Transformative Education for Social Justice

[Lecture Celebrating the 125th Birth Anniversary of President Elpidio Quirino, Kalayaan Hall, Malacañang Palace, Sept. 17, 2015]

This afternoon I have been asked to share my thoughts with you on transformative education and social justice.

I do so with deep admiration and sincerest congratulations for those public school teachers who on the occasion of the 125th anniversary the birth of Elpidio Quirino are being honored for their outstanding dedication to teaching. Honoring teachers on this occasion is only fitting. Elpidio Quirino was a product of the Philippines’ public school system; he received his basic education and higher education, including his rigorous training in law, through public schools. Even without today’s K-12 reform, his education was “world class.” Before he finished his high school in Vigan, the quality of his personal learning was such that he could already engage in teaching in a barrio school, Caparia-an Elementary School. When the municipal treasurer refused to pay him because he was at 16 years of age under-aged, the American superintendent came to his rescue. “If he’s old enough to teach,” he said, “he’s old enough to be paid for it.” From that point on, Teacher Quirino was able to collect his twelve-pesos-a-month salary.

Salaries have meanwhile improved, thanks to Bro. Armin Luistro. We hope that the partnership contemplated by our Constitution between public and private education will one day so mature, that the salaries of all teachers in the Philippines might improve to humane, not subsistence, levels. Actually, no matter what we pay them, considering the learning, dedication, sacrifice and creativity that goes into the craft of the good teacher, we do not ever pay them enough.

Especially when the teacher knows how to animate a class, create an atmosphere of joyful learning, and connect to the world of the individual learner hungry for learning. The teacher is the invaluable person who can make numbers add or subtract or multiply or divide and coax out of the student the technicians and engineers that become the experts and captains of our industry. The teacher is the crucial person in a child’s life who can make subjects agree with predicates, nuances fit subtle meanings, and generate the poetry of lusty lovers or the oratory of renowned leaders, as was Quirino. They are the persons who can instill values and form character in a person, so that choices critical to the flow of history are made. Remember when the opportunity first came for Quirino to join politics in Vigan? He was then still a valued aide to President Manuel Quezon. Now he was being urged to run for congress. Both President Quezon and his wife, Doña Aurora, tried to dissuade him. They offered him another government posting. They offered him a lucrative position as a corporate lawyer of a big firm. Quirino responded based on the values that had been formed in him in the classroom: “Mr. President,” he stated, “I want to serve the people.” The good teacher is not the barren spinster of the cobwebbed classroom. The good teacher uses the classroom to enrich the world with its artists, its scientists, its industrialists, its visionaries, its theologians, its philosophers, its statesmen – even if in our imperfect world we are aware that out of those same classrooms have emerged among our worst of rogues.

Conservative Education

Looking at the way human society works, there have been some like Paolo Freire who have held that education only serves to preserve the status quo. What changes the world are not the learning, insights, theories, disciplines, skills and professions that come out of classrooms; these make up a superstructure that serve only to maintain the world as it is. What changes the world instead are the revolutions in the material productive systems; the eventual shifts in the manner in which human beings meet their needs change the world, not the concepts and ideas that come out of classrooms. Where people just gather food, a world of nomads and the culture of hunter are determined. Where people tend fields, plant crops, and harvest food, a feudal rural world is determined. Where people produce goods though hand-manipulated machines and the division of labor, a world of bustling towns and municipalities is created. Where people divide labor more and themselves become part of huge industrial productive machines, modern urban harassed culture is developed. All the knowledge and wisdom, rules and regulations, customs, traditions and mores of a culture effectively protect and preserve the mode of production. Foremost among these would be education. In this view, education is essentially conservative. It preserves society as it is, ultimately preserving the mode of production that determines the society. For instance, a rural society which needs stable large families would create schools that teach that families should be large and stable. A global industrial society that is dependent on specialized workers would create schools that de-emphasize the importance of the large stable family and value individuals who are strong, mobile and adaptable – able to move from relationship to relationship. An educational system that is thoughtlessly dedicated to producing young men and women who can “get a job” would be an example of the education that Paolo Freire critiqued. Education feeds people into the production machine; higher education feeds highly trained people into the production machine. The productive machine can be the churning mega-factories of industry, or institutions like government, law, and law enforcement which conserve them. The productive machine therefore determines the relevancy of the education. A mismatch between the needs of the productive machine and the outcomes of education, as regularly decried by education officials and the captains of industry, is therefore a major concern. In this view, education is essentially conservative of the status quo.

