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Looking Back
Real challenge in Philippine education

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:42:00 01/17/2008

Filed Under: Education, history

Sen. Edgardo Angara delivered the Sixth Jaime V. Ongpin Annual Memorial lecture at the Ateneo Professional Schools in Rockwell Center to a full auditorium last Wednesday. With the theme ?Education is Our Future,? he spoke about the need to nurture Science, Technology, Engineering, and Innovation (STEI) in Philippine education through massive government funding, institutional linkages, and public policy, thereby jump-starting our arrested development. Compared with other countries, we have fallen behind in this area, but that was not the depressing part of the lecture that ended with the optimistic line, ?the future is within our reach.?

That education is important, that education is essential to our development as a people and a nation is an accepted fact. But the data presented by the senator on our present standing in STEI was horrendous. We have lagged a long way since Anacleto del Rosario demonstrated the use of electric light in the Ateneo Municipal in Intramuros in the late 19th century. In a dark age largely illuminated by candles, kalburo, gas and Jesuits, the first light bulb in the Philippines blazed for a few seconds creating a sensation in Manila. But what did Filipinos do with that enthusiasm? Did we develop electric light? We did nothing.

References to technology in the correspondence of our heroes provide engaging reading. For example, when Jose Rizal made his first trip abroad in 1883 and took an elevator in Marseilles, he wrote home and described his first ride in a lift to his bewildered sisters in Calamba, who could not imagine what was this box that brought a passenger up and down different levels of a building without walking. Then we have Marcelo H. del Pilar who had a telephone installed in the editorial office of La Solidaridad, and wrote home to describe how his voice could travel long distances, which was beyond the imagination of his wife Tsanay in Bulacan. Emilio Aguinaldo was one of the first Filipinos to ride a submarine and an airplane, and it is unfortunate that he did not record his impressions.

Airplanes, elevators, cell phones, the Internet and space travel are part of our lives today. We just have to look back to appreciate the change, to realize that the gap between science fiction and reality is fast closing

While I agreed with most of the points Angara made in his long but solid lecture, I felt the real challenge lay much deeper, and was only hinted at in the lecture. Our real challenge is improving the present state of basic education. If we enumerate all the problems of Philippine education, we will take days of delight in self-flagellation that ends nowhere. Rather than complain, I teach at the Ateneo de Manila University and the University of the Philippines, if only to do my bit in the effort to shape our future. Looking at my students in the classroom, I stare literally, eyeball to eyeball with our future.

It was unfortunate that no reference was made in the lecture to the 1925 report of the Monroe Commission on Philippine Education because while this may seem like an archival document, reading is humbling because we still confront the basic problems they identified in 1925. There are two ways to look at the Monroe Report. One is to praise the Monroe Commission for its foresight, because like clairvoyants they were able to see our present problems 83 years ago. The other way to interpret the report is to accept the sad fact that Philippine education has not changed very much since 1925. As I keep telling people, do not blame history for seeming to repeat itself, we are to blame because we repeat history.

Education has always held out hope for the future because it creates an idea or illusion that it is a means for upward mobility. Education provides the means to go up the social and economic ladder based on merit and achievement. Education is seen as a means to break the status quo. Education tells us that things do not have to be the way they are. This may explain why Filipino parents push their children to earn university degrees despite our recent placement test results that reveal that less than 10 percent of graduating high school students have the aptitude for a university track, and that most of our graduates are better suited for entrepreneurial or vocational futures. It is unfortunate that some parents see the placement tests as discriminatory, and something that goes against the right to higher education. But then we must match desire with aptitude.

That we need STEI is not an issue. Rather we must improve our basic education -- our elementary and high school levels -- to prepare young people not just for STEI but for whatever career they have the skills for. While it is good to aspire for a university education, it has a negative side. This desire for higher learning has spawned a lucrative industry in diploma mills that should be closed. Then there are the unusual and redundant number of state colleges and universities that have sprouted like mushrooms all over the country. While many of these SUCs are doing well, these should not blind us to the fact that we are spreading our resources thinly rather than, say, investing heavily in the University of the Philippines and supporting existing campuses outside the Diliman Republic.

(Conclusion on Wednesday)

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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