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No contest: UST is oldest university

By Jos Victor Torres
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 04:40:00 01/27/2011

Filed Under: history, University, Education, Anniversaries

MANILA, Philippines?Learning history sometimes means memorizing superlatives??the highest,? ?the longest,? ?the shortest,? ?the earliest,? ?the lowest,? etc. It sounds like studying history means grabbing a Philippine edition of the Guinness Book of World Records and reading through its facts.

Yet, it is these superlatives that give people, places and institutions distinction.

The University of Santo Tomas (UST) is one of these institutions. It is recognized as the oldest in Asia, older in fact than Harvard in the United States.

In addition to this claim to fame along with the titles ?Royal? and ?Pontifical? and ?The Catholic University of the Philippines,? UST boasts of a historical continuity with its original owners and administrators?the Dominicans.

But its reputation as the ?oldest university? was challenged by the University of San Carlos in Cebu which, in 1995, officially celebrated its ?400th Foundation Day.? The Cebu institution traced its beginnings from the foundation of a Jesuit-run school, Colegio de San Ildefonso de Cebu, in 1595 to the present.

San Carlos? assertion dates back to 1948 when the college was elevated to a university. Since then, newspaper articles published this ?fact,? the latest in 1995 when writer F.C. Borlongan reiterated in a newspaper article that ?San Carlos, not UST, is the oldest university.?

As well-respected historian and former UST archivist Fr. Fidel Villarroel, O.P. pointed out in a journal article, ?UST or San Carlos of Cebu? A Question of Age?: ?This is not the first time that newspapers, periodical publications and even an occasional history book have come out with such a claim which, in our considered judgment, is totally erroneous.?

With the ongoing quadricentennial celebration of UST, this contention must be resolved with available historical data. Several questions are to be answered: Which educational institution is the oldest? What are the evidences? And, why argue about these claims?

Looking through facts

UST?s history remains unquestionable: The Dominicans were at the helm of higher learning in Spanish-colonial Philippines. It is a tribute to their roles as stalwarts of education that their legacy?UST?still remains today as a bastion of higher learning.

Its foundation on April 26, 1611, happened more than three decades after the founding of the City of Manila. It was from Manila Archbishop Miguel de Benavides, O.P., that a school of higher learning came into being through his last will that provided a library and funds to erect a ?seminary-college.?

Its name was Colegio de Nuestra Seora del Rosario, later to be renamed as Colegio de Santo Tomas de Nuestra del Rosario, and, finally, to Colegio de Santo Tomas.

Through the years, the colegio underwent major changes that raised its stature. In 1619, Pope Paul V authorized the granting of degrees of Philosophy and Theology to all colleges administered by the Dominicans in the ?Occidental Indies.?

In 1645, Pope Innocent X raised Santo Tomas to the rank of university. In 1785, the title ?Royal? was given by Charles III in recognition of their loyalty to Spain during the war against England.

In 1902, it was given the title of ?Pontifical? by Leo XIII and, in 1947, the title of ?Catholic University? was granted by Pius XII.

What about San Carlos?

The university?s fame also provided the impetus for the Spanish government to assign it as the Bureau of Education in the mid-19th century when the secondary school system was revamped. This is the reason many student records of different schools, such as Ateneo and Letran, are found in the UST archives.

The case against San Carlos? claim was made in two scholarly articles written by Villaroel and a professor of the San Carlos Seminary itself, Aloysius Lopez Cartagenas.

Villarroel wrote that the historical problem of San Carlos is this: ?The case of the University of San Carlos is an entirely different story. Different in the sense that its origins have yet to be established solidly on the basis of unquestionable historical documentation. But whatever date may be fixed and conventionally accepted as the foundation date, it cannot be the year 1595.?

San Carlos has its roots tied with those of another institution?the Jesuit-run Colegio de San Ildefonso. What made it troubling is that this school has a spotty past.

San Ildefonso opened in 1595 and closed down in 1608, leaving only a primary school (similar to an elementary school) for boys. There was a lack of students as many Spanish residents left Cebu to settle in Manila.

The school closed down after the Jesuit expulsion from the Philippines in 1768. Its buildings, however, were used by the Diocese of Cebu for San Carlos Seminary, which was established in 1783.

In 1867, the seminary opened a government-authorized secondary school that became known as ?Colegio de San Carlos.?

