Sunday, February 27, 2005

Education and poverty

Education and poverty

Posted 11:41pm (Mla time) Feb 26, 2005
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A13 of the February 27, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

SOMETIME during the Christmas holidays, 21-year-old Onak asked me if I needed someone to look after the little orchard I was starting at the foot of Mt. Malasimbo in Bataan. I remembered him as a sprightly teenager who helped around in my brother's garden. Slightly deaf because of chronic ear infection, he had quit school after Grade 4. Now he has to leave his parents' home, he shyly told me, because he has just taken a wife. I immediately understood his situation, hired him on the spot, and allowed him and his bride the use of a cogon hut I had built as a weekend sanctuary until they could set up their own house.

Fifteen-year-old Jenny, his wife, also stopped going to school after finishing Grade 4. Because she is a minor, they cannot be legally married. But this is a minor detail to this very young couple. They may not even get married, but they will soon be starting a family, replicating the same cycle of poverty, insufficient education, early marriage and long childbearing years, and low-paying irregular work -- that their own parents before them had followed.

There is no real way out of this cycle without a decisive intervention in education. Study after study has shown that the higher the level of education of the head of the family, the higher the family income. A simple quantitative rise in the level of educational attainment of Filipino families could produce a dramatic effect on poverty rates, especially in the rural areas. But more important than the effect on incomes is the profound transformation in worldview and life aspirations that a good education can trigger.

Many years ago, the late President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania visited the Philippines. Mwalimu, as he was fondly called by his own people, spoke at a forum at the University of the Philippines. I remember one particular question he was asked: What would you regard as the most crucial element in Tanzania's development program? His quick unequivocal answer surprised everyone: The education of our young women.

I expected this architect of Tanzanian modernity, the intellectual father of agrarian socialism, to come up with an elaborate discourse on the political economy of African underdevelopment. But he instead proceeded to demonstrate in practical terms why the education of young rural women was critical to African development. First of all, he said, there was no moral or political or economic basis for discriminating against girls and giving all the opportunities for education to males in the family. Second, he noted that the education of women releases them from the traps of male supremacy, ignorance, poverty, and, more importantly, the burden of prolonged childbearing years. Thirdly, educated mothers are better carriers of progress; more than fathers, the Mwalimu argued, it is they who are able to impart to their children the value of change, of what it means to be a person with aspirations, and what education can do for a human being so she can overcome the limits imposed by inherited hierarchies.

These thoughts came rushing back to me the other night, when the youngest of our four children, Jika, called to ask for advice on how to process a decision she was about to make. At 27, after working in a highly competitive setting for five years, she quit her corporate job last year to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Program. I thought it would be a good experience for her. An accountant by training, she was assigned to teach Math to 43 girls, aged 13 to 19, plucked from the remotest villages of Puerto Princesa in Palawan. This unique rural boarding school, based in the Catholic parish of Macarascas, runs a full-time non-formal program that prepares the students for examinations accredited by the Department of Education.

By the end of April, Jika will have completed one year of volunteer work, and we cannot wait to have her back with us. But now she is calling to ask what we think of her plan to stay on as a volunteer teacher till at least the end of 2005. She says it has taken a while before she could win the full trust of the girls, and now she thinks that having entered their lives, she does not feel right about turning her back on them just because her term as JVP volunteer has ended. There's still more she can do to prepare them while she is there, she says with conviction. I was afraid this would happen. As a parent, my instinctive response was to tell her there were other ways of helping the school and the girls that would not necessarily require her to put her own life on hold.

"But, Dad, my life is not on hold," she gently told me. "It is going on here perfectly. It is the first time I have felt that I am doing something that has meaning not only for me but also for other people, like these girls who have not had the same chances in life." I reminded her of her plan to get an MBA, but I got the sense that a graduate degree in business not only seemed remote to her now but also irrelevant. She spoke to her mother about setting up a foundation for the education of rural girls. She believes she can do that even as she continues to teach the girls the beauty of Math and the wondrous world that awaits them as educated women. My heart tells me she has chosen the right path.

When we visited her in August last year, the founder of the school, Fr. Broderick Pabillo, took me aside to express his appreciation for allowing our daughter to volunteer at the school. "It is important for the girls," he said, "not only to learn Math or English, but also to dream. Our JVP volunteers, Jika and Jet (who teaches English), are showing them alternative images of what they can be."

