Education and its purposes

After I finished high school, there was only one career that my father had in mind for me: law.  And there was only one school in which he thought I should get an education: the University of the Philippines. His lifelong dream was for me to follow in his footsteps. I had no problem embracing that dream.  He was a fine lawyer, passionate about his profession.  He believed that, with the right kind of training, I could be a great lawyer. In the eyes of my family, therefore, the whole purpose of my education was to continue my father’s legacy.

But, his choice of UP puzzled me.  My father was a product of Catholic schools.  And, like every parent with great ambitions for his children, he was not unaware of UP’s long-standing reputation as a spawning ground for atheists, communists, and violent frat men.  This did not bother him at all. He was of that generation for whom nationbuilding was a religion.  He believed that a UP education would not only make me a good lawyer; it would also, more importantly, instill in me an enduring commitment to the Filipino nation.  My father sent me to UP to make sure I would serve not just family but, above all, country.

UP introduced me not just to nationalism but to the broader world of learning, to the sheer pleasure of acquiring a new pair of eyes with every new paradigm.  Before I realized it, I was cultivating intellectual interests that had nothing to do with a career in law.  Literature, philosophy, and the social sciences opened new horizons for me that I found intrinsically fulfilling. To cut a long story short, I ended up being a professor rather than a lawyer.  My family had a hard time imagining how being a sociologist could be a profession.

There is a simple point to this story.  Education means many things to many people. To a family, it spells the difference between being trapped in poverty and having a rewarding job.  To a government, education is a crucial instrument for molding young people into productive and loyal citizens.   But to teachers like me, education is, more than anything else, an open-ended adventure into the world of ideas.  What appeals to me is not so much the practical task of forming professionals – important as that is — but the sense of exploration and discovery, of critique and experimentation that I try to nurture in my students. As a professor of many years, I have drawn more satisfaction from students who can look upon learning as the wondrous unfolding of a new world, than from those who spend all their time chasing after grades and honors.

I think the best possible condition for learning is precisely when students lose themselves in a subject enough to forget to ask what its practical value might be.  By the same token, I also believe an educational system works best when it is able to do its work autonomously – that is, when it can resist co-optation by other institutional systems that seek to harness it to their own myopic agenda. This is not to say that an educational system can afford to be blind to demands from its environment.  It is to say rather that an educational system can perceive more and respond better to complexity when it surveys its environment through the prism of its own function, rather than through the prisms of other systems.  To do otherwise is to compromise the very meaning of education.  Some examples might help to illustrate this.

Not too long ago, every college or university in the country tried to cash in on the thriving global market for nurses.  Almost overnight, nursing schools sprouted or expanded, drawing scarce resources away from courses and degree programs that had no immediate market value.  The curriculum was re-arranged to make room for those skills that were needed in hospitals abroad, while the general education courses were trimmed down to a minimum. Then, almost without warning, the nursing market crashed, leaving in its wake thousands of unemployed graduates and desperate students who had borrowed money to pay the high tuition being charged.

One would think this is a disguised blessing for a country where the health needs of the many have remained unattended. But, the truth is that the local absorption of surplus nurses is not automatic.  Hospitalbased skills are very different from those needed in rural settings where the majority of underserved Filipinos live.  This lack of fit has given us one of the greatest ironies of our time – an army of unemployed nurses waiting for work in a society where more than half of the people die without the benefit of health professional attention.

Yesterday, the demand was for nurses.  Today, the call is for personnel for the fast-growing business and knowledge process outsourcing industry.  This industry delivers more varied services than those associated with “call centers.” There is a growing demand for graduates who are not just proficient in English but also have basic training in computer applications, statistics, project management, data analysis and interpretation.  One can almost anticipate how schools may once again try to tinker with existing curricula — instead of, for instance, being content with offering supplementary certificate courses – just to accommodate this surge in demand from the latest employer.

Nothing could be more disastrous for a nation’s educational system than to fasten its curricula to whatever is the current flavor in a rapidly changing global market.  The function of education is to prepare people to live in the future. If students were trained merely to live in the present, that would be tantamount to teaching them to live in the past.