SINGAPORE — President Duterte threatened to give the “lumad” the taxpayer-subsidized seats of University of the Philippines students who skip class to join rallies. But the resulting firestorm only highlights how superficial and intellectually bankrupt activism has become.
UP has the proudest legacy of student activism. Alumni now older than 50 reminisce about mobilizing the First Quarter Storm without social media.
My other alma mater, the Ateneo de Manila, produced Edgar Jopson, the moderate student leader who asked Ferdinand Marcos in Malacañang to put in writing that he would not seek a third term.
But while we immortalize ’70s ideals, we must evolve from ’70s methods.
In an age of Facebook Live and Instagram, rallies are instant gratification. They forcibly reduce complex ideas shaped in UP’s halls to witticisms on placards. One is “woke” and “shookt” with just a selfie while chanting slogans from the ’70s, even if nothing lasting is achieved after the cathartic moment passes.
Ironically, while the Edsa Revolution created our modern democracy, mass rallies become trivialized the more frequently one calls for them.
UP and Ateneo students inspired me these past years. But not just when they took to the streets.
When Sen. Manny Pacquiao called same sex couples “mas masahol pa sa hayop (worse than animals),” UP Babaylan produced a viral video where members humorously described what animal they were. This intelligent, dignified response was but one demonstration of a student with a smartphone rivaling the impact of a professional ad agency.
When National Artist F. Sionil José told Chinese-Filipinos to go back to China, human rights advocates were silent. But Ateneo Celadon student leaders and Chinese-Filipino summa cum laude graduates published powerful op-eds, including in the Inquirer.
The spectacle of writers in their 20s confronting racism in the guise of patriotism from José in his 90s, in his own arena, signaled the rise of a vocal new generation.
When professors David Yap and Antonio Contreras made curious claims regarding mathematical patterns in the 2016 votes for vice president, recent science graduates publicly challenged these. An incredulous Ateneo Math Society, in the middle of final exams, circulated idiot’s guide infographics for basic statistics on Facebook.
Imagine if medical students gave similarly neutral, authoritative opinions on the Dengvaxia vaccine and autopsies, if economics students dissected tax reform, and if accountancy students combed the
national budget for hidden pork barrel. These demand far more knowledge and painstaking work than writing placards.
My great frustration remains that UP Law students have been missing in action. Legal issues from martial law to Charter change grow ever more prominent, but ignorant arguments are glorified all the way to the Supreme Court. Almost no academics offer genuinely insightful, impartial fact checks of such idiocy.
Law students too readily concede this intellectual void to law professors who publish thinly disguised political manifestos, or even nonlawyers who champion analyzing law using political science.
When I was a UP Law freshman, Dean Pacifico Agabin gave an innocuous lecture on the Commission on Audit. He reminded us that one day, each of us would be held to account for the public funds that educated us.
The “Iskolar ng Bayan” are a potent force not merely because of their incomparable talent and idealism. Beyond this, they bear the unique burden of someday having to prove that they are worthy of carrying the country’s name.
UP’s great promise remains that one can be a child of a tricycle driver or a farmer, yet pass under the Oblation’s outstretched arms seen as a potential president.
Citizens of a modern democracy have more effective ways to participate than taking to the streets. Similarly, we must empower students to harness the infinitely more compelling means of leading our nation and effecting structural change, to deploy their nascent skills beyond walkouts and rallies.
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