The practical and the liberal
It was a humid afternoon in a typical wood workshop. All of us 20 or more freshmen in our white (but slowly graying) undershirts were measuring, cutting and assembling wood pieces. In a corner, I was breathing heavily due to the dust attacking my nostrils.
To make things worse, I had not achieved a mechanical rhythm with the saw. In my mind, I was playing a scenario where I end up leaving the workshop due to my breathing problem or an accident with the saw, or both. After a year in the workshop, I felt it was just the beginning of my many struggles in learning certain practical skills.
In my sophomore year, I was again a victim of my poor manual skills. After I had settled in my keyboarding station, I touched the large typewriter keys and whispered a petition: Please be good to me today.
At our teacher’s signal, the room was filled with the harsh clickety-clacks of the keys of our typewriters. In the end, I got poor but passing marks — marks that sadly barred me from graduating with honors two years later.
Perhaps it was an ordeal I had to undergo for my own sake. After all, learning a practical skill is different from learning a theory; you may be able to name all parts of a typewriter, but becoming a “touch typist” is an entirely different matter.
The morning classes were my favorite parts of high school. After the morning ceremonies, we studied literature, languages, social studies, mathematics and science.
My favorite teacher was my English and history teacher. Her first question to us freshmen was, “what does Ph.D. mean?” I raised my hand and answered correctly.
But most of the time, her questions demanded deep thinking rather than rote memory work. While discussing a literary piece, she asked us one plain question, the job of the boy’s mother in the story.
Hands flew up in the air; the answer, after all, was obvious (fortune teller) — or was it? She called several students but they gave the same answer, which apparently dissatisfied her.
Finally, a classmate answered that the mother was a sex worker based on the clues in the text. Our teacher explained to us that there was more to words in literary pieces (and in life). After reading (or hearing) something, one should look at the parts as they related to the general theme of a material (or message).
In my senior year, in her history class, I learned about the Reign of Terror. What do we learn from the end of this event? she asked. This time, I knew how to read between the lines.
High school gave equal importance to the practical and the liberal arts. Liberal arts ask the question, “where do we go?” while practical arts ask, “how do we get there?”
Practical arts give us the eyes to see the present as we navigate the perils of our current times.
Liberal arts, on the other hand, give us the eyes to see the past and the future, and the capacity to reconcile them with the present.
While practical arts may help us solve routine problems, liberal arts will help us view new problems in different ways.
If we want the next generation to be clear with their principles and be skilled enough to protect them, perhaps we should teach them that the practical and the liberal complement each other, and that both areas of study deserve emphasis in our schools.
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Fermin Antonio del Rosario Yabut, 29, is a former deputy director of an academic publishing house. He is set to return as a full-time instructor in an accounting school in Manila.
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