Another First Quarter Storm ahead?
Universities and colleges are the tinderboxes of society. We see this at play in Hong Kong and Bangkok. Filipino students from Ateneo, University of Santo Tomas, University of the Philippines, and elsewhere are similarly astir. If they seem slow to mobilize, it is not due to the dearth of radicalizing issues. President Duterte has generously and continuously dangled a lot of provocative issues, among them the deadly war on drugs, his government’s fawning on China, endless corruption, the anti-terror law, the closure of the ABS-CBN network, the red-tagging of student activists and legislators, human rights abuses, negligence in dealing with COVID-19 and successive devastating storms, and the weaponization of the law against Sen. Leila de Lima, then Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, and Vice President Leni Robredo.
It takes a college education to understand and be moved by a nation in rot and the sources of that rot, even when that stench is masked by the perfumed existence of the powers that be. The student movement of the 1970s was a robust response to the Marcos dictatorship. There is hope that universities and colleges have not lost the capacity to contribute to social and political renewal through student activism.
One does not become a serious student activist overnight. It takes a certain progression in thought, words, and actions. In a way, there is an informal “finishing school” for student activists, not unlike the Philippine Military Academy for soldiers. Ironically, the finishing school for student activists is funded mostly by poor and middle-class parents, who by dint of their labor and sacrifices give their sons and daughters the luxury of imbibing radical political ideas that have both explanatory power and appeal in giving meaning to their distressed existence.
Student activists spend a lot of time in discernment, situation analysis, and strategy formulation. They do this collectively, ensuring that everyone is on the same page. They strain toward alignment and synthesis, using tactics perfected in historical radical movements such as internal democracy and criticism and self-criticism processes. Highly motivating leaders emerge from the ranks—intelligent and sharply focused, self-disciplined, passionately committed to higher and long-term goals, confident but self-effacing, courageous but not reckless.
Learning is a process of subsuming the self under group control, without which lofty ideals cannot be achieved. As group discipline grows, so does the group confidence that they will overcome any and all obstacles. These are the learning and team-building sessions that march to the students’ own “syllabus” that normally replaces classes in the university — the holding of alternative sessions. These alternative learning pathways so creatively bring disciplinal learning (e.g., engineering, biology, political science, development studies) hand in glove with real societal problems that professors can legitimately award passing grades to their students. Ironically, students study mainstream theories, principles, and practices through incisive critiques of their bankruptcy and lack of social accountability.
Universities and colleges are a heady, powerful, and dangerous mixture of intellectual heroes (among them brilliant professors), bold and courageous ideas, and collective self-awareness and direction. It is a confluence of kindred spirits exploring life-changing ideas. It is a weighing of various pathways open to college students—careerism, adventurism, nationalism. But always, it is immersion — the process of putting oneself in the shoes of the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, the disadvantaged, the voiceless — that makes a compleat student activist.
At the moment, students are seemingly snagged by a tactical issue that gets in the way of dealing with the strategic task of taking the government to account. This is the issue of negotiating guarantees that their careers and futures will not be adversely affected by their student activism. In the 1970s FQS, students worried about being shot by soldiers fanning across the campus, not about grades. Will today’s students be able to sort this distraction out? As for universities and colleges, trying to accommodate the students too much may be counterproductive, dissipating the creative intramural tension that students need to get into eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the Duterte administration on the issues that matter to the whole nation.
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