The status quo, however, is not necessarily worth conserving. It certainly wasn’t in Quirino’s time when he undertook not only to bring basic education to all but to make higher education more accessible throughout the country. He championed, in his own words, a “more liberal extension of higher educational facilities throughout the islands so that the sons of the rich as well as those of the poor should have the same opportunity of obtaining university training.” He initiated the extension of the University of the Philippines, his alma mater, through the establishment of branches throughout the archipelago. His purpose was not to preserve Philippine society in the post World War II economic malaise, its social inequality, and over-dependency on America, but to produce the critical leaders and the skilled man- and woman power that would chart the democratic and industrialized future of an independent Philippines. For Quirino, education was not conservative. It was transformative.

Transformative Education

Today, whether education is conservative or transformative depends greatly on our educational policy makers, on their insight or lack of it in educational policy making. But it also depends essentially on the quality of our teachers. Already in basic education, students can be taught to fit snugly into society as it is, indiscriminately conserve the traditions and customs of the past, and not to rock the boat. In higher education they can be taught to focus on “getting the job” and remuneration that college graduation promises, to enroll in the courses that their parents dictate, to be actually glad when they are not allowed to elect any courses according to their personal interests, to be quiet when teachers do not teach well as long as they give the students acceptable grades, to “earn” or repair academic grades through non-academic favors to shameless teachers, and to advance to graduation through memorizing other people’s thoughts or through plagiarism. Poor teachers can actually teach students not to think, or to think but superficially, producing students whose virtue is compliance, and whose life prospect is enslavement to the status quo. Teacher “performance” can be determined not on how many students have learned their disciplines thoroughly and display evidenced ability to think and act appropriately, but merely on how many students pass, whether they pass legitimately or not.

The status quo is not pretty. We do not have to belabor this. Symbolic of the status quo is the situation in Metro Manila. Even on the daan na matuwid, there is no movement. The skyscrapers are impressive. The winding overpasses are duly complex. The road is famously straight. But the main thoroughfares are clogged with cars, busses and trucks, the side streets are blocked with parked cars, makeshift basketball courts, tents for barangay religious devotions and ubiquitous vendors. Progress means more mega-developments for the moneyed, posh dwellings in the sky, more subsistence jobs for the poor, more super malls, more skyways, more multi-story offices and dwellings for all – all of whom further choke the thoroughfares and clog the drains. With climate change, normal rain is a major threat. A sudden downpour causes inevitable flooding.

Stuck in traffic, dismayed that it takes two or three hours to get anywhere in Metro Manila, one may be invited to consider: what is the educational system which conditioned this sorry national situation? We think we’re going. We presume we’re progressing. The car is new. Our cell phones and tablets are functioning. Our blood pressures are rising. But we’re not going anywhere. We have not solved our poverty problems. Poverty incidence in Metro Manila is near 20 percent, in the Visayas at over 30 percent, in Mindanao at over 40 percent, but in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao it’s close to 60 percent. Our forests are depleted. Our minerals are plundered. Our efforts to finally solve the peace problem thwarted by non-communication between the police and military and national leaders naïve about the situation in Mindanao and prejudiced in their views on cultural minorities. Does our education and higher education offer any hope for a way out, or merely input the thoughtless people who keep this inane situation going the way it is?

