Closing the Filipino mind | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Closing the Filipino mind

Two decades ago, Fr. Jose M. Cruz, SJ, dean of the Ateneo School of Social Sciences, called me into his office because someone had reported that I lectured on the “Three Little Pigs” in my Philippine history class. I explained that the lecture was not about the well-loved childhood tale, but about bias and perspective. The story that has come down to us is told from the viewpoint of the victims, the pigs, and I presented a retelling of the tale from the wolf’s point of view.

Ten years earlier, I had the same conversation with the late Jose V. Abueva, 16th president of the University of the Philippines (1987-1993), who asked why I was asking students to answer silly questions in my Rizal class. I explained that part of my 10-point diagnostic test, at the start of each semester, included two open-ended questions that were meant to make students laugh (humor being my most effective pedagogical weapon) and when their guard is down, assess if a mind was open, closing, or closed. I’m amazed these two questions reached the ear of the university president: 1) Which is older, black or white?; 2) What is more important in a donut — the part you can eat or the hole? I do not recall what Abueva’s answers were, but I remember that he dismissed me with a warm handshake saying: “Remember that your methods have been reported directly to me.” With a wide smile he added: “I know and understand what you are doing. I encourage you to continue doing so!”

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One of the things that came up from pandemic spring cleaning were notes and papers from my early years of teaching in Diliman that included a sheet with the names and answers of some students who would have been told to shut up by other professors. Worse, they would be labeled pilosopo, which literally means “philosopher,” but has a negative connotation as “smart aleck” in the Philippines. Wasn’t Rizal’s marvelous character Filosofo Tasyo viewed with fear and suspicion by the unenlightened?

On the question of which color is older, the most common answers referred to Genesis. In the beginning, so Scripture says, was darkness. And God said, “Let there be light!” So black was older than white. Patrick Valero said that black was older for “why would God create light?” To which I replied: Can’t darkness be purple, light be yellow instead of white? Andre Tiu, who effortlessly received a grade of 1.0 for the course, gave the most complicated answer:

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“Maybe it’s white, because if the Big Bang Theory is valid, everything began as energy to begin with. There was no space (to expand) because the very space was itself. Since black or white is only as good as what is perceived by the senses and since energy is perceived by the eyes as white, then white is older.”

Then came other pilosopos. Carolyn Boongaling: “Black is older, because it alphabetically comes first.” John Tiam: “I guess black is older because youth is associated with the color white. Like an infant when born is wrapped in white.” Gregorio Doble: “White is older than black. As a man grows older, his hair grows [from black to] white.” Leonora Caiz: “All those black things, when they fade eventually turn to white.” I resisted asking the follow-up question: Do black people turn white?

On the donut. I always believed that a physical donut was defined by its round shape, and the hole in the center. Students who patronized Dunkin’ Donuts challenged me by saying “munchkins,” made from the dough taken from the hole, were donuts without holes. Pragmatic pilosopos argued that donuts are created as food so the edible part was more important than the hole. Eric Zamuco said otherwise: “The hole is important because it is the part that you do not eat.” John Tiam: “The whole donut is important because we eat the [edible] part and the hole is used to hold our donut.” Andre Tiu: “It depends how you look at things. If you are a hungry man, the part you can eat is more important. If you are a baker, the hole makes the donut a donut. [Importance] depends on who you are and what your situation is.” Mahal Plandoon: “It depends, when you’re trying to lose weight, it better be the hole—no calories!”

In my four decades of teaching, only one student refused to answer these questions, not even to humor me. How can a teacher engage, much less teach, a mind that is tightly closed? I never thought I’d see the day that the internet would contribute to the closing of the Filipino mind.

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, closed minds, internet, Looking Back, thinking
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