Plenary Speech by Dr. Jose “Butch” Dalisay, July 12


Dr. Jose Y. Dalisay Jr., University of the Philippines

FANHS National Conference

Chicago, Illinois

12 July 2018

Thank you all for inviting me here to share some of my thoughts about Philippine society today—whether back home or right here in the United States—and the role of higher education in addressing our common ailments. In some conference formats abroad they call these plenary talks “provocations,” meaning that they’re meant primarily to spark discussion and debate rather than prove some dry academic thesis, and that’s what I’ll be aiming for this morning. On a personal note, it’s good to be back here among old friends in the Midwest, where I spent five years as a grad student in Ann Arbor and Milwaukee, and taught as a visiting professor at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin.

At his investiture last September, the new President of the University of the Philippines, the lawyer Danilo L. Concepcion, described a situation which I’m sure all of us are familiar with:

“Philippine society—as with many other parts of the world—has become highly polarized, politically, socially, and economically. Civil discourse is breaking down.

“Both at the national and university level, it is becoming difficult to push any agenda forward without being subjected to intense, sometimes malicious, scrutiny. In many instances, we have stopped talking to one another as a people sharing the same future.

“Truth, reason, and respect have been the prime casualties in these exchanges, which I am sure you have witnessed—if not participated in—online.”

President Concepcion went on to offer what he thought the role of the university should be in such troubled times. We should, he said, focus “on finding, in this University, our common ground, a clearing—a safe, free, and congenial space within which its constituents can teach, study, and work productively to their full potential.

“UP must be that special place within which it should still be possible—despite all divisions and distractions—to work together with the University’s and the nation’s strategic interests in mind.

“There should be no better home in this country for the expression of ideas, without fear of violent retribution from one’s colleagues or from the State itself. There should be no more welcoming environment than UP for cutting-edge research, timely policy studies, exciting new exhibits and productions, and provocative art and literature—in other words, the work we have always been meant to do, and do best.”

That speech, titled “Our Common Ground,” was not simply an echo of past presidential speeches, but one specifically directed at the temper of our place and time—indeed, perhaps of the world itself as we know it today.

We Filipinos have never been this divided since the days of martial law—and some will say that there’s an obvious reason for that. But unlike the days of martial law, when the press was severely restricted and regulated, and when anyone who seriously opposed the regime had to resort to clandestine means to broadcast his or her stand, today we have the Internet and social media, which have opened the floodgates not only to information and opinion, but also to everything that comes with them. The anonymity of the Web has encouraged if not legitimized outright slander, and the wholesale, deliberate, and organized practice of what used to be called “disinformation”—today better known as fake news. Just as we see everywhere else, many Pinoys (like some people we know) don’t even pause to think before they tweet. The traditional centers of credible authority have long crumbled—the government, the Church, the media, and even, to some extent, academia, which brings me to the subject proper of my talk this morning.

Can the university—in my case the University of the Philippines, but in a larger sense the whole of Philippine higher education—be an instrument of national community?

Let me begin with the proposition—with which I hope you will agree—that the only community that will last for our country and people will be one based on an appreciation and acceptance of a common stake in the Filipino future, based on truth, reason, and fairness or inclusivity.

Under normal circumstances, you and I would not even think twice about this idea, which is almost a motherhood statement. But these are times in which truth, reason, and fairness seem to be in precariously short supply, and the notion of “a common stake” an increasingly nebulous one.

I’ll get back to the university and how it might be able to help in a minute, but let me lay out a few more general threads that other speakers, I’m sure, will be picking up on over the next couple of days. I’ll be speaking less as an academic bureaucrat than as a writer and as a professor on the verge of retirement looking back on over 35 years of engagement in the polemics of literature and nationhood.

If we lack a sense of a common stake in a shared future, it may be because we lacked a sense of a common stake in the past. We like to think that we share a history, but the history of our poor is very different from that of our rich.

Fragmented by colonialism and geography into a collection of tribes and families and a staggered pyramid of classes, we have allowed ourselves to be led by a succession of economic and political elites, who have predictably acted more in their interests than those of the broad masses of the poor and the middle class beneath them. Not surprisingly, in this sea of competing interests, we have given primacy to the survival of oneself and one’s family and of one’s immediate community above supervening considerations, such as those of an abstract “nation.”

