The Crisis in our Midst

By J. Neil C. Garcia
Department of English and Comparative Literature, College of Arts and Letters

K-12 and Filipino Nationalism                                                             

The academic crisis we are currently mired in is the result of two things: the ASEAN integration of school calendars and standards (like the adoption of a regional medium of instruction, which appears to be English, by default), and the K-12 system (the adding of two additional years in high school, which among other things means a revamping of the existing college general education curriculum, whose present subjects will now effectively be moved to the last two years on the secondary level).

The former is presupposed by the latter.

The other ASEAN countries enacted the K-12 reform a decade or so ago, and so since 2007 (when the integration agreement was signed) they’ve only been needing to worry about—and working on—the shift in the school calendar and the adoption of English. For example, Thailand is shifting its calendar this year, while Malaysia enacted its shift two years ago, and is moving towards implementing an all-English college curriculum, etc.

The questionable “de-nationalizing” of priorities aside, we can say it’s really mostly a crisis of our own making: our government took its sweet time and decided to cram everything (including implementing mother-tongue instruction) in the eleventh hour—as we know, next year is the deadline for complete implementation of the ASEAN provisions. What’s missing from the discussion so far is precisely this “regional” perspective: all nationalist paradigms in the ASEAN are being retooled, revised, deprioritized. Even if it doesn’t feel like it, our present problems are hardly unique to us (and so, we should perhaps inquire into the situation of our neighbors in the ASEAN, and try to dialogue with our academic colleagues if only to work out possible ‘common’ solutions).

The old English, Filipino, and other “disciplinal” subjects will no longer be part of the new General Education curriculum, whose “novel” subjects are all supposedly interdisciplinary and thematic (making up domains or topics, really, which can be team-taught, modular, etc., in imitation of global trends in General Education). This looks good (and even refreshingly progressive) on paper, but this revision has not been properly planned and prepared for. Moreover, and crucially, leaving the choice of medium of instruction to the different colleges and universities is the same as excluding Filipino from the General Education curriculum: it’s almost certain schools will all choose English, because it is the ASEAN’s (and the global community’s) own de facto medium, precisely (we need to remember that the standardizing of the education system across the region really serves to standardize employment policies; hence, a college degree earned in one ASEAN country is supposed to be valid in the rest).

With Filipino relegated to the primary and secondary levels, it will be even harder to cultivate it as a language of expert knowledge, imperiling the decades of heroic and admirable efforts in this regard (and undoing, quite possibly, the Filipino nation itself: as Ernest Gellner once famously put it, “nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness; it invents nations where they do not exist”; thus, the nation is not an assured thing at all; it is ever under threat, and can always be “de-invented.”)

Needless to say, the University of the Philippines, as the national university, is duty-bound to step up and challenge these dangerous and ill-conceived revisions, and take every possible measure to support the continued use of Filipino in college and beyond.

A silver lining (for we must not give up looking for such): UP is not under the jurisdiction of Commission on Higher Education (CHED). The wisdom behind this “arrangement”—to keep the national university autonomous—now has the chance to prove itself.

The Geo-Politics of Integration

Of cours, what we need to realize is that all this “regionalization” and/or “internationalization” amounts, in the end, to the forced modification if not abandonment of nationalist paradigms in education, language development, culture, and economics. In other words: a reversal (and an undoing) of all our unfinished efforts in decolonization.

What we need to critically discuss and determine is, among other things, just how much of this has been spurred by the global supremacist struggle between the West (the old imperium) on one hand, and the “upstart imperium” of the China-Russia-and-others (yet to be revealed) coalition, on the other.

If so, we need to critique the assumptions behind this arguably Western-imposed move: will “cosmopolitanizing” Southeast Asia and making its economic and cultural systems more synchronous with one another and with the West really render its member states less vulnerable to the wiles and imperatives of this new imperialism? To be sure this is not a novel strategy: as I personally managed to discuss with tipsy officials of the Taipei government, back when i was an artist in residence there in 2001, this was precisely the strategy that the Taiwanese decided to quietly adopt: make Taiwan so thoroughly integrated into western networks of economic and cultural exchange, that China would not so easily be able to claim it for itself.

Of course, we must resist imperialism—Western, Asian or whatever else—but in this case we all need to ask ourselves whether our region’s various hard-won nationalisms need to be sacrificed in this frenzied attempt to stave off the very real threat of Chinese integration (the idea is that either we survive as a region, or individually we get incorporated into China’s “Co-Prosperity Sphere”).