Sunday, February 20, 2005

A Moro homeland

A Moro homeland

Posted 10:21pm (Mla time) Feb 19, 2005
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the February 20, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

FINISH them off, or give them back their land. Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile may have uttered this sentiment in exasperation over the Arroyo government's lack of a clear policy on Mindanao. But he should know Mindanao, having played a key role in the Marcos regime's handling of its problems. He also has business interests in the place. What does he really have in mind?

He cannot possibly seriously think that a total war against the Moro rebels can succeed. Thirty-one years have passed since the Marcos military burned down Jolo, but the resentments generated by that single atrocity continue to simmer to this day. As the recent events in Sulu have shown, there is no way the military can hunt down and kill remnants of the notorious Abu Sayyaf group without hurting other members of the communities in which they seek refuge. Most of these rebels are not full-time fighters. It is not easy to tell a rebel from an ordinary resident. The possession of firearms is not a distinguishing mark of a rebel because nearly every male adult in this place owns one.

Moreover, names like "Misuari Breakaway Group," "Jemaah Islamiyah" and "al-Qaeda," are labels used by outsiders like the Philippine military and US agents. Just because the government and foreign forces use them to identify the enemy does not mean that these terms of affiliation have any meaning for the local people. The "enemy" that the government is pursuing, whether Abu Sayyaf or MNLF-Misuari loyalist, is a human being with a proper name. He belongs to a family and a kin group. He is a member of a community; he goes to a mosque and prays among other members of his faith. You cannot kill this enemy, especially one who fights in the name of his people, without making enemies of the rest of his relatives and community.

As important, the Moro people-the Muslims, the Lumad, and, indeed, Christians who identify with the aspirations of a Bangsa Moro homeland-may be a minority both in relation to the total Mindanao population and the Philippine population. They may be concentrated in four or five Muslim-dominated provinces in Mindanao. But the reality is that they are also now everywhere in the country.

The war and its insidious cousin-land-grabbing-have forced them out of their homeland. Now they are in Metro Manila, in Baguio, in Central Luzon, and, practically, in every major urban center of the archipelago. They sell pearls, pirated DVDs, and smuggled goods. Forced by circumstances unique to displaced people, they inhabit the lower rungs of the informal economy. Their assimilation into the mainstream is skin-deep; they remain a separate people, steeled by their faith, and bound together by a shared dream to regain their homeland.

That they are currently uprooted from their homeland does not mean they have stopped being Moros. The man who sells DVDs in Quiapo or pearls in Greenhills may be far from the war, but he is not psychologically distant from its horror. It is na‹ve to think that he no longer cares what happens in Panamao, Patikul, or Parang. He may not himself plant a bomb in a bus full of innocent people to express his outrage; but maybe, whether he knows it or not, he is sheltering someone who would. Anyone who thinks it is possible to confine the hostilities to the remote villages of Sulu and win a decisive victory there, without provoking retaliation elsewhere, betrays a cockeyed view of the world.

The new American vocabulary of global anti-terrorism is a paradigm of such a stilted view of reality. It may give us what seems like an informed way of looking at world events, but it will not shield us from the horrific consequences it creates or makes possible. When a bomb is dropped on a community in Sulu, we call it a military operation. But when a bomb is exploded in Metro Manila, we call it a terrorist attack. That is not the way a Moro militant would view it. Both events, to him, are integral aspects of the same war.

And yet, by calling these isolated attacks on civilian targets the handiwork of the Jemaah Islamiyah or of elements linked to the al-Qaida, we draw attention away from their basic local roots. We confer upon them a global conspiratorial character they do not possess. I do not condone terrorism of any kind. But this semantic arrogance not only blinds us to the real sufferings of people at the receiving end of state aggression, it also induces in us a moral smugness that justifies simplistic solutions to human problems.

But we have earned a minor place in the US-led war on terrorism-a role that compels us to give up a part of our rights as a nation in exchange for military and economic assistance. We have brought American forces right into the door of the Mindanao conflict, in total violation of the letter and spirit of the 1987 Constitution.

The Mindanao conflict is complex enough as it is without having to locate it in the American world map of global terrorism. Its roots go back to the unsuccessful wars of pacification under the Spanish and American colonial regimes. The new Philippine Republic rode on the inertia of these colonial expeditions. It spread its rule, its settlers and carpetbaggers, all over Mindanao, completely ignoring the ancestral domains of the native peoples and the sovereign rights of the sultanates that had administered these territories since pre-colonial times.

