The University of the Philippines (UP) has been in the news lately. But it is not only because its graduates’ have been topping one licensure exam after another and its rising to 69th place from 71st among the world’s best 500 universities. It is also because of the threat to defund it and its being red-baited by no less than the President of the Philippines.
Taking their cue from him, as incoherent and as sub-literate as they are, the regime’s keyboard army of trolls and Neanderthals are attacking it from whatever slime pit they crawled out of.
The usual regime hacks masquerading as print and broadcast journalists have also weighed in. They have joined their accomplices in social media in trying to put down a 112-year-old institution that since its founding has demonstrated that, trapped in the pre-Enlightenment 17th century as this benighted land may be, there was at least one moment in its sorry history when it did something right.
It was this country’s then US colonial overlords who founded the University of the Philippines in 1908 to break the monopoly of the friar autocracy over education and to bring their newly acquired colony into the 20th century from the Medieval Age to which three centuries of Spanish rule had condemned it.
Not incidentally, however, was it also intended to be an instrument of soft power. Together with the rest of the speak-English-only public school system the colonial regime created, it was meant to convince the next generations of Filipino professionals and leaders to embrace and regard as their own the culture — the dominant ideas, values, beliefs and conventional wisdom — of the colonial power.
So successful has that experiment been that rather than the nest of revolutionaries some of its detractors now say it is, UP is still a work in progress, an enterprise rooted in the colonial and domestic elites’ drive to preserve, through their control of the public mind, the economic, political and social order. It is yet to fully grow into a truly Filipino university. But over the past 11 decades of its existence, it has become the Philippines’ primary intellectual resource by making academic freedom an irrevocable principle in discharging its multiple responsibilities of teaching, doing research, and making the skills and knowledge of its professors available to the rest of Philippine society.
Under US colonial rule, UP expanded the fields of study and professions Filipinos could access. Even more significantly, it opened its doors to women 300 years after Spain consigned them solely to kitchen and bedroom. There was already a hint of it in the 1917 Carlos P. Romulo-led student protest against a Manila newspaper’s criticism of a Filipino’s being chosen UP President. Romulo’s fellow UP alumnus Salvador P. Lopez’s pioneering work Literature and Society was another, later sign. But it took more than 40 years after its founding for UP to develop among some of its faculty, students, and alumni the awareness and appreciation of the need to challenge the fundamentals of colonial culture and to fashion in its place an alternative to it worthy of the independent nation the Philippines is supposed to be.
Out of the ruins of the Second World War a few UP professors and some of its alumni began to question the Philippines’ continuing dependency on the United States and its status as a neo-colony, and together with it, the claim that this “show window of democracy in Asia” was the best of all possible worlds.
It was neither supported nor shared by every UP constituent. But encouraged by the academic freedom the Constitution guarantees, the process of reimagining, and the hope of eventually reconstructing the Filipino reality continued in the 1950s and 1960s. Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of martial law in 1972 momentarily halted it. But by brutally demonstrating how vital freedom is to the life of the mind, the dictatorship unwittingly contributed to its becoming part of the UP culture of dissent, free inquiry, and social criticism that eventually led to the progressives’ proposing what they believe to be a viable alternative to the prevailing political, economic and social order.
That alternative — authentic independence, industrialization by and for Filipinos, thoroughgoing land reform, the democratization of political power — is neither communist nor even socialist. But because any reform program if ever implemented will inevitably affect its interests, it has so earned the fear of the powerful as to cause them to label its current proponents as “rebels” and “terrorists,” and to actually consider what no other administration including that of Ferdinand Marcos even dared imagine: the shutdown of UP.
Just as the disenfranchisement of ABS-CBN network was a form of censorship meant to intimidate independent journalists and the free press, many suspect that the “communist-terrorist” bogey, although it can actually lead to UP’s being harassed out of existence, is also a warning to all dissenters and critics whether in or out of UP of what civic engagement can cost them.
However, like the many graduates of UP who are in its service, the regime knows fully well that the national university of the Philippines is far more complex an institution than the “recruiter of communists” its deriders claim it to be.
Despite the student call for graduates to “serve the people,” not everyone educated in it becomes a servant of the poor and the powerless. Many indeed serve only their public- and private-sector patrons, their families, and themselves. The reality is that just like any other university in this country and the rest of the planet, UP is an essentially conservative institution. The libertarians, progressives, and reformists among its faculty are outnumbered by the conservatives and outright reactionaries who daily drum into the heads of their students the admonition to obey authority, to be silent even in the face of the worst atrocities, and to advance and protect their interests and those of the powerful. By following what many think is sage advice, some UP graduates indeed become exceedingly wealthy and/or immensely powerful themselves.
UP’s being another “communist front” is therefore not so much what the oligarchy and its police and military minions fear. What worries them most is the freedom that true learning requires and with which the Constitution endows it because it is that freedom that has nurtured the intellectual daring and the culture of free inquiry resident in the best of its faculty, students, and alumni (and even among its worst).
Because freedom is the essential condition to learning, and they look at knowledge as dangerous because it empowers free men and women with the capacity to question their monopoly over political power, their corruption, mendacity, and sheer incompetence, the dynasts will have none of it: neither in society at large, nor in the press, nor in any institution that dares call itself a university. Its constituents’ allegiance to the exercise of that human right is what makes UP a dangerous threat in the eyes of every regime that has ever been in power in this alleged democracy.
Without freedom neither the press nor a university can be true to their shared responsibility of examining and interpreting the world. The power elite and its flunkies in and out of government are in that sense not only the foes of knowledge. They are also the primary obstacles to the changes this country desperately needs — and to which they falsely claim to be committed.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).