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. 137: The Other Filipino Values

Penman for Monday, February 23, 2015

 

DURING THIS most recent US visit, I had a chance to have a chat over a few beers with Ray Ricario, the older brother of our daughter Demi’s husband Jerry, and with some of Ray’s friends. Born in the US to parents from Albay, Ray’s a retired naval officer and an entrepreneur. He and his family are registered albeit moderate Republicans—as you might expect of Filipino immigrants steeped in a proud military tradition—and Ray knows that Beng and I are passionate liberals, so we have a lively but always civil conversation going about current events in the US, the Philippines, and around the world.

More often than not we end up agreeing on more things than we disagree on, especially when it comes to strengthening ties between Filipinos and Americans, and raising the profile of the Philippines in America. I always look forward to meeting with Ray, not the least because he and his wife Lorie are unfailingly gracious hosts and we both love beer and barbecue.

Our last conversation revolved around a common concern: the preservation of Filipino values and their transmission to the next generation of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans. As the father of three children, Ray feels strongly about the need for them to have some vital cultural connection to the old country, even as they join—as they should and inevitably will—the American mainstream. The others around our table lamented how Filipino values seemed to be eroding among the Filipino-American youth, but were rightfully proud at the same time of their efforts to preserve them. One of the ways mentioned was the practice of taking the hand of one’s elder to one’s forehead in a gesture of respect—our famous and unique “mano po.”

That was fine and laudable, I said, but it also got me thinking about what other values we seek to pass on to our young, aside from the respect we expect and sometimes demand of them. I had to wonder what a young Filipino-American, told by his dad or mom to do mano to an older Filipino stranger entering the room, would be feeling at that moment of contact—would that be genuine respect, or a grudging sense of obligation, accompanied by a shudder at the external silliness of the deed?

The mano po is a wonderful tradition (even though, to be honest, you hardly see it being done anymore even in Manila), and those of us who still practice it know and understand that the value it embodies is respect for one’s elders. But how well is that value valued in such a place as America, where the native-born young—without necessarily meaning to be disrespectful or impertinent—might see things (such as authority) differently? How well can values and traditions carry over in another context—or sometimes, without the context that gave them meaning in the first place?

I suggested that perhaps “respect for elders” could itself be revisited and explained in a way that young people today (as we ourselves were, not too long ago) could better understand and accept. Having been social rebel in my own youth, I refuse to see “respect for elders” as the blind acceptance of the authority of the old; that will only ingrain resentment and resistance. I’d rather take and present it as a willingness to listen, an acceptance of the possibility (however remote it may seem to a 16-year-old) that this older person might actually have something sensible and useful to share with you. When I do the mano po, I accept you—in all my youthful arrogance—as my equal.

That brought me to other Filipino values—both of a philosophical and practical sort—that I don’t think we emphasize enough, whether in America or at home. I’d argue that principled resistance is one of them. We’ve had a long tradition of protest and rebellion against tyranny, injustice, and bondage, as our many revolutionary heroes will bear out—but instead we seem to emphasize acceptance and acquiescence, in the desire not to give offense or to create conflict. That’s why we wear our crown of thorns with misguided pride, sometimes reveling more in our capacity for suffering rather than addressing its causes.

Our table talk didn’t get this far, but I could have proposed two more—and truly practical values—to push among the young today on both sides of the Pacific.

The first is respect for food—especially in America, where so much of it goes around, and goes to waste. This can be one of the most personal and practical applications of a social conscience—don’t take or order more than what you can eat, and finish what’s on your plate. For Beng and me, that especially applies to rice, having which we always take as a privilege. If we can’t finish our meal at a restaurant, we have it wrapped up—even that half cupful of rice—and bring it home, or hand it over to some needier person on the street.

The second is cleanliness and tidiness. We Filipinos like to keep ourselves and our surroundings clean and neat, and it’s important that we do this by ourselves. Growing up as children, our day literally began by folding our mats and mosquito nets; even if we didn’t have much, we never saw poverty as an excuse for becoming slovenly. Want to promote democracy? Teach the señorito to clean up after himself; forget any thoughts of achieving national greatness if we can’t even discipline ourselves.

Knowing Ray and seeing what a wonderful family he has, I know that I’m not shouting in the wind when I bring up these notions. I wish he’d vote for Hillary, but that’s another topic for another day.