Behaving badly

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I teach at the University of the Philippines and was also educated there. Unlike Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, and like most UP students and alumni, I know to whom I owe my education.

I won’t say who was President of the Philippines when I first came to UP ages ago. But I will say it wasn’t him or his government I felt grateful to, but my parents, as well as the Filipino people, whose taxes sustain UP. To Gonzalez and his fellow bureaucrats, however, it’s the government that’s giving UP students a “world class education.” Thus his recent demand that UP students should be thanking the Arroyo regime rather than “destabilizing” it.

We didn’t have a term for it then. But today most UP students proudly refer to themselves as “Iskolar ng Bayan” or “People’s Scholars” because that’s what they are, their education being subsidized, not by any government, but by the people.

As People’s Scholars, not all UP students go on to “serve the people”–another phrase with which all UP students are familiar–after they graduate. Some do go to UP so they can excel in the fields they’ve chosen, becoming filthy rich or obscenely powerful in the process. Many become pillars of the very political, economic and social order they once railed against. They become congressmen and senators, judges, Malacanang chiefs of staff, and even presidents of the Republic.

But many do take the injunction to serve seriously. They work in poor communities as rights advocates and teachers. They lawyer for the powerless. They join community newspapers. They are involved in grassroots and other advocacies.

Some do end up in “rebel groups” as writers, organizers, political officers and guerilla fighters, even as others become officers and leading members of those organizations usually described as “militant” and whom the Arroyo regime calls “destabilizers.”

It won’t do to describe UP as either a bastion of the status quo or as a nest of “destabilizers.” It resists either description because it has produced people like Ferdinand Marcos, parasol-wielding justices of the Supreme Court, most of the congressmen allies of Mrs. Arroyo, Jurassic senators like Juan Ponce Enrile, etc. etc. It has also produced leftists and revolutionaries like Jose Ma. Sison and the Lava brothers as well as those men and women who gave their lives resisting the Marcos dictatorship, and who continue to risk death and torture during the current reign of assassins.

But there is one generalization that can be made about UP, and it is that it indeed has a culture, or a way of looking at and doing things that’s unique to it. That culture helps account for its capacity to provide the kind of education that has made it the leading university in this country and among the best in Asia. That culture is the culture of independence, daring, and free inquiry. To the unknowing, the expressions of that culture in feudal Philippines are often interpreted as bad behavior.

When I first came to UP fresh out of high school decades ago, and entered its classrooms, met its professors, and began to explore its libraries, it was like being beamed into another universe.

My first history classes shattered the myths of Spanish-era progress and United States colonial benevolence the high school textbooks had zealously propagated. I was amazed at the freedom with which the student newspaper—the only student newspaper in the country today without a faculty adviser–criticized the UP as well as national administrations.

There was no list of prohibited books in the library. The books and anything else printed or recorded (at that time on tape and vinyl records) were in fact there in abundance for anyone to access. (UP librarians were and are still known for their acute historical instincts. For future needs, they collect every statement, manifesto, student newspaper no matter how occasional, as well as books, tapes, CDs and periodicals they can lay their hands on.)

Most of all was I pleasantly surprised in the classroom, where most professors expected not only questions but even contrary opinions. Classroom discussions often spilled out into the corridors and cafeterias, where professors and students would congregate after classes to continue debating this or that point in philosophy, literature, politics or history. No one interfered, and everyone was free to express even the most outlandish views in any forum including the student newspapers.

The same culture persists to this day. That culture explains why, unlike the administrators of other schools, UP officials hardly blink when students confront, question and criticize them in public forums. That culture also explains why events like the Oblation Run–in which members of the UP Chapter of the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity run naked at Quezon Hall (the main administration building in Diliman) with only their faces covered–happen without anyone being unduly shocked.

In addition to declaring UP a nest of destabilizers, however, Raul Gonzalez also sees the Oblation Run as no more than an exhibitionist indulgence rather than as an expression of the freedom that makes a university great despite its flaws. Gonzalez would have everyone behave properly, and he claimed that he for one is “well behaved” because he’s a graduate of the University of Santo Tomas.

I suppose that by “well-behaved” rather than “destabilizing,” he means being submissive–to injustice, to so-called authority, to mass misery, to brutality and stupidity, and all the other ills Filipino flesh is heir to, thanks to bad government.

I don’t know how UST alumni like National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera and 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Journalism Awardee Eugenia Apostol would react to the idea that attending UST makes one as “well behaved” as Gonzalez. Lumbera has been “destabilizing” governments through his writing and political engagement even before the martial law period, and Apostol has been doing the same thing through her newspapers since Marcos assumed absolute power in 1972. Is Gonzalez giving UP too much credit and his own alma mater too little?

(Business Mirror)

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