In a 1999 article titled “Cultural Studies as Public Pedagogy,” the North American leftist educator Henry Giroux said: “Educators should give students the critical sensibility to understand economic, political and historical forces so they’re not just victims of these forces but can act on them with effect. Giving students, especially the poor, this power is a threatening idea to many. But it is essential to the health of a democratic society.” Then, in a 2011 column titled “Education 101,” the Filipino social critic Conrado de Quiros defended the students’ tuition hike protest against a government official’s castigation, thus: “The students in fact are tending to their studies, if not indeed focusing on them, by being aware of the realities around them, by trying to do something about the realities around them.”
I thought the viewpoints of Giroux and De Quiros can be a source of inspiration as we begin another academic year with hope and fear, trust and anger, optimism and skepticism toward the K-to-12 educational system.
Education is not a mere preparation for job placement or a life of careerism, although job and career are undoubtedly valuable goals that every student must pursue. Students must also be concerned with solving their own material deprivation through employment and that of others through entrepreneurial skills propelled by compassion, and must understand why there is much deprivation in the first place. Students must understand as well that the issue of material deprivation is not just an issue of biology or divine predestination, but also, and more importantly, a question of socioeconomic injustice and historical marginalization. Understanding is the first step toward commitment to change.
Education is not just the routine performance of academic ceremonials (syllabi, lectures, tests, projects, tuition, etc.), in the same manner that spirituality is not just the mundane flamboyancy of religious rituals (sermons, processions, litanies, novenas, stipends, etc.). Education is also the exercise of spontaneity and the release of creativity. As the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire would say, education is the practice of freedom. I read somewhere that we should not wonder anymore why kids tend to be happiest during recess time: It’s a moment of freedom, spontaneity and play. And should we still wonder why many discerning students dream of the exit called graduation from the moment of their entrance called enrollment?
Education is not just about learning to answer the questions stored by teachers in the perceived empty minds of students and then released during standardized exams. Rather, it is also about learning to question the irrelevant content, the banking method, and the oppressive and repressive posture of the educator. This has become more significant today, especially as we brace for the transition to an unusual brand of leadership in the Philippines. We must recognize an authority, but we must question authoritarianism. The authority and the authoritarian are inside the classroom and also outside it: in the home, church, government and workplace. As critical educators would maintain, the classroom is a miniature replica of the society, and the society is partly a creation of the classroom.
An education that is geared toward learning to question is a dangerous proposition that can unsettle the powers that be: the authoritarian teacher and school administrator, the traditional politician and government official, the paternalist land owner and business lord, the self-righteous religious leader. But as Giroux says, it is “essential to the health of a democratic society.” I may add that it is the very essence of education itself. The act of questioning is at the very core of being human.
The K-to-12 primer of the Department of Education says that we want students who are “holistically developed learners with 21st century skills.” The Constitution declares that the state shall give priority to education in order “to promote total human liberation and development,” among others. If we are not just paying lip service to these declarations, then we must be open to various marginalized voices who see education not only as a venue and avenue for the production of consuming workers and working consumers, but also as a space for questioning the hyperconsumerist economy, materialist culture, and noninclusive politics.
The meaning of holistic development and total human liberation cannot be reduced to technical and technological preparedness. Relevance and quality in education is not restricted to responding to the demands of what Pope Francis calls an “economy of exclusion,” and to becoming effective cogs in the apparatus of what the late Ninoy Aquino called an “entrenched plutocracy.” To be relevant is also to see the misleading, to recognize the intoxicating, and to diagnose the mythologizing.
The newly elected President claims that he is on the Left side of the political spectrum. Is it also high time to give more opportunities for a more progressive public educational system by assigning significant positions in the DepEd, Commission on Higher Education, and Tesda (Technical Education and Skills Development Authority) to people sympathetic to leftist principles? This is a modified version of a question instigated by a colleague. This is a question worth pursuing in an era when the multidimensional boundaries between the Right and the Left are also blurring. And this is a question that pushes us to further ask: Really, who benefits and who is hurt by the major restructuring of our educational system?
Franz Giuseppe F. Cortez teaches philosophy subjects and good governance and social responsibility at the University of Santo Tomas.
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