Empowering citizens: Education should be available to all

UP Diliman campus (Ederic Eder)
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ONLY a few individuals and groups, among the latter the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP), took issue with a statement by Commission on Higher Education (CHED) chair Patricia Licuanan last August that not every student should go to college.

What she said should have occupied both the media and citizens more than such inanities as the “AlDub” television phenomenon or the latest developments in Manuel “Mar” Roxas II’s and Jejomar Binay’s trifling quest for a candidate for Vice President. In time these will pass as most things do. But the education of the younger generations will have an impact on the nation far beyond the imbecilities of daytime TV and the delusions of Philippine partisan politics.

We can assume that the views of the CHED chair, which have also been expressed by other officials so often they’ve become a tiresome refrain, are reflective of current government policy. Because that policy touches many lives, the public, especially the young men and women who constitute and will shape the country’s future, need to weigh in on it.

A college education is after all widely regarded as the way out of the poverty that afflicts millions of Filipino families, and as the key to the social mobility through which a taxi driver’s daughter or the son of a street vendor could break through the often insurmountable barriers of social class and make it as a professional. Education has a liberating power; thus Jose Rizal’s support for the plan of the women of Malolos to establish a school, and his own thwarted intention to establish an institution equipped with modern facilities and armed with a commitment to conquer the ignorance that he said is slavery.

But here was the chair of CHED, who has State supervision over tertiary education—and who also chairs the University of the Philippines Board of Regents—declaring that only some students should go to college while others should be content with a technical and vocational education.

“We don’t think that every student really should go to college. There are very good programs in the technical and vocational areas or in the area of middle-level skills, and you get jobs when you finish these programs,” said Licuanan.

What this statement does is divide students into two groups: those who can go to college, with all that the entitlement implies, and those whose development would be limited by consigning them to technical and vocational education. It seems reasonable only at first glance, being in truth a form of discrimination.

In the very nature of things, it is the poor who are usually denied the opportunity not only to escape poverty but also the possibility for intellectual growth that college education should make possible. It presumes the privilege of some and the exclusion of others on the basis of—what else—capacity to pay. Strange for an educator with a satchelful of degrees to suppose, it also assumes that the ultimate aim of education is employment.

NUSP said in a statement that “the CHED chair (should) be ensuring that all Filipinos attain a college degree and a liberating education…But as it is, CHED and Licuanan are the stumbling blocks to achieving quality, free tertiary education.”

College or tertiary attendance, however, is not necessarily synonymous with “education.” Whether one will indeed be educated in college depends not only on the institution’s capacity to impart knowledge but also on its commitment to the imperative of awakening and nurturing the individual’s potential for creative, critical and original thought. But some institutions—whether those in Rizal’s time or their present-day reincarnations—kill such potentials and stunt growth by programing individuals like robots into accepting the way things are, and curbing the capacity to think beyond what’s conventional and commonly accepted.

For college education to be synonymous with authentic, liberative education, it has to encourage and develop the life-long capacity to think on one’s own, through, among other means, a college culture that allows students to explore knowledge without inhibition, to ask questions and to debate among themselves and even with their professors, to express themselves without fear even as the institution opens every door to the acquisition of those skills necessary in the practice of any discipline.

Authentic education is empowering rather than restrictive. The development of a critical capacity should result in the making of citizens capable of understanding the world as well as armed with the commitment and means to change it. Is education’s revolutionary potential what the Philippine government and its foreign overlords fear, thus the policy of limiting access to higher education through such means as allowing colleges to collect sky-high tuition fees, and justifying those by saying that anyway, vocational training leads to immediate employment?

But while the end of education is not simply employment, in the Philippine context a college degree widens opportunities for landing a job. Technical training can in some instances provide jobs, but what jobs are available are limited in number and low-end, and what’s worse, restrictive of the individual’s further development.

Even from the standpoint of assuring gainful employment, no one, least of all the State, should be deciding who can go to college and who can’t. The ultimate authority for that is the individual him/herself. No one should be forced to go to college. Just as no one should be forced not to.

The right to choose should be indivisible from any educational policy, authentic education’s most valuable product being, after all, the capacity not only to map one’s own path of development, but also to earn the freedom to contribute to human advancement. But the expectation that college work would be authentic education rather than indoctrination is as much the right of those who are at its receiving end.

The problem is that the State assumes that it has the right to make not only such decisions as to who may go to college and who may not—which in this country necessarily translates into dividing people according to the pressures and prerogatives of social class—but also to dictate that colleges should teach acquiescence and obedience to the existing state of things (through, for example, such agencies as CHED).

In practice, that focus compels schools to indoctrinate students into approving and supporting the way things are rather than developing the power to critically understand the world. State policy should recognize and nurture the role of true education in leading individuals out of the darkness of ignorance and slavery into the bright light of knowledge and freedom, and it should be obvious that the primary function of the State is to make all education available to all who choose to avail of it.

(BusinessWorld)

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