In 1924, during the American period, the colegio separated from the seminary and, in 1948, was given university rank by the Philippine government.

In its entire existence, the school changed administration from the diocese to the Vincentians and, finally, to the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) order.

Based on these facts, Cartagenas wrote: ?The earliest roots of the University of San Carlos in Cebu are not the Jesuit Colegio de San Ildefonso of 1595 but Seminario de San Carlos which, under the Vincentian Fathers, began to admit lay students in 1867. The year 1867, not 1595, as claimed, appears to be the auspicious beginning of an educational institution that would later become a university.?


It seemed that University of San Carlos? history does not come from one but three different schools?the 1595 Jesuit Colegio de San Ildefonso that began as an institution of higher learning but was reduced to a primary school that later closed down; San Carlos Seminary, which educated and trained the diocesan clergy; and, from this seminary, Colegio de San Carlos was founded in 1867, recognized in 1912, and becoming a university only in 1948.

Three different schools. Three different histories with a break in its timeline. This historical discontinuity and the institutions that were founded lacked what Villarroel called San Carlos? ?homogenous growth.?

?You do not call a mango tree an orange tree just because the mango tree has grown in the place where formerly an orange tree was planted, grew and died,? he wrote.

Accident of age

Why argue about superlatives?

At first glance, such arguments and contentions may be trivial to the reader. After all, both universities enjoy a reputation of excellence. But, as Villarroel said, ?the accident of age may add luster to the institution.?

This has been true for UST throughout its 400 years of existence.

If we research, study and interpret the historical facts well, the honor of being ?the oldest university? belongs to the University of Santo Tomas.

House resolution

Perhaps the issue was settled last Dec. 1 when the House of Representatives passed Resolution No. 51, ?Resolution Congratulating the University of Santo Tomas (UST) on the occasion of its Quadricentennial University in 2011.?

The resolution was officially presented to UST Rector Magnificus Fr. Rolando V. de la Rosa, O.P., surrounded by proud UST alumni among the lawmakers, in a special session of the lower chamber on Jan. 18.

On Wednesday, Jan. 26, at the opening of the 10th biennial conference of the International Council of St. Thomas Aquinas Universities (Icusta) headed by UST, with presidents and administrators of several prestigious international universities present, the resolution was read by Rep. Magtanggol Gunigundo of Valenzuela City.

The resolution leaves no doubt as to which is the oldest university in the Philippines and Asia. It describes UST as ?founded on April 28, 1611 by Archbishop Miguel de Benavides? and ?has the oldest extant university charter in the Philippines and Asia.?

The UST charter and other historic documents, preserved in the UST archives, should show the historical and documentary validity of UST?s claim as the oldest university in this part of the world.

UST events

UST has been celebrating its 400th anniversary this week. On Monday, Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales blessed the UST Jubilee Door at UST Santisimo Rosario Church and gave an apostolic blessing in a High Mass on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI, who has proclaimed 2011 as UST Jubilee Year.

Yesterday, UST formally opened the 10th biennial conference of the International Council of St. Thomas Aquinas Universities at UST Santisimo Rosario Church after a High Mass presided over by Archbishop Karl Adams, apostolic nuncio to the Philippines.

President Aquino addressed the conference, an international federation of higher-education institutions taking after the principles of St. Thomas Aquinas, the universal patron saint of Catholic schools. The UST Conservatory of Music later mounted the opera ?Cavelleria Rusticana? at the UST College of Medicine Auditorium.

Today, the Quattrromondial, the UST Quadricentennial Memorial Monument, a 10-meter sculpture in bronze and glass by internationally renowned Filipino sculptor Ramon G. Orlina and modeled by actors Piolo Pascual and Charlene Gonzales, will be unveiled at UST Quadricentennial Park.

On Friday, a High Mass marking the UST Quadricentennial and the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas will be held at the UST Grandstand and Football Field, at 5 p.m. The principal celebrants are Cardinal Zenon Grocheleweski, the special papal legate sent by Benedict XVI, and Fr. Bruno Cordore, master general of the Dominican Order.

The alumni homecoming party follows.

(Editor?s Note: Jose Victor Torres was a former senior historical researcher of the Intramuros Administration. He has a doctorate in History and has won the National Book Award for his Intramuros history guidebook.)

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