Land is what the Moros lost, and a homeland is what they hope to recover. Everything else-Misuari, Salamat, the MNLF, the MILF, the Abu Sayyaf-is but a footnote in a just struggle that will never be resolved by war.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

A sociology of love

A sociology of love

Posted 01:04am (Mla time) Feb 13, 2005
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A23 of the February 13, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

IT is perhaps symbolic of the perennial tension between the natural forces of life and the attempts to regulate life in the world that a day set aside for erotic love should be named after a Christian saint. The coincidence is not exceptional. Many holidays in the Christian calendar have pagan origins. Sometimes the pagan aspects outlive the religious meanings, as in the case of February 14, which, since 1969, is no longer marked as a feast day in honor of St. Valentine.

The martyred priest, whose name has become synonymous with love, is supposed to have lived in the time of Claudius II. For refusing to renounce his faith, Valentine was jailed and executed on Feb. 14 in the year 270 AD. He was accused of secretly marrying Christian couples, thus making them unsuitable for war. The story goes that in prison, he befriended and healed the blind daughter of his jailer. And on the day of his execution, he sent her a farewell note, signed "your Valentine."

Valentine's affections were hardly erotic, and this was precisely the point. The Church sought to substitute brotherly love for sexual love. In those times, the 15th of February was celebrated as the day of the goddess Februata Juno, when young men and women were paired as couples through the mechanism of a love lottery. The names of the women were drawn by the men on Feb. 14. It is obvious that naming the day after a saint did not succeed in masking the orgiastic origins of Valentine's Day.

Max Weber, the brilliant German sociologist, called sexual love "the greatest irrational force of life." He expected the erotic sphere to resist and survive the growing rationalization of everyday life. For him there is no way anyone can institutionalize love.

Of love, he writes: "This boundless giving of oneself is as radical as possible in its opposition to all functionality, rationality, and generality....The lover realizes himself to be rooted in the kernel of the truly living, which is eternally inaccessible to any rational endeavor. He knows himself to be freed from the cold skeleton hands of rational orders, just as completely as from the banality of everyday routine." Weber thought of love as a creative elemental force that, in the modern world, might serve as our last link "with the natural fountain of all life."

Society has tried to regulate this creative force through the institution of marriage, whose own origins lay in the need for economic security for the wife and inheritance for the children. In the modern period, this led to the equation of love with marriage. Couples marry for love, and so when love is gone, they think the right thing to do is to dissolve the marriage. This, no doubt, accounts for the crisis of modern marriages. Couples could hang on to nothing else but the promise of love's passions. From the standpoint of society's needs, nothing could be more foolish than to anchor an institution on a fickle and elusive force as love, says Nietzsche. This crazy philosopher's radical insights were developed and woven by Max Weber into his own modern sociology.

While preparing for a lecture on postmodern love and intimacy, I stumbled upon Nietzsche's thoughts on marriage and family and was surprised to learn how much Weber drew from him. These two German thinkers were interested in the fate of social institutions under the impact of modernity. Modernity rationalizes means and ends, and introduces consistency in the practice of everyday life; but it also tends to dissolve everything it touches.

"Witness modern marriage," Nietzsche writes. "Modern marriage has patently lost all its rationality: and yet this is no objection to marriage, rather to modernity. The rationality of marriage lay in the sole legal responsibility of the husband: this is what gave marriage its center of gravity; whereas nowadays it has a limp on both legs. The rationality of marriage lay in the principle of its indissolubility; this gave it an accent which, set against the contingencies of feeling, passion, and the moment, could make itself heard. Likewise it lay in the responsibility of families for the choice of husband and wife. The increasing indulgence shown towards love-matches has practically eliminated the basis for marriage, the thing which makes it an institution in the first place. An institution can never be founded on an idiosyncrasy; marriage, as I have already said, can not be founded on love.... Marriage as an institution already encompasses the affirmation of the greatest, most enduring organizational form: if society itself cannot guarantee itself as a whole unto the most distant generations, then there is no sense in marriage at all."

It is never easy to agree with Nietzsche's typically contrarian views, and I certainly warn against accepting them uncritically. They go against what we normally understand to be the ethos of freedom, which is at the core of the modern spirit. But the dilemmas he poses cannot be ignored. His discussion of love and marriage in the modern age is provocative. Institutions are the tools that link generations to one another, he says. Their survival cannot be made to depend on the accidents of fleeting sentiments.

