Reflections on Transformative Education

[Keynote Address: 7th OP-Sienna National Educators’ Congress]

Thank you for this privilege of sharing with you my thoughts on transformative education. They are offered in the context of Catholic Educational Association of the Philippine’s (CEAP’s) commitment to transformative education through the concerns of Justice and Peace, Environmental Stewardship, Engaged Citizenship, Poverty Reduction, Gender Equality and Youth Empowerment (JEEPGY). I share my thoughts with you in a genuine spirit of dialogue, knowing that there is much room for improvement in my own educational leadership. Perhaps, through this exchange you can help me improve my own educational service.

Education Preserves

At the outset of our reflections, we might notice an irony, which our commitment to transformative education may hide. Education preserves. Among the things that it preserves are the achievements of cultures and civilizations. Those of you who have gazed at Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne or stared in awe at Michelangelo’s frescoes of Creation and the Last Judgment or marveled at a rhapsody of Rachmaninoff know that the skills of artistic genius are precious, and it is through study and discipline in our universities’ conservatories that through the ages they can be preserved, if not surpassed. Recently, I was at the YMCA’s production of Bizet’s Carmen staged at the old auditorium of St. Scholastica’s. I did not believe what I experienced: Filipinos and Filipinas staging this lusty, sensual and tragic opera excellently, with all of its musical mastery, in the original French! It was possible, of course, because there was such an institution as the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Conservatory of Music, and because there were teachers who were successful in training students to sing and perform according to the exacting prescriptions of the composer. What would we have if we had no UST or University of the Philippines Conservatory? For our purposes, however, it suffices for us to notice that they are called “conservatory”. Their raison d’etre is to preserve for generations such as ours the past gains of civilization.
This we know is important because these cultural achievements of the past can be lost. How many times have you enjoyed listening to songs such as Maalaala mo kaya? and Sa Ugoy ng Duyan and told yourself, “Sayang, they don’t make songs like that anymore!” How many times have you enjoyed the Tinikling or the Cariñosa and have said, “Sayang, they don’t dance like that anymore!” In watching the productions of our dance club and choirs, however, we can see how important schools can be for preserving the goods of culture. It is similar for the old epic songs of our indigenous peoples. It is through the anthropological institutions of our universities that they are being preserved.
Schools are important even for preserving good food. There is suddenly in the Philippines a proliferation of schools of culinary arts. Food in the old days was prepared by a cook; nowadays, it is prepared by a chef. Before, from Lola to Mommy to Ate, how to make a good adobo, a proper kare-kare, and a delicious afritada was passed from generation to generation for free. Now there are culinary institutes who pass on the same skills and the same foods (only in smaller quantities) for huge sums of money. One also learns how to make a proper Spaghetti alle vongole or a Frankfurter Rindsroulade or a French escargot for even more money at the culinary institute. It makes sure that what is cooked is cooked according to expectations with the proper ingredients.
When I was a child, my mother tried to teach me how to be a gentleman, and tried to teach my sisters how to be proper young ladies. I remember being taught how to take the arm of an elderly woman to guide her, how to bring a glass of refreshments to a guest. I remember my sisters being taught how to help in the kitchen and to iron clothes. But the preservation of the cultural canons assigned to young men and young women in society is something our schools ensure as well. At least in my time, a young man was taught to stand up for a lady on a bus, and to take off his hat inside the house. He was taught that formal clothing means a barong or a coat and tie. He was taught to play basketball, and accept the heavier work around the house. He was also taught never to be bullied, to fight for his honor, and to go to the defense of the weak. He was also taught never to wear earrings. “Well-brought-up” girls on the other hand were taught not to be too forward, never to call up a boy, wait to be approached by the suitor, then when finally approached to act as if she weren’t interested. Should she ever go out with a young man, she would always go with a chaperone. Should she ever go to a dance, she would always wait for a man to invite her to dance. In the better schools of Manila, these were the canons of good behavior that were preserved. In my time, I remember one of the exclusive school heads as the terror of any Ateneans or La Sallites who would dare to case admiring eyes on one of her collegialas. Schools were conservers of proper behavior.
Very dear to the heart of all the Catholic schools would be to communicate and preserve what it means to be a good Christian or a good Catholic. In this context catechism would be taught, and First Communion preceded by Confession prepared. In time, there would also be Confirmation. One would be taught to go to Mass on Sundays, to abstain from meat on Fridays, to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In grade school the sisters taught me how to be an altar boy; so I served at Masses, at weddings and on Wednesdays, at the devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual help in our parish church. In this manner, the school communicated and preserved among Catholics the standard practice of Catholicism.

