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Learners left behind

05:04 AM July 23, 2019

Whatever happened to the mission of “no learner left behind”? The news of the 55 schools for “lumad” (indigenous peoples) children being suspended on the basis of an ex-military man’s report left me nostalgic for the military men I used to work with who made access to education a reality for all learners.

These men and women in uniform, assigned to conflict-affected areas, would bravely don their civilian attire and set up meetings with local school heads under their jurisdiction. It always amused me to watch the fierce and warrior-like officers turn childlike and meek in front of elderly principals who reminded them of their own days spent in public school. No matter the differences in religion, politics and social status, these members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines stayed true to their calling and were Filipinos first before they were soldiers. Or rather, it was in honor of the values symbolized by their uniform that they acted to build community rather than destroy it.

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I remember being in territories branded as “communist” and Abu Sayyaf hubs and walking with these soldiers. They told me stories of their own childhoods, often in equally impoverished places where their parents needed to work twice as hard to guarantee their enrollment in school. When the students joined us, there would be no fear or animosity for the AFP, due in part to the commitment the officers would make to local leaders and to the community that they would act first and foremost as protectors of civilians and not their tormentors.

I would like to think these soldiers I know are still among us today. I believe they try in their own ways to circumvent violence and find ways to achieve their missions without eliminating innocents. In this period of bloodshed and killing in our country, I know this is a naive sentiment to have, but I stand by it anyway. Because how do I deny that I have known and worked with these types of honorable men and women of the AFP? In the work of visiting communities that fall far beyond the radar of government, I have seen how soldiers become the face of the state and providers of every known government service out there—from being doctors and pharmacists to acting as teachers, road builders, construction workers, cooks, farmers, fishermen, sardine-makers and development practitioners. You name it, they have done it.

What I learned from these visits is that government needs to work more closely in coordination with each other so that we economize on the use of our resources and ensure that those who need access to basic services have it. Change for the good will only happen through creative partnerships, and the constant reminder that all our work must be to the benefit of those who have the least in life but belong very much to our nation.

When one is born indigenous in the Philippines, there is always a confusion that one is indigent and belonging to a backward culture unable to ride the waves of modernity and progress. Once upon a time, the Department of Education (DepEd) saw the folly in this assessment and wisely advocated for culturally sensitive education that promoted both inclusivity and belonging. Indigenous students were encouraged to enroll in schools where teachers were trained to see equal value in indigenous knowledge systems as they did in subjects under the basic education curriculum.

Once upon a time, the DepEd understood the fundamental injustice of abandoning indigenous students and contributing to this nationwide image of their impoverishment, not to mention the history of neglect that has characterized the lives of all indigenous people in the Philippines. What has happened to this?

The DepEd’s biggest mission is to provide its learners access to basic education. When it decides to close schools, as in the Salugpungan case, it acts in violation of its own mandate. If there are issues with practices and pedagogy that do not conform with the DepEd’s standards, surely there are more effective ways of handling this situation than just shutting down these schools? And if indeed these schools were closed because they are “a threat to national security” (a phrase now reduced to mean being critical of government), then where do these learners go? What is the alternative? What choices do they have?

The use of the communist threat as the bogeyman is an old tactic employed by the incompetent and believed by the idiotic. When we look at our own histories of rebellion and resistance in the Philippines, it’s hard to ignore their causes: poverty, alienation, the lack of access to basic services. Rather than wasting time fostering fear and driving our learners outside of schools to take up arms, perhaps the government ought to return to the basics and remember that they work in the service of the people.

Nash Tysmans is a writer, teacher and community worker committed to the fight for social justice and the reduction of idiotic elements in the Philippines.

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