Personalities, not philosophies or platforms, direct Philippine politics. Parties are mere flags of convenience, easily discarded at the next election or its aftermath. The Left has cohabited off and on with the Right, each one seeking some advantage from the other. The middle forces are poorly organized, easy to suppress unless and until they form a critical mass such as assembled at EDSA, which will likely not happen again, because the State will crush anything resembling it at first sign.

We can talk all week about what has led to this mess, and of ways to get out of it. But I’ll posit a couple of ideas that, strangely enough, hardly ever enter a discourse dominated by politics, economics, and history. And then we’ll segue back to education and its role in creating a more unified nation.

These two words—which are the business of all universities everywhere—will sound simple enough, but like all simple things, they bear enormous implications and consequences. Those words, ladies and gentlemen, are arts and sciences—disciplines that should have everything to do with achieving more meaningful nationhood, but which have routinely been taken for granted by our policy makers.

I’ve long argued that one of our worst mistakes has been the fact that we have largely left national policy to the politicians, the priests, the lawyers, the soldiers, and the merchants. Scientists have had little say—and artists even less—in the running of our country and in plotting its direction. We may canonize our boxing champions and beauty queens—and even elect them senator—while our National Scientists and National Artists languish in obscurity and indifference. (And I won’t put you on the spot by asking you to name at least a couple of these luminaries. Filipino Americans might be excused for being unaware of them, but native born-Pinoys shouldn’t be.)

At least we artists have one dubious advantage over our scientific brethren. Filipinos are besotted with song-and-dance competitions, which many see as the apex of artistic achievement, while there seems to be no comparable public enthusiasm for quiz bees in math and science.

Ours is an appallingly innumerate society. Most of our people do not know the simplest numbers that describe our lives, and much less what they mean. We are raised on concepts like the national flower and the national bird and the national tree, but even in college we are hard put to say what the national population growth rate or the Gross Domestic Product is, and why they matter.

This innumeracy is balanced, sadly, by cultural illiteracy. Our notion of culture often consists of pretty images, pleasant melodies, theatrical gestures, and desirable objects. Our compatriots can hardly be faulted if they think that they are preserving Filipino culture by dancing the tinikling and serving pancit on June 12th—only to bicker among themselves afterward the first chance they get, which could be more Filipino than pinakbet.

So we not only lack a scientific culture; but we also have a superficial grasp of culture itself as a way of life rather than an assemblage of artifacts.

This gets all messed up when we consider the information environment in which we live today—an environment of fake news, alternative facts, and post-truths, an environment where loud and forceful opinion (often expressed in tweets and Facebook posts) seems to take precedence over quiet facts and careful inquiry, and where “likes” and “retweets” take the place of scientific verification. Throw in superstition, ideology, racism, sexism, and a recipe of other political, social, and cultural factors, and you are going to have a very hard time figuring out where the truth lies at the bottom of a very murky pot.

This is why it’s important to introduce science to popular discourse. People—even media—often mistake science for numbers, gadgets, laboratories, and incomprehensible formulas, but we have to remember that—through the scientific method—it’s really a way of looking at the world and making things happen, guided by reason, observation, and experimentation.

We have to bring science within the grasp of ordinary citizens, not only to educate but to empower them, because ignorance disempowers. People fear what they cannot understand, and there are those who will deliberately confuse the arguments and make them incomprehensible to people so they can be more easily misled and driven to false conclusions.

The only ones who stand to benefit from bad or murky science are power-hungry politicians, profiteering businessmen, medieval-minded zealots and bigots, and professional charlatans. Those who deny the Holocaust and climate change are not merely expressing an opinion, as they of course are free to do; but they are also triggering destructive processes that could result in social and physical catastrophe for others.

