It has been some time since a person of national consequence spoke about the need to create a vibrant middle class, the dream that animated pre-1960s nationalists and post-Edsa democrats alike. For that alone, Sen. Edgardo Angara’s address at the graduation rites of the University of the Philippines last Sunday was noteworthy. But his speech, which drew necessary attention to the importance of the middle class, also prompts uncomfortable questions about who, exactly, make up the middle.
“A strong middle class is the backbone of civil society,” Angara said. “[It] is the voice of reason that moderates vested interests, the force of change that compels societies to invest in their own future.”
This is a view with a history; it goes back to the likes of Jovito Salonga and Jose Diokno, to Horacio de la Costa and Lorenzo Tañada and Jose P. Laurel, all the way to Jose Rizal and the reformists of his time.
Angara, who is rounding out his fourth term (and 24th year) in the Senate, is a former UP president with a deep interest in history. (He is also a political kingpin in his native Aurora province, and the father of a three-term congressman running for the Senate; questions about his true legacy, about the political dynasty he has founded, and the political and economic advantages he may have enjoyed through his mastery of law and legislation, will continue to be raised long after he leaves office on June 30.)
Angara’s historical understanding was on display when he rooted his discussion of the role of the middle class in the experience of the ilustrados—the so-called enlightened ones, that 19th-century generation of educated Filipinos symbolized by Rizal himself, out of whose ranks came the thinkers and leaders of the Philippine Revolution.
Today’s middle class is like the ilustrados of the 19th century, the senator said, because the class to which the graduates he was addressing belonged is “our country’s greatest resource of talent and potential.” This resource is all the more vital, he said, given the radical changes that have swept over Philippine society in the last several decades. But—a significant point—it is not only the Philippines that enjoys the so-called demographic sweet spot; countries like Vietnam are in the same race to develop a true, enlightened middle class. However, he added: “Whether these new ilustrados will be aware of their identity and conscious of their social role is an entirely different matter.”
Rhetorically and intellectually, linking the history of the ilustrados with the role of the new graduates was a bold move on Angara’s part; when he was UP president, and for a decade or so before and after his term, the very concept of “ilustrado” was derogatory in UP and in other schools. It meant someone who was rich enough in the late 19th century (and therefore implicated in the Spanish colonial regime) to get an education in Spain. Many educated Filipinos today still use the word in that context; for instance, when Sen. Chiz Escudero endorsed the vice presidential candidacy of Jejomar Binay in an influential commercial three years ago, he said his candidate was not ilustrado, meaning Binay was not (born) rich.
But in fact the word only means an enlightened person, and applies equally well to such illustrious heroes as the penurious Apolinario Mabini, the proletarian Emilio Jacinto, and the largely self-taught Andres Bonifacio. None of them studied abroad; all of them helped shape the nation.
It was in this sense that Angara exhorted the new graduates of the country’s premier university to see themselves as the new ilustrados.
We have to ask, however: Is this concept of the middle class too limiting? We can understand the premium Angara places on a college education, but how many of the millions of students who enter the first grade make it all the way to a bachelor’s degree? What about the laborers who failed to finish their schooling, the farmers who cannot leave the land they till, the fisherfolk whose only classroom is a temperamental sea? Will they never be part of what Angara and many other national leaders before him call “an enlightened middle class”?
Doubtless, the new graduates have a crucial role to play in developing a modern, more competitive, more equitable country. One of their first tasks, however, may be to forge a definition of the middle class that, as in other constitutional democracies, does not depend on college education alone. That middle class should include Bonifacio’s numerous heirs.