My contention is that education can help if it freely determines itself as transformative – education that on the basic level works to give the students genuine knowledge and skills in basics, reading, writing, arithmetic, history, culture, value-forming sports, and enough time for them to master these, without which higher education would be impossible; then, higher education, that defines itself in academic freedom as transformative, that undertakes instruction and formation, relevant research, and service to the community in such manner that the transformation of the status quo is targeted. It recognizes social injustice, and rejects it; it recognizes mismanagement and ineptitude, and rejects it; it recognizes bad governance and corruption, and rejects it; it recognizes the diminution of humane culture in our lifestyle, and rejects it. It recognizes the religious intolerance and latent or actual violence to minorities, and rejects it. It targets these as objects for transformation, knowing quite clearly that its most potent weapon of transformation is its student, its graduate, him- or herself educated and led to personal commitment to struggle lifelong for the transformation of society. At the same time it knows that it would fail to produce such agents of transformation if as a higher education institution it is itself not transformative, that is, fails to involve itself precisely as an higher education institution in the process of transforming the status quo, becoming itself the model and vehicle of the community’s transformative action. This institutional transformative stance, defined by the transformative commitment of faculty members, staff and administrative leaders, conditions and encourages the students’ commitment to transformative action.

Transforming Social Injustice

This, especially in the context of social injustice. The transformative higher education institution does not teach from a podium indifferent to the social injustice in the community; it seeks to transform social injustice into justice, whether it is teaching medicine, law or engineering, history, physics or philosophy; in its various disciplines it makes the reality of social injustice clear to the student and forms in the student a commitment to change this. Here, the difference between instruction and formation may be appreciated.

Instruction targets the mind. It communicates knowledge. It hopes to engender thought, encourage wisdom. It seeks to communicate clearly that social justice is ordered to the common good, that is, that historical situation where all in society cooperate to achieve a common good, a society where all without exception can flourish together fully as human beings. That is the demand of social justice. What the necessary components of the common good are is subject for ongoing discussion, evaluation and re-evaluation based on the changing historical situation. Does the common good entail the eradication of abject poverty even at the cost of the wealthy? Does the common good entail the preservation of the environment even at the cost of the industrialists? Does the common good entail the preservation of the current productive mode, even when its unbridled consumption is destructive of the environment? Does the common good demand universal health care, even if it entails higher levels of taxation? Does the common good require massive investments in Muslim Mindanao to enable them to overcome their historical exclusion from the Philippine mainstream, even if this would means less for imperial Manila? Does the common good require a costly military build up to defend the fatherland against foreign invasion, even if this would mean less in resources for education and health care? Does the common good necessitate that I sacrifice my private good, or is the common good best served in the honest pursuit of my private good? Addressing these types of actual questions is especially appropriate for higher education institutions. For their multi-disciplinary faculties can contribute well to depth insight and creative thought, possibly beyond the presuppositions of the party in power or the limitations of the reigning thought paradigm. In our society, normally the economic argument trumps all. Increasingly, with a concern for our common home re-awakened by Pope Francis’s Laudato Si , the environmental argument may trump the economic.

Teaching targets the mind, but formation targets freedom. God is free. God created human beings free, in his own image and likeness.. You cannot force them to their own good. You cannot constrain them to the common good. Knowledge does not guarantee personal goodness, even if knowledge mediates goodness. Even the best of universities can guarantee the production neither of the saint nor of the patriot. We know this from history. Both President Quirino and Jose Avelino, Senate President and co-founder of the Liberal Party, were graduates of U.P. But Quirino chose to fight graft and corruption; Avelino chose to fight Quirino. He openly chided Quirino for undertaking to investigate corruption within the Liberal Party.

“Graft and corruption in the government is inevitable. You can’t stop it so you might as well make the best of it. Everybody knows that politicians and government officials are no angels, so why make such an embarrassing point of it? Why have all these unnecessary investigations? Why expose all this perfectly legitimate graft in the newspapers? It is bad for the party. If it weren’t for all these investigations there would be no public clamor because the public wouldn’t know anything about it.”

