily to send all five of us to school.

And as I sat onstage, I received the saddest message on my phone, about another UP student named Jemima Faye Dangase, who was supposed to graduate cum laude in Agribusiness Economics from UP Mindanao. The daughter of very poor parents—her diabetic father was a municipal utility worker and her mother was unemployed—Jemima was clearly her family’s hope. She submitted all her requirements for graduation, went home, then crumbled in pain—pain she had borne quietly for months without complaint, apparently so as not to trouble her already beleaguered parents. She was brought to the hospital, where doctors discovered her organs ravished by cancer; and there she died.

I know it borders on melodrama, but this is, truly, the story of Philippine education and why it’s so crucial to social transformation. For every Jemima who stumbles on the very last steps, there must be a Kim who breaks through. This is why going to such places as Tacloban revives my faith in the Filipino future, despite the dark travails of the present, in this moral equivalent of a Yolanda, which—reposing our faith in a God wiser than all despots—we will survive.

Penman No. 302: A Happy Refuge

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Penman for Monday, May 14, 2018

 

 

THESE PAST few weeks and months have been fraught with loss and sadness, given the passing of many friends and personages in the arts community—National Artist Billy Abueva, National Artist Cirilo Bautista, architect and heritage advocate Toti Villalon, writer Jing Hidalgo’s daughter Lara, and, most recently, poet and inimitable punster Ed Maranan.

It’s in times like these that we seek refuge and relief in what amounts, for many if not most of us, to another realm of life, if not life itself—the world of art. Being inherently transcendent, art has a way of lifting us up and moving us away from often sordid and prosaic reality, reminding us that as ugly as the world can get (often the very subject of art), beauty exists and endures, like love, in the most unlikely places.

And sometimes beauty can be so sublime that it will not only take your breath away but cause you to smile, and even break out in wild laughter. I remember one such moment of sheer exhilaration from about eight years ago when I stepped out of the train in Sta. Lucia station for my first sight of Venice on a bright summer afternoon, and everything was as it would have been in a painting by Turner or Canaletti—not just the canals, gondolas, and cupolas, but the people and the pigeons, the thrum of the vaporettos and the bells of the bicycles darting past me. At that instant, all I could do was laugh, my joy tempered only by the fact that I didn’t bring Beng with me (four years later, on our fortieth anniversary, I made good on a promise and did just that).

Two events in this first quarter of the year provoked a similar response in me.

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The first was a free, open-air concert given last March 23 at the Amphitheater in UP Diliman by the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of resident conductor Dr. Herminigildo G. Ranera. The idea was hatched between Cultural Center of the Philippines President Arsenio “Nick” Lizaso and UP President Danilo “Danicon” L. Concepcion. Nick’s a seasoned actor and director and longtime cultural advocate who took charge of the CCP last year with the view of bringing that venerable institution closer to the masses. Danicon, who had also just marked his first year in office, wanted something fresh and inspiring to happen on campus to buoy people’s spirits up and spur cultural appreciation in the community. Backstopping both was former UP Diliman College of Music dean and tenor Ramon “Montet” Acoymo, who helped put a program together for the PPO in UP.

The brief was simple, but surely a nightmare to execute: bring the PPO’s 58 members to the backside of Quezon Hall facing the amphitheater, where graduations are usually held, fill up that sprawling space with people, and have the PPO perform a program of light classics that everyone could relate and hum along to. Oh—and find sponsors to foot the bill, to do away with tickets and invite even slipper-shod retirees and children to enjoy the music on the grass, under the stars.

And that’s exactly what happened. Like magic—with pieces ranging from the William Tell Overture and Les Miserables to Star Wars and Despacito—the PPO serenaded the spillover crowd and proved, once again—despite the turmoil and clamor of politics—that music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, as the poet said. Thank you, Nick, Danicon, and the PPO for the rare treat—and folks, await a Yuletide reprise, which is being planned out as I write.

My second moment of wonderment came when Beng and I stepped last week into the new (and still ongoing) exhibit of painter Fernando “Mode” Modesto at the downstairs gallery of the Globe Tower in BGC, care of the Hiraya Gallery. Titled “Bliss from Bygone Days,” the exhibit celebrates “euphoria, delight, and rapture,” but I didn’t need to read the liner notes to know that. I felt it the minute I paused in front of a painting like “Khartoum”—a lemony depiction of two angels playing with a ball, and my favorite of the lot alongside “Bali,” a blue sky streaked with orange and yellow. They’re paintings you could stare at, smiling, for hours.

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I’d known Mode since the mid-1970s when I hung out at the Philippine Association of Printmakers studio in Ermita, and he was an enfant terrible shocking matrons with his paintings of airborne phalluses. He still shocks today—but with an exuberant wit, a brazen intent to make the viewer smile and be happy despite the tribulations of life in the age of tokhang. Even when he uses black, Mode’s subversive humor pops up, insect-like.

I often ask my writing students, “Where’s the humor in our fiction? Why is every damn story I get a self-obsessed and anguished one of defeat and despair? Sure, life sucks—but I already know that. Can’t you bring me somewhere we haven’t been—like a happiness I can believe in?”

That’s where I thought I was when I stepped into Mode’s works; too bad I had to step back out into the world again.