Students of the Philippines’ premiere state university, the University of the Philippines (UP), are always being styled in the mold of the iskolar ng bayan (the nation’s scholars) narrative propagated by its “activist” community. The subtext of this term suggests that UP grads are expected to be paragons of charity and altruism — folks who employ the best of their capabilities to the “service” of the Filipino people. This notion has gone unchallenged for so long, to the point that this subculture of campus “activists” now presume to speak for all UP students. This is likely because the broader UP student body and its alumni community couldn’t really be bothered to argue with a rabble of rabid ideologues. Unfortunately, this small community of “activists” that presume to represent the “voice” of UP are given disproportionate air time not only by mainstream Big Corporate Media but by no less than the top officials of UP itself.
Case in point is a recent speech delivered by Fidel Nemenzo, chancellor of the Diliman campus of UP. For one thing, he delivered this speech in commemoration of “the 1971 Diliman Commune” which, we are told, was an historic event where “UP students occupied the Diliman campus in solidarity with striking jeepney drivers, who were protesting the increase in gasoline prices”. In this speech, he refers to “our community” (presumably the UP community) repeatedly — as if suggesting that the principles or motivations that led to the “Diliman Commune” are ones that are shared by UP students in general. Perhaps somebody needs to do an actual data-informed analysis of just how representative of the UP population of students and faculty members this “community” Nemenzo refers to actually is.
An important cornerstone of the “activist” rhetoric surrounding the UP community is “academic freedom”. They use “academic freedom” as a flag in their “fight” against “authoritarianism”, insisting that said freedom is essential to the national interest. The idea that “academic freedom” is threatened by the presence of state forces remains hopelessly debatable because there is no evidence that freedom of any sort of academic inquiry in any university in the Philippines is being stifled by the Philippines’ military or police forces. Yet activists assert otherwise. Nemenzo himself points out in his speech that “UP campuses have long been a refuge of student activism in the country” suggesting, it seems, that the only real activism happens under the protection of UP and its “community” as he defines it. The fact is, there are no facts that support such an assertion. Activism is alive and kicking in all Philippine institutions of learning. UP does not hold a monopoly over real “activism”. On the contrary, one could even argue that what UP actually produces are the most pretentious, hypocritical, and crooked “activists” in the Philippines!
The debatability of the notion of “academic freedom” being “defended” by these UP “activists” aside, perhaps it is also worth challenging the notion that “academic freedom” is essential to national progress. Consider the case of the academic scene in Singapore. Singapore is one of the most prosperous nations on the planet. This is despite the fact that — or, perhaps, because — its government puts clear limits to “academic freedom”. The resolve to make good on this policy was recently exhibited in September 2019 when its Ministry of Education cancelled a programme that aimed to introduce students to ‘modes of dissent and resistance in Singapore’. Briefing parliament on the matter back then, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung pointed out that academic freedom can’t be carte blanche for misusing academic institutions for political advocacy.
Mr Ong said the programme would have involved making protest placards and visiting the Speaker’s Corner in Hong Lim Park.
It would also have included dialogues with personalities like Mr Jolovan Wham and Mr Seelan Palay – who have both previously been convicted of public order-related offences – and Ms Kirsten Han and Dr Thum Ping Tjin of the New Naratif media platform, which receives “significant foreign funding”, he said.
In standing by his decision to cancel the programme, Ong pointed out that “this is a programme that was filled with motives and objectives other than learning and education”. He also made the interesting assertion that “thinking critically is quite different from being unthinkingly critical” — which is on point in the Philippine context when one considers how UP “activists” are seen to be critical of any incumbent government for the mere sake of being critical.
A rousing credit to Singapore society is in its citizens’ crystal clear understanding of what their academic institutions really should be focusing on.
Responding to questions filed by Dr Intan Azura Moktar (Ang Mo Kio GRC), Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) and Nominated MP Walter Theseira, he said the cancellation has drawn many comments.
While a few disagreed, most academics, including those from Yale-NUS, supported the cancellation.
Many members of the public also supported the decision, but for a “simpler and more fundamental” reason. “They did not see why inciting and teaching students to protest should be condoned in our educational institutions,” Mr Ong said. “This is a valid view that we cannot ignore.”
Nobody is saying that the position Singapore takes on the subject of “academic freedom” is wrong or right. The more important point that needs to be made is that there is an ongoing debate on the matter. As such, it is wrong for the UP Diliman Chancellor to presume to speak for all UP students when he upholds — and propagates — the principles represented by this so-called “Diliman Commune” whose adherents form just a small subset of the UP body of students and faculty members. The fact that there is ongoing debate means there are UP students who likely beg to disagree and, as such, would not count themselves as represented by the chancellor’s words on this occasion. Nemenzo is, in effect, being intellectually dishonest. If he is a true believer in “academic freedom”, he should not be taking partisan sides. If he is truly intellectually honest, he should consider the arguments of his peers in Singapore who collectively believe that “[political] conscientisation is not the taxpayer’s idea of what education means”.
Say, for discussion’s sake, the notion of “academic freedom” makes actual sense. It should then be applied to all academic pursuits — not just the sorts of academic fields prone to politicisation where the sorts of dishonest “activists” that UP had become notorious for are bred. Are students of the hard sciences academically “free”, for example? Indeed, within such fields, it is the sciences and maths that underpin them that govern where intellectual pursuit will lead — not the nebulous notions propagated by “activists” guided by their obsolete ideologies. And on that should be considered that what ultimately sets apart truly progressive societies is achievement in the hard sciences and not in fields that deliver nothing but the sort of divisive partisan politics and destructive dishonest ideologies that hinder any country’s march to prosperity. To enjoy true “academic freedom” is to be free of the wasteful distraction caused by the latter.
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