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The Poor Filipino Reader

Read this paragraph:

One of the most severe effects of poverty in the ____________ is that poor children enter school with this readiness gap, and it grows as they get older. Children feel alienated from society; suffer insecurities because of their socioeconomic status; fear the consequences of their poverty; endure feelings of powerlessness; and are angry at society’s inability to aid in their struggles.

Please continue reading:

Children from lower-income families are more likely than students from wealthier backgrounds to have lower test scores, and they are at higher risk of dropping out of school. Those who complete high school are less likely to attend college than students from higher-income families. For some children, the effects of poverty on education present unique challenges in breaking the cycle of generational poverty and reduce their chances of leading rewarding, productive lives.

After reading the first paragraph and confronting the blank, you know that you can easily fill out the blank. That country is…the Philippines. Your country. Mine, too.

Then you continue reading. If you can read the second paragraph the way you could the first, and if you read it smoothly, without stumbling on polysyllabic words, then you can read. If, after finishing the second paragraph, you can explain concepts like “generational poverty, then accept my congratulations. You are a reader. You could also be a writer. You complete the tandem qualities of the educated person: one who can read and one who can write.

Did you even notice that what you just read was in another language? That it is not in the language you dream and curse and love? Or maybe, I should correct that: you must be one of the many Filipinos who dream and plan in the English language.

Then welcome to the club.

You and I must have attended one of the better schools. You and I must have spent hours in classrooms using the English language, taking a break without being worried where we would get our snack. We belong to families with clean toilets or, at least, in households with toilets. Among us, we do not talk about surviving because it is given that we will all live. Comfortably.

We also read. There are the papers rationed each day. There are books on the shelves. There are magazines in our rooms.

Our classrooms are clean and big. We have functioning libraries. Our high schools or colleges and universities have Reading Centers. We may not learn from these reading centers that are not really meant to cultivate reading skills but to show to the accrediting organizations we “belong.”

In Elementary schools, we read America, the Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims. We talked about snow and apples. There with our happy, clean teachers, we read the ABC using lovely letters. In high school, we read on and on. We memorize speeches. In College, there are additional requirements: values and value formation.

There, reading comes naturally as breathing. Comfortably again. We need not read much because being secure, we naturally become good and fast readers. In that environment.

Then comes this news: the Filipinos are at the bottom of the list of nations of poor readers.

This is the first time that we see that list. There is a reason for this late realization: This is the first time that we joined this group. It is called PISA, for Programme for International Student Assessment. It directly assesses the knowledge and skills of students in the area of reading, science and mathematics.

We are shocked. I thought we are “world-class?” Careful there. We are world-class laborers and entertainers. No one ever called us world-class readers. And that label about being world-class? --- that came from us.

We have been measuring us. We have not used any external examiner.

But let us not condemn our schools. Let us not even condemn our teachers. The latter is underpaid, overworked and, this we have to stress, over-seminared.

Those who are shocked and that is us, good readers, will never understand the poor reader. They belong to a group we can never understand because we are watching them from afar. This is no more physical distance than a social distance.

They are in that state of poverty where we will never try to be.

We belong to schools of immersion. You know those programs where we spend days with the poor because that is how we can empathize with them. The problem with immersion is that we can always leave that abject poverty and return to our comfortable rooms where we are sheltered from dismal scenes.

For us, it is still a matter of class distinction. But Spivak clarifies for us that class does not function anymore to clarify a group of people. “Class” generalizes and we are made insensitive to the particularities of people with wants and needs.

And so, we remain in a state of shock. We hang ourselves in shame. Now, this is a problem: the people who will come up with solutions to this situation are people who will never understand that poverty and poor reading go together.

They may sound trite but the words of Amartya Sen should remind us that the problem of our being last in the list of PISA goes beyond the skills of reading and counting. In the Nobel laureate’s words: “Education makes us the human beings we are. It has major impacts on economic development, on social equity, gender equity. In all kinds of ways, our lives are transformed by education and security.”

As for that blank in the first quoted paragraph of this essay, it is not the Philippines but the United States. The two paragraphs are lifted from the web page of ChildFund, an international developmental non-government organization.

If that is the truth about the powerful country in the world, imagine the truth and lie we can make about our very own country, the Philippines.

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