The importance of the preservative – conservative – role of the schools must not be overlooked. As educators, many of us engage in it naturally – and necessarily. This is because whole bodies of knowledge and technologies can be forgotten, time honored customs can be dislodged by new ways of doing things, old conserving values can be undermined by new values, fashionable and irreverent. The fine ladies can become today’s emancipated ladies who are champions in triathlon competitions and heads of state. The macho gentlemen of yesterday can become today’s metrosexuals with their make-up, their earrings, their electronic accessories and their penchants for salons and spas. Yesterday’s strict canons of attire have become today’s hazy conventions: “smart business attire” can be a black coat with a pink T-shirt, skinny jeans, and rubber shoes. Yesterday’s centuries-old patient cultivation of the Ifugao rice terraces is abandoned by a new Ifugao generation of highly educated accountants and doctors in the lowlands. Yesterday’s tangoes, sambas, cha-chas and boogies – danced by pairs – may give way to the frenetic, gyrating, non-ending dancing of today, danced not necessarily in pairs but in a simple celebration of joy. As for food: consider today what’s in: “Fusion” – the playful deconstruction of dogmatic recipes that come up with concoctions that are somewhat French and somehow Italian and someway Japanese yet incredibly Filipino!

In all this, our conservative schools must still teach how to build strong bridges and sturdy skyscrapers, how to prevent mass disease, and mass produce medicine that saves life, and not destroys it. Our students must learn reliably the defining doctrines of the Church; they must understand the key ideas on which our civilization is developed. Similarly, they must understand the foundational insights and methods of science and technology, even as a condition for progress in the same. They must learn about our planet, our galaxy among galaxies, our universe, their wonders and their vulnerabilities. They must learn of human societies and how societies function. They must learn how to care for and heal the sick. And let’s face it: they must all learn arithmetic, and know that one plus one is not equal to ten, as some usurers may insist; they all must learn language, not in a “transformative” manner with one’s own grammar, syntax, spelling, but they must use language properly, authentically, and with integrity – that is, without sottesque plagiarizing. For all this we need the knowledgeable not arrogant teacher, the authoritative not authoritarian instructor, the encouraging not intimidating mentor to help preserve what civilization has achieved. We need wise teachers and administrators and superintendents of school systems who are able to discern what it is among myriad possibilities in a confusing world that must be conserved. For education preserves.

Education preserves normally according to the insights and values of those who have been educated well, even when education fails. That is a fact that we must also appreciate today. Education falls short of its mark. Where good education seeks to lead out of (ex ducere) its human students the insights and energies which own the human vocation to humanize humanity or the divine vocation to live in the dignity of the children of God, sometimes education – in preserving the many things it must preserve – fails in this crucial imperative: to motivate the student to be human. It fails to help him or her to rise to its moral demands, or tires at its tediousness, and sets it aside. Thus, in the face of horrendous evil brought onto humanity most often by the educated, it becomes complicit in the evil. And because education is supported by the economic activities that benefit from or result in this evil, and is so concerned about the many important things that would make students successful in this world, it becomes part of “wisdom” not for education to be too noisy, it becomes part of “prudence” not for education to speak out, part of “outreach” not really to reach out. With the intimidated silence of women raped, with the sullen silence of gays outcaste, with the silence of exploited laborers within the systems of the most successful of agro-industries and the most profitable of our malls, with the silence of indigenous tribes deprived of their lands and livelihood, with the environmentalists and journalists silenced by bullets, education chooses “wisely” to remain silent. That is not a silence in solidarity with the silent; it is not a silence of compassion; it is a silence in complicity with evil that screams in silence. It is the silence, which gives education its black eye, and where the vaunted passion for truth is extinguished. Where social justice demands change, where divine love demands things cannot remain as they are, education chooses to be silent. And so it conserves the evil. It preserves it. It does not transform. Excusing its lack of courage, it looks at the squalor in squatters’ areas and says, “God’s will;” it looks at the suffering of the farmers, and declares, “Ganun talaga!” it looks at the disenfranchisements of the Lumads from effective participation in decisions which affect them, and says “such is the march of history;” it regards the pained bitterness of the small scale miner, and pronounces, “His fault.”

