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Rethinking the Purpose of Education

“The UP and the PUP, or any university worth its name, do not exist to serve the needs of any given regime or political administration. They are open marketplaces for the broadest range of ideas and ideologies. A student’s most reliable shield against the seductions of any system of ideas, dogma or political persuasion is the capacity for critical thinking.”

The above quote is taken from Randy David’s column last Aug 18, 2019 in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. I came across this quote because someone posted it on Facebook.

I personally don’t have any quarrel with this quote. There’s nothing in the quote that says that a university like the University of the Philippines (UP) or the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) should brainwash its students to favor a particular ideology. In fact, David encourages the students to develop critical thinking skills so that they do not blindly succumb to a system of ideas or dogma.

But just like any quote, it’s open to misinterpretation especially from those who have an ax to grind against anyone who doesn’t tow the government’s line.

Thus, I was not surprised that David and, by insinuation, UP and PUP, was criticized on Facebook for turning these universities as “playgrounds for subversive activities.” The critics, I suspect, are rabid anti-communists who may or may not have read the works of Marx or Lenin. They can also be paid trolls who just want to create confusion and sow discord in the social media.

One even wrote, “Why don’t NPA (sic) put up their own universities. It’s not the mandate of government universities to teach students to become rebels but to mold them as responsible citizens.”

Another opined that universities “must focus on academics and to significantly tone down on activism.”

The criticisms, some of which are obviously coming from people with a particular bend or understanding of what education should be, point to a larger question that needs a fresh discussion: What is the purpose of education?

If most Filipinos could have their way, education would mean a little more than getting a college degree in order to enter the workforce and become successful in one’s chosen field. It’s pretty much everything you hear and read about that education is simply learning: learning how to read and write; learning how to memorize certain concepts; learning how to pass the tests. In other words, learning all those stuff needed to be successful in the workforce.

But ‘learning’ per se is not the goal of education. If it is, education becomes a mental construct, a mental exercise that deprives us of the ability “to turn mirrors into windows.”

There’s nothing wrong with students mastering the “art of learning” all those facts. Many may favor this type of education. But it is not enough. Learning for its own sake is like a tinkling cymbal – hollow.

For Plato, the aim of education is not just the attainment of knowledge and the welfare of the individual, but also the welfare of the state, of society.

Education has a social component. It is instrumental in creating social change. There’s nothing subversive about this, as some have mistakenly believed, because education always takes place in a social context. As William James, American philosopher and psychologist once wrote, “Truth is inseparable from experience.” Education, therefore, should be a social and interactive process, where the students are allowed to experience and interact with the larger community, beyond the campus, so that they will thrive and use their skills for the greater good.

As one Facebook user puts it, “Students should be allowed to freely express themselves. Join discussions, debates, rallies and forums. We need to teach them to be aware of the ills of society and make them come with possible solutions. We have to widen their horizon and not limit it. Free speech is a sign of a mature and thriving democracy. We do not need fanatics who blindly agree and follow politicians.”

Rather than putting so much effort creating a wedge between various educational institutions and the military or government, we would do better giving the students the opportunities to think critically and decide for themselves what they want to be without any state intervention. Students should be asking themselves: How can I maximize my potential? How can I be a better and complete person? How can I best serve my community? How can I make my country a better place? How can I be a man or a woman for others?

To spend so much time and resources attempting to stifle the students’ right to be themselves and have the freedom to discover who they are and what their role is in society doesn’t work. It did not work during the Martial Law years, when Marcos saturated the campuses with military agents, some masquerading as students. It will not work now. Students are not robots or morons. They cannot be manipulated by unscrupulous professors. They are thinking beings who ought to be given the academic freedom to flourish.

Perhaps it is time for everyone – for conservatives and progressives, for the Left and the Right, for educators and non-educators – to acknowledge this fact.

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