I do not think Nietzsche was arguing against love. Though he himself remained unmarried for the rest of his life, he had a profound respect for marriage. I think in his view it was wrong to have used marriage to tame love. Lucky are those who can keep love and marriage under the same roof, but because it is an intrinsically irrational force, love will always defy institutions. Prince Charles knows that only too well by now.

Happy Valentine's to my wife Karina and to all incurable lovers!

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Repairing basic education

Repairing basic education

Posted 00:02am (Mla time) Feb 06, 2005
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the February 6, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

WE all know there is something very wrong in the education of our children. Where the trouble lies and how we should repair it have been the subject of recurrent debate. Recently, a group of professors and researchers from the University of the Philippines offered their thoughts on this question in a position paper sent to the Department of Education and media. Their intervention signals the need to take a closer look at existing research in order to determine whether adding more years to the country's basic school system would solve the problem.

My own initial view is: By simply adding two more years of the same stuff taught in the same way in ill-equipped classrooms by the same ill-prepared and underpaid teachers to the same under-motivated and malnourished pupils may not remove us from the category in which we find ourselves today, together with the poorest African countries. But I keep an open mind.

Crucial to the analysis is isolating the key factors that affect children's performance at school. There are factors beyond the control of the school-like absentee parents and not having enough to eat. But of the variables within the sphere of educational reform, the following may be worth examining: teaching method, teacher preparedness, the curriculum, and the medium of instruction.

The proposal to increase the number of years is based on the single assumption that too much knowledge is being crammed into the existing 10-year basic program, giving rise to the need to layer or space the curriculum. I am sure there are studies that have already looked into the impact of such curricular congestion. Their findings must be considered in relation to studies that examine the effects of other factors like teaching style and medium of instruction. The UP education paper unfortunately does not go into these.

The position paper poses the question: "Could length of schooling be one reason for the dismal academic performance in local and international tests?" My UP colleagues answered the question only in an indirect way-by pointing out that the Philippines, with its six-year elementary and four-year high school programs, has one of the shortest basic education systems in the world. They did not offer empirical proof that the length of schooling is the most crucial factor in the performance of our students in international tests.

There is no question that adding more years to the 10-year basic education program will improve the test scores of our students. This seems to be supported by the limited success of the optional high school bridge program. But whether this is the best way to address the present deficiencies in the system remains unanswered. The tendency to cure problems of quality by adding quantity is so prevalent in our society that one cannot help but be skeptical.

As a teacher myself, I find that what is important in learning is not so much the amount of material one covers in a course but rather the clarity by which the most basic concepts are explained. Whether one is dealing with mathematical, aesthetic, or social science concepts, the quality of the interaction between teacher and student is crucial. The students should be free to ask for elaboration, without fear of censure or ridicule and in a language most meaningful to them. And the teacher should have the patience and, more important, the ability to explain the concepts. In this regard, I find that the use of a language that is foreign to both teacher and student can be a great barrier to understanding, and that the switch to a native language often goes a long way toward facilitating the learning process.

I suspect that, precisely because it is a second language to most of us, we tend to overestimate our relationship to English. That relationship is basically an artificial one; we still do not think in English and, maybe, never will, thank God. I won't be surprised if the most effective teachers of basic Mathematics in our country are those who do not hesitate to use a local language to explain concepts. Many conscientious teachers know this. They know that English is a key to modern and global learning, but they also know it can be a deterrent to learning.

English is all too often used by teachers to mask their own inability to grasp the concepts they are supposed to teach. They do not explain because they cannot. Instead they take refuge in seatwork, penalizing their students with interminable exercises on concepts they themselves do not understand.

I have seen this in many schools even at the tertiary level, where teachers carefully protect their own ignorance from exposure using the shield of an impenetrable language. They make their students copy entire books into their notebooks, and require them to memorize and recite portions of these. Their students learn nothing but the outer skin of ideas, unable to relate these to the circumstances of their lives.

I am aware that it may be counterintuitive to raise the issue of medium of instruction at a time when the siren song of call centers is seducing the country back to English. English is an important language, but it is a tool that can be acquired any time. Its acquisition must not impede or burden the learning process at the fundamental level.

We have gone a long way toward making our national life more inclusive by the extensive use of the Filipino language in the mass media and in public affairs. It would be tragic if our gains in these areas are nullified by the exclusion of large numbers of our children from the benefits of formal education because of English.