To the degree that the push for “regional unification” is being mandated and promoted by the West, just how readily or eagerly must we comply with it, especially since it’s clear that what motivates it is—at the very least—the desire of the western powers to maintain their hegemony over not just Asia but the global south in its entirety. Why, in trying to oppose yet another period (or “layer”) of colonial subjugation, must we disregard and undo all the progress we have made in nationalizing and/or decolonizing ourselves?

Answering CHED’s response

Once again, we are told: with this new curriculum, not just Filipino but also English—and the entire paradigm for the old GE program—will be expunged and replaced with something more “liberal” and transdisciplinal. However, it’s disappointing to see that CHED’s “letter of clarification” still does not sufficiently clarify things, for it does not even mention the fraught geopolitical context of these changes: basically, the regionalizing of ASEAN’s economies, premised as it necessarily is on the standardizing of systems of education in the region (among other things).

Let’s be clear: it’s always a good thing for the GE curriculum to be reexamined and fixed for the better. Who wouldn’t want that? And yes, the idea of thematic and transdisciplinal courses is potentially a very good one, for it complicates the way we wish our students to perceive and appreciate reality—from several perspectives, basically, and all at once. This is merely reflective of the simultaneity of the information age.

But there are questions that we all need to mull over: Did CHED even think of giving teachers some lead time in this regard—which is to say, “retraining” them? Has CHED even bothered investing sufficiently in course material development? It feels like we in the education sector are all being herded into this new system because there’s that fast-approaching integration deadline to meet. With this officious and entirely logistical letter, it would seem that despite the compellingly vital nature of this issue, CHED doesn’t exactly wish to be upfront about the political and economic context for K-12 at all (I say: why not just make a clean breast of things? Why not just admit to the fact that something extra-national is spurring all these radical revisions?)

If anything, this interesting CHED xplanation sounds like a qualified “retraction” of sorts—to quell the firestorm of protests—for now we are being told that nine units will still need to be taught in Filipino. Easily we see, however, that this “assurance” will not necessarily solve the “labor problem” (of members of the Filipino faculty being laid off), because with the whole idea of disciplines being no longer relevant to the new GE program, there’s actually no requirement for the teachers concerned to come from the Filipino department. As we’ve been told over and over, there are no disciplinal prerequisites involved in this new GE. Hence, if the new GE subjects are to be simply “thematic” in nature—and since our teachers across the disciplines are bilingual, anyway—then any one teacher coming from any of the disciplines can, notionally, handle them.

I cannot help but wonder: if team- or modular teaching is not to be the paradigm, and if any of these new GE subjects must still be handled by just one teacher, then a clear and much simpler alternative presents itself: Why not just ask the GE programs of all the old GE disciplines to simply require their respective teachers to be well-rounded and well-read, and to make sure their bi- or even multi-lingual readings are sourced from as many realms of knowledge as possible? This will effectively turn GE subjects into “seminars” of a sort, with the idea of each university establishing its own GE center (or institute) becoming more and more attractive, over the long haul.

The bottom line for me—which CHED has avoided in addressing—is the following: for any of the traditional disciplines to successfully cope with this new situation, they need to be sustainable as departments offering their own specialized programs, and they should not have to rely on the GE load to survive. The question is: just how realistic or doable is this? Did CHED even bother taking a look at the enrollment figures of these different GE departments? (obviously, where this problem is concerned, some departments are doing better than others).

And then: why did CHED decide to completely renovate the GE program when, if the intention is to simply change the content of its subjects, arrangements could’ve been found within the existing set-up to turn existing GE subjects more “complex” and transdisciplinal, by simply asking colleges and universities (and their relevant departments) to refunction and re-describe these courses? I just want to say that this is entirely doable, despite the “forbidding” way it sounds: “popular science writing” is readable and understandable to the general reader, which means a non-science GE teacher should be able to use it; conversely, even if a scientist were to team-teach a course on ‘the self’ (which is actually one of the new GE topics that CHED stipulates), his humanities-based readings should be “accessible” to him, too…

In other words: Why are we going through all this fuss if CHED could’ve simply just asked the tertiary schools to tweak or revise their existing GE subjects in order to make them more “liberal”?… Just now, I’m thinking of my own readings in Freshman English: even without the benefit of this paradigm shift—and because I’ve always believed in the value of an eclectic “textbook”—years ago I already determined that my readings would need to include various interesting (but accessible) pieces about certain “choice” topics in archeology, cosmology, history, literature (okay, more of this than the rest), and yes, mathematics…

Needless to say, I can’t believe I am at all exceptional, in this regard. It should be relatively easy to reorganize any GE teacher’s existing readings around the various “themes” that CHED recommends, without having to overhaul the entire system of tertiary education…