You’ll recall that a few years ago, there was—and indeed there continues to be—a raging controversy over GMOs or genetically modified organisms and their possible impact on our food, our health, and our economy. When scientists at the University of the Philippine Los Baños tried to propagate a GMO variety of eggplant they called Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) talong, they met with fierce resistance from some civil-society groups who warned that UPLB was in the pocket of a big multinational firm to promote a product that could only have disastrous effects on Filipinos.

Despite the strenuous efforts of the UPLB scientists to prove that Bt talong was safe, did not require harmful pesticides, and would bring tremendous economic benefits to Filipino farmers, opponents succeeded in securing a Supreme Court order to stop field testing on Bt talong. The order was met with profound dismay from UPLB, and while it was later reversed on a technicality, the episode showed how contentious and how political such seemingly simple matters as which eggplant to plant and to eat could be.

Today, once again, we have a scientific controversy brewing in the media, around the issue of Dengvaxia vaccine, said to have been given to huge numbers of Filipino children without adequate safety testing. So the question is, was it a scam meant to enrich a corrupt few, or just sloppy science? Or is there a reason beyond public safety for raising this issue now? We need science—and maybe a bit of criminology, which is also a science—to establish the facts of the case so we can know how to move forward and also how to deal with the accountabilities of the past.

There have been and will be many more, and much larger, public debates that will engage both science and politics in the Philippines. Take the environment, for example. Let me pose some questions that may strike at the core of some of our most deeply held beliefs and presumptions. Can the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant be safely rehabilitated and utilized? Can we use modern incinerators to solve our waste problems? Is there really such a thing as responsible mining, and how can it be undertaken?

Will we simply believe the politicians, the businessmen, and the bloggers, or should we rely on science—acknowledging that science will also often be divided against itself—to help establish the truth, whatever the consequences of the truth may be?

Science begins with a thirst for knowledge, which also means raising difficult and embarrassing questions and dealing with inconvenient truths.

Another way to get to those truths is through the arts, which provide a window on the Filipino soul. The arts are the tangible and creative expressions of our culture, and this is where our strength as Filipinos lie—a strength, however, that we should first recognize, recover, and sustain.

We Filipinos have distinct cultural advantages. We are a naturally and irrepressibly expressive people, with strong artistic and creative talents and impulses. We think and speak freely, no matter the cost or the consequences. We reject and resist tyranny; we have no taboos, no sacred cows. We sing of love and death in the same breath, we laugh and weep without shame, we create and light up lanterns even in the most difficult and darkest of Christmases.

That freedom and that courage is our strongest cultural resource, the wellspring of innovation and productivity. This is why we have such great artists, writers, musicians, singers, dancers, filmmakers, designers, and artisans.

And yet, for all that talent, we lack arguably lack a national and unifying culture to which most if not all Filipinos can relate. We have allowed our identity to be defined by the foreign and the powerful.

There’s also more than a philosophical or spiritual argument to be made here. There is an economic argument, which is that culture is not just an expenditure, but a valuable resource that, properly managed and supported, can reap substantial material benefits for our people, in the form of what have been called “creative industries.” Covering

“a wide array of subsectors including advertising, animation, architecture, broadcast arts, crafts, culinary arts, cultural/heritage activities, design, film, literature, music, new media, performing arts, publishing, and visual arts,” these creative industries, according to an UNCTAD report, represent anywhere from “3% to 12% of global GDP.”

And yet again, for all our talent, we Filipinos remain a net importer of cultural goods, particularly books and movies. Asia is now the world’s biggest producer of books, movies, and games. But that’s an Asia dominated by China, Japan, Korea, and India. The question is, how can we Filipinos partake of that boom? First, of course, by strengthening those industries in the Philippines.

We need to see the arts as more than a frivolous diversion, an intermission number between presumably more important topics of discussion. Beyond any commercial value we can attach to them, culture and the arts are ultimately what bind us in spirit. They are the language of love and hope, without which no nation can possibly survive.

And this is where education comes in, as the traditional purveyor and promoter of the arts and the sciences in any country, and particularly in the Philippines, where government support for them has been usually perfunctory. And it isn’t just putting these subjects on the curriculum that’s education’s role in creating a more intelligent, more feeling, and hopefully more cohesive society.

