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Ask questions!

06:04 AM August 20, 2019

In my third year of high school at Miriam College, my English teachers taught a course called English for Social Justice, where we were tasked to read short excerpts from the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Sojourner Truth and Malcolm X. Class would begin with a close reading of the text. We encircled words we had never met before, and scribbled their meanings on the margins of our handouts after carefully looking them up in our dictionaries.

Grammar exercises followed, and once we were sure that our subjects and verbs were no longer quarreling, our teacher would begin the lecture, asking us what we thought about what we had read. The remaining 20 minutes of class would be spent discussing a wide range of ideas concerning right and wrong and all the grays in between. By the end of the session, there would be more questions than answers, and as homework, we wrote our thoughts on journals to be submitted the next day.

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In these classes, there was never an attempt to tell me what to think or why — only that I should think for myself and reason properly on the basis of my conscience. “The challenge,” one teacher who would eventually become principal wrote, “is not to master the answers but learn to ask the questions.”

In college at yet another Catholic institution, we had rigorous Political Science classes and had to prepare think-pieces for our teachers to gauge whether or not we had understood the material we were given. Again, the basis of a high grade was not one’s capacity to mimic what the text said, but how one wrestled with it — to question what it was trying to say, and to ask many questions. I relished the space that my teachers in Ateneo gave me to be rebellious and brazen. My arrogance would eventually be tempered by the knowledge that they patiently passed on to me, but still, I would be puzzled and ask, “Why? Why must this be so? Why do we study ideals that do not present themselves in the realities we live? Why must our society be divided such that there are the impoverished who have to live alongside the privileged?” (Keeping old journals also aids my memory, and yes, a decade ago, I jotted down these lines.)

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The freedom of thought I was given in all the Catholic schools I attended was so radical that I was never punished for confessing that I had doubts, that sometimes what I would learn would not match with what I could readily see, observe and sense in the society I grew up in. Fostering an independent mind was so valuable to me that, soon, when I found myself in the place of the teacher rather than the student, I became so encouraged to expose my students to various ways of thinking and different modes of being. I reminded them that revolutionary thoughts could only come to those with the courage and the tenacity to think for themselves, and that ideology kills, regardless of who is trying to manipulate us.

This is why I was horrified watching the chief architect of “Oplan Tokhang” and now senator, Bato dela Rosa, attempt to bring this witch hunt for communists to schools. Are they looking to paint our schools red with the blood of our students? How dare they infiltrate our schools. These are the last bastions of freedom in any democratic society, and as a teacher, I feel protective of any student’s right to be exposed to ideas that can lead them to question power. It is deplorable that the government spends so much time policing our schools when the real threats — the criminals among their ilk, the forces that keep our people poor, the revisionists teaching us to accept a history of impunity — all roam free.

Why? Why do we allow ourselves to be conned and controlled this way, to be threatened for asking questions that we really ought to ask because what government does directly affects us? Why should institutions like the police and the military be used to strike fear in the hearts of our people, our students especially? Is the message here that the state has no confidence in our capacity as teachers to instill in our students the ability to think?

Or is the fear that we might actually teach our students to think, and therefore realize what a farce it is to have a state use all its might to stop us from recognizing its many infirmities? I suspect this is the case, and as an educator, I call on all my fellow teachers to protect our students and the institutions we are part of that still value our basic freedoms.

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Nash Tysmans is a writer, teacher and community worker.

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TAGS: asking questions, critical thinking, freedom of thought, Inquirer Commentary, Nash Tysmans
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