Education Transforms

Is education therefore transformative? I sincerely think it can be. It must be.

Transformation must be educated. It must be consciously “led out of” a perceived disjoint between what is and what ought to be. The perception may be mediated by knowledge, but must not remain with knowledge. The action must be educated. It must be “led out of” knowledge that includes moral insight, science and technology. Clearly, we are not talking about absolutely transforming everything in reality and society; many of the things we discussed above need to be preserved, not transformed. We are not in a state of total revolution where in the name of transformative education we must invent a square wheel or renounce the law of supply and demand. Clearly, we are also not talking about a transformation that yields a state worse than when transformation began. Here, I think five points are valid: (1) What must be transformed must be chosen, discerned. (2) Transformation must be brought about not just by new knowledge, but by activated freedom. (3) Transforming action is applied not only to what must be transformed but to the agent of transformation. (4) Transforming action must benefit from education. (5) Transforming action must be not only individual but institutional, not isolated but networked.

1) What must be transformed must be discerned. It must be educated, led out of the perceived disjoint between the imperative to be humanize humanity or to divinize human culture. It must proceed from the disjoint between what is and what ought to be.

I believe this perception of “disjoint” can emerge in many different situations. One can oneself be a victim of injustice, and so feel the disjoint in the rumblings in one’s belly or in the water leaking from one’s roof. One can be intimately related with the class of oppressed urban poor, where the weight of their suffering becomes one’s own suffering vicariously. One can be exposed to the squalor of the squatter community living under a bridge, and so gain insight into the disjoint between their condition and the living standards of the wealthy. One can be taught well, and so encounter this disjoint between statistics that describe the power of the few vs. the victimization of the many. One can even be introduced to the disjoint through prayer on the Lord’s statement, “Whatever you do to one least of my brothers and sisters, that you do or not do to me” (Mt. 25:40). In the CEAP, six areas of concern reflect the institution’s shared discernment of disjoint between reality and how reality ought to be.

Justice and peace. Justice is necessary. It is not yet achieved. There is a miscarriage of justice in the judiciary. Executive action is often bereft of justice (e.g. EO 79). Legislative action is too often based on private interests and not the demand of social justice. Peace has yet to be achieved. The achievement of justice serves the establishment of peace. The challenge of justice is not only in commutative and distributive justice. Especially for colleges and universities, it is social justice – the justice called forth by the common good – that needs an ongoing multi-disciplinary articulation. Through our schools, peace is served in fostering inter-cultural and inter-religious communication and dialogue.

Environmental stewardship. For this generation, the difference between the past and the future is the environment; it is the realization in the present that if we do not attend to the environment we will have no future, the realization that if we allow individuals or private-interest groups to destroy our mountains and rivers as they destroyed the forests of the past, we will have no future. Hence, the imperative to train our students in environmental responsibility through such as the greening of our campuses is urgent. The imperative for our educational communities to stand up and denounce powerful private interests that continue to destroy the environment and its rightful human users, no matter the cost, is real.

Engaged citizenship. We must use the democratic system for the ongoing humanization of our society. Power resides in the citizens. There is a need then to motivate citizens to engage themselves in social transformation according to the demands of the common good. This is in using their power to vote wisely, and protecting the prerogative of citizens to vote freely. This is also in monitoring politicians on the trust of citizens to insure they exercise their office effectively and in contributing to civil society actively. Schools and universities lend themselves easily to engaged citizenship.

Poverty reduction. The levels of poverty still existing in our God-fearing country are scandalous, especially when we hear, “Whatever you have done for one of these the least of my sisters and brothers, that you have done to me” (ibid.). While the alleviation of poverty through such as soup kitchens and handouts is sometimes necessary, alleviation does not reduce poverty. Outreach activities of our schools must aim at poverty reduction, not only alleviation. It must not only hand out fish, but teach to fish, and make sure that our waters abound in fish. Poverty reduction is an urgent area of necessary research. Our social science faculties and institutes must focus on understanding the challenges of how to more effectively reduce poverty. Our business faculties must form businesspersons dedicated not to the maximization of profit but to the creation of wealth and its equitable distribution.

