UP Diliman campus (Ederic Eder)
UP Diliman campus (Ederic Eder)

In the 1960s the University of the Philippines’ being supposedly “godless” and its students’ being agnostics if not atheists was common lore among middle-class families thinking of where to send their children to college.

Among the reasons could have been UP’s being a secular institution rather than a religious one, and the claim, made through the media by adherents of “godly” education, alleging the infestation of the philosophy department of its then College of Liberal Arts with atheists, who were also accused of being communists.

UP of course cannot but be secular. It is a State university with no allegiance to any religion. On the other hand, most if not all of the supposed atheists in the then philosophy department were actually agnostics (they didn’t think the existence of God could be proven) rather than atheists (who believe there is no God), and most of the faculty adherents of a school of philosophy known as logical positivism rather than, and antithetical to, Marxism.

But as the political, economic and social crisis of Philippine society intensified, both professors and students became more and more involved in identifying the roots of that crisis and in the search for its solution. UP was no longer just a “godless” university, it was also thought to be the lair of activism, specifically of leftist, even communist activism.

Not a few families kept their children from UP for this reason, although, unknown to them, in most of the other schools to which they sent their children including the most “exclusive” (read expensive), a good number of the faculty and many of the students were by the late 1960s also immersed in the same process. By the time Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, student and faculty activism was a national phenomenon, as part of the larger movement for change and democratization the declaration of martial law was meant to stop (although the proclamation was also meant to ensure that Marcos would remain in power beyond 1973).

The martial law period did achieve that purpose. Through arrests, torture, extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances as well as other means, not only was an entire generation decimated during the 14 years in which the country was under authoritarian rule. By the time the Marcos regime was overthrown, the members of the next, often without their knowing it, had also been intimidated into not even thinking about involvement in any authentic movement for change, and into, instead, concentrating on their personal advancement . Martial law had instilled not only fear but also a focus on self-aggrandizement, and was in that sense eminently successful in instilling the values of selfishness among many of the young men and women who went into college by the time the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown.

This was more than evident in the University of the Philippines, where the activism of the 1960s and early 1970s had given way to complacency and indifference to social issues by the 1980s. Of course remnants of activist commitment survived among the members of the generation that came after that of the 1960s. But the waning of interest in social and political issues was apparent in, among others, the decline of participation in mobilizations for, say, opposition to the renewal of the US military bases agreement in the late 1980s. The apathy to taking to the streets continued in the 1990s, despite wide-spread awareness of the many problems of Philippine society among students, the apathy being driven by a sense that once one graduates, one can either go abroad or into call center work anyway. Education does open doors otherwise closed to those denied the same opportunity.

One can argue that the Estrada years and the scandals and atrocities of the “Arroyo decade” resulted in, among others, an upsurge in student activism. But the assumption that that activism is primarily based in the University of the Philippines may not be sustainable. Progressive student organizations in UP remain small. Their mobilizations on UP campuses in support of various causes or against certain policies have not always been successful. Some also suffered substantial losses during the last student elections in UP Diliman and other UP System universities. It can also be argued that the center of gravity of the student movement, such as it is, has shifted from UP to other schools.

And yet, as UP Student Regent Krissy Conti said in a statement posted online this April, “There is an established trend of UP students’ being accosted, harassed, and attacked by (government security forces).” Such harassments, and even arrests, continuing detention, and in the case of social work students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño, enforced disappeartances, have taken place when UP students are doing field work, sharing classroom knowledge with depressed communities, or attending seminars and workshops in the provinces.

Two UP Manila students were shadowed by the military last April, apparently on mere suspicion that one of them was the daughter of an alleged New People’s Army leader. Eight UP Los Banos students on field work in a Batangas town were accosted by military elements who demanded that they submit their names and surrender the video footage they were taking of the locality to them. Three UP Diliman students doing their practicum in Porac, Pampanga, “were made to stand under the midday sun for an hour while they were accused of being members of the New People’s Army (NPA), and verbally and physically abused by the soldiers,” said Conti.

In addition to these incidents, other UP students and alumni have been arrested and detained by the military, prompting the University Council of UP Diliman (the policy-making body of UP constituent universities made up of assistants professors and up) to issue last December a statement demanding the release of detained UP students and alumni, as well as respect for academic freedom and other rights. The Council noted “a disconnect between how certain agencies perceive the University and its necessary role in a society in crisis.”

The incidents seem to be premised on the mistaken assumption that every UP student is either part of the political infrastructure of the Communist Party of the Philippines and/ or of the New People’s Army, if not NPA guerillas themselves. But they also indicate the State’s failure, particularly on the part of the security forces that are solely focused on counter-insurgency, to understand the role of universities, including a State-owned and -controlled one like UP, in examining the state of the country through research (which includes field work) as part of the process of finding the solutions to its problems, and the departure from conventional and failed approaches that may result from it.

If such efforts by the young as undertaking field research and sharing classroom knowledge with the communities — commitments at the very heart of what universities should be doing in a society in perpetual crisis — are met today with the same forms of repression perfected by the Philippine police and military during the martial law period, what hope is there in addressing this country’s problems except in organized resistance to the forces preventing the discovery, much more the implementation, of the needed solutions?

First published in BusinessWorld.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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