They need to be imbued and imbibed as corporal elements of ideal citizenship. To create a viable national community, we need to promote rational, fact-based thinking and discourse over political hysteria and hyperbole, just as we need to actively recover, strengthen, and sustain the cultural bonds that define us as a people.

For the past 110 years, that has been part of the mission of the University of the Philippines, our national university, the bearer and champion of our people’s hopes. Or at least, that’s the noble intention. Through our general education program, we try to produce graduates who can be as conversant about Greek tragedy as about the Law of the Sea and thermodynamics. The premise is that a well-rounded, well-educated student will elevate not only himself or herself but also his or her community and society, bringing people together in common cause.

Again, that’s the ideal case. We know that, in practice, while UP has produced scores of such exemplars as Wenceslao Vinzons, Fe del Mundo, Jovito Salonga, and Manuel and Lydia Arguilla, and while we graduated 29 summa cum laudes from Diliman this year, we also know that many UP students and alumni have flunked, and flunked badly, especially in the moral department. In other words—and it saddens me as a UP professor to say this—intelligence never guaranteed moral discernment or rectitude, and as proud as we may be of our nationalist traditions and contributions to national leadership, much remains to be done to ensure that we imbue our students not only with knowledge but with values. In other words, just as we ask physicians to heal themselves, we educators first have to teach ourselves.

It needs to be pointed out that, contrary to popular misimpression, UP has never been monolithically radical. For every activist who walked out of class to join a protest rally, at least five remained behind, intent on simply finishing his or her studies, no matter what. Those of us in the active opposition were always in the minority—a loud minority, which took more than a decade to generate the critical mass to topple Marcos and martial law.

Indeed, like our country itself, the history of the University of the Philippines has been full of ironies and paradoxes. For example, while some would later see it as a bastion of Marxism or at least nationalism, and certainly of secularism, few remember that UP’s first president was an American and a Protestant pastor named Murray Bartlett—who incidentally championed UP as “A University for Filipinos.”

In reality, therefore, UP like other state universities is still a microcosm of society at large, reflective of its divisions and its differences.

And then again, any self-respecting university cannot be content with the realities on the ground, but has constantly to reach for the unreachable star. It cannot be just a microcosm, but something better than the rest of society—better not necessarily in terms of intellectual superiority bordering on arrogance, but better in terms of the quality of its discourse.

That quality of discourse, informed by scientific reason and artistic empathy, can be education’s best contribution to national community. UP—and our other universities—can and must be the providers and drivers of the truth, and of the careful and insightful analysis that can ventilate issues of national significance—like Constitutional change, our territorial integrity, the delivery of justice, human rights, and the eradication of mass poverty, hunger, and disease.

The way to help unite a nation is to imbue all sectors of society with an understanding of and a commitment to larger things at stake. And UP is that functional meeting place between the Filipino rich and poor, with our admissions profile now almost evenly divided between upper and lower income students. Beyond dealing with the larger national issues as teachers, researchers, and experts, we in education must ourselves be avatars of reason, compassion, and tolerance, while remaining steadfast in our defense of academic freedom as the requisite of knowledge generation. In our classrooms and conference halls, we must create and provide the forums that will ventilate these issues in ways that social media cannot. And we have to learn how to listen again, to see why people of different opinions believe what they do.

I’ve often said that there’s a time for tweeting, in that in-your-face, take-no-prisoners mode that the medium encourages; but someone has to go beyond caustic tweets to write the novel, or undertake the years-long research that will question or validate our easy assumptions, so we can have an intelligent discussion about them as a people.

In his investiture speech, President Concepcion put it this way: “We must promote consensus over conflict, civility over calumny, and collaboration over confrontation. We must foster strategic thinking over short-sightedness, honest labor over opportunism, and shared effort over self-promotion.”

If UP is to be, as our tagline says, a shaper of minds that shape the nation, then we must shape ourselves to be, in the words of the pastor and our first president Murray Bartlett, a “University for Filipinos,” aimed at fostering “young men and women who, rich in possession of noble ideals, shall satisfy their personal ambition in unselfish service for the good of their fellows.”

Thank you all, and Mabuhay!