Gender equality. This is not just a matter of safe sex and an anti-RH position. It is a matter of discrimination and violence against women in the home, in the workplace and in worship. It is also a matter of recognition of “other” genders, of the increasing assertion of gay and lesbian rights, including the right of gays to marry civilly. If our schools are to deal with our youth and many of our own teachers who are gay or lesbian, this may need more discernment than believed.

Youth empowerment. This is the challenge to involve our students in democratic change and to spot and form leaders for the future. This is not as easy as it may seem. If leadership is to be educated, then it cannot be based on whim or vainglorious ambition. It must be led out of an ongoing commitment leadership based on the demands of the common good. It must help young leaders to think out of the box, so that through their lifelong leadership the backwardness and corruption in society is not preserved but transformed.

So much for JEEPGY. Of course there are areas of reform one can discern outside of JEEPGY – health reform, church reform, military reform, educational reform, inter-religious dialogue, and the like. The discernment of engagement must always be decided not on the basis of private interest, or the advantages such engagement would bring to the school, or the political advantage this position might bring a political ally, but always and exclusively on the demands of the common good, as in our discernment we believe God wills.

(2) Transformation must be brought about not just by new knowledge, but by activated freedom. I always distinguish between communicating knowledge, which goes to the head and is generally measurable, and formation, which goes to the heart, which is immeasurable but in praxis crucial. Transformational education involves both: the communication of relevant knowledge and the formation of freedom. In the formation of freedom, which is totally different from arbitrariness, one awakens the human being to him- or herself. One convinces the human being of his or her responsibility for the fuller humanization of human society, and awakens him or her personal creativity in making this response. Similarly, one convinces the Christian believer of his of her responsibility for the Kingdom of God, and for his or her personal contribution to the transformation of society according to its demands. The school forms the student in responsibility to, i.e., in obedience to the imperative of the common good. Of course, there is the possibility of ignoring this call, as one can ignore any moral call. But the result of our formation must be a freedom to engage, and say yes. Freedom is in obedience to the common good.

This is not something, which is easily activated in schools by complex concepts. It is activated rather by witness and convincing example.

(3) Transforming action is applied not only to what must be transformed but to the agent of transformation. If our school organizes action against large-scale miners, the motivation is ultimately to coerce them to obey the demands of the common good, no matter the cost. The transforming action affects not only the miners, but the members of the school community making the demand. It combats their erstwhile ignorance of the issues; it demands they do not ignore them. It breaks their invulnerability from the scenes of injustice. It sensitizes them to their own liabilities vis-a-vis the common good, inviting them to a deeper level of humanity. It deepens their commitment to the transformation as the miners react against them, teaching them despite criticism, opposition, vilification or violent persecution, to be persistent in their obedience to the common good.

(4) Transforming action must benefit from education. Knowledge is not irrelevant. Good intentions are not sufficient. The process of change must benefit from the accumulated knowledge and the new research that the school may bring to guide the transforming action. One will work at the uplifitment of a squatters’ community using inputs from sociology, anthropology, architecture, civil engineering, architecture, and even theology.

(5) Finally, transforming action must be not only individual but institutional, not isolated but networked. In a school, the wider the participation in the transforming action the better; when the transforming action is not only individual but institutional, enjoying the inspiration of the school leadership and the resources of the school, it is much stronger. When schools bond with other schools, and school associations bond with other school associations in the same advocacy, the transforming action becomes powerful – truly effective in its ability to bring about change.

In the end, educated transformation of society and of ourselves is “lead out” of love – our love for our God, our love for our selves, our love for people we know in our society whom we know are victims of unjust deeds and unjust structures, our love for creation. It is also motivated out of our concern for those who do injustice, as the Father was concerned when he looked on our world where people were sinning, and refused to abandon that world and the people there whom he loved (cf: SpEx, Meditation on the Incarnation). It is in this context that I have shared these ideas with you, Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Sienna, who in your schools, “inspired by the Dominican passion for truth and compassion for humanity and the missionary zeal [of your founder] …envision a transformed society build on Love, Peace, Justice and Integrity of Creation” (OP-Sienna V-M Statement).

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About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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