Despite the rifts it caused in the Liberal party, Quirino chose to stand for what was right. He chose to hold his ground against Avelino, no matter the political fallout. Against laxity, he chose integrity. Against unprincipled pragmatism, he chose morality. In the end, he won.

While education cannot guarantee the outcome of the good person through the transmission of knowledge, transformative education must hope this. It does so through formation. Formation undertakes to tame freedom, not to vitiate it, to nurture it, not manipulate it, to enhance it, not kill it, but to let it live. Formation undertakes to help a person enhance personal freedom in recognizing moral obligation from within that responds to moral obligation impacting on him from without. It helps the person find the nexus between one’s personal self and the objective call of the common good. To the common good that social justice commands, formation invites, it leads, it coaxes, it disturbs, it calls by personal witness or corporate example. For transformative higher education, the formative dimension is absolutely essential.

In the Philippines, perhaps the greatest shortcoming of conservative higher education is its failure to form the leader for the pursuit of the common good in free obedience to the demands of social justice. The student normally dreams of a well-paying job, a lucrative position; he is often led to choose life occupations and professions according to how much it pays, how well it rewards. Too little unfortunately is done beyond excellent instruction to form the student to be sensitive to the demands of the common good and to choose to pursue it. The result has been generations of leaders who are content to lead in the pursuit of private good, to determine their life occupations in terms of what good its brings them. Perhaps that is one reason why we build roads that lead to nowhere, and undertake forced marches that mark time.

The Common Good

Transformative education forms the student to search for that situation in life where each person and all persons flourish as human beings. For Quirino, the common good meant a society blessed by the wealth opportunities of industrialization fed by renewable energy. It meant harnessing our rivers for clean energy, not burning dirty coal. It meant people working for minimum humane wages, not cruel subsistence wages. It meant insuring that worker toil no longer than eight hours a day. It meant housing people who were poor. It meant fairness for Filipino business and a balance in the trade between the United States and the Philippines. It meant resisting the imperial capitalism of the Americans, but rejecting the communism of rebels. It meant pushing for social justice and equity, yet advancing individual rights, integrity and self respect. It meant fighting for the national welfare, even as he pioneered in wedding the national welfare with the welfare of other nations in the region. It meant preserving the public school system free from Catholic control, even when his principled rejection of Catholic religious education in public schools caused him the ire of the Catholic leadership and the enmity of Ateneans like Soc Rodrigo and Raul Manglapus. It meant fighting for the national weal as he saw it, in season and out of season, even against the opposition of former party allies, the unabashed political betrayal of his Secretary of National Defense, and despite serious illness and personal pain. Quirino was a servant of the common good because in the silence of his libraries, the leisure of his fishing boats , and the excitement of the political fray, he had been led to choose it.

On the 125th anniversary of Quirino’s birth, we recall his memory gratefully. Remembering his early teaching experience, we honor our illustrious teachers. Recalling his commitment both to education for all and to justice for all, we hope that in his memory our school system can become genuinely transformative, impatient with the ineptness, injustice and exclusion of the status quo, and committed to achieve a unified yet diverse Philippine society where all cooperate to flourish together to the optimum as humane human beings.

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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1 Response to Transformative Education for Social Justice

  1. Gina Lapaza-Montalan says:

    Very well said, father. I fully agree with you in this article.

    Indeed ” teaching targets the mind, but formation targets the freedom” as the very main goal of education is to let human beings become more free. Unfortunately, education now is equated to remuneration. Influx of enrollees in HEd is highly dependent on the demand of the industry, and worst is that not those in our country but in other countries. In the desire to respond to the demand of the industry, the system unknowingly promotes private good that strongly influence social injustice. It gives more weight on the training of the mind for excellent outcomes than the formation of becoming a free person, which forfeits the very main goal of providing education to our peoples.

    There is something that must be redefined in the system to achieve the goal of education that leads to the fullness of a person. The quality of education should not be viewed as a way to having high-paying job but as a way to developing both the intellect and the will of a person in order to do what s/he ought to do to achieve the fullness of his/her life for the common good.

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