The ‘normal’ school

In the transition to the new K-to-12 curriculum, according to a recent news item, college teachers who may at one point find themselves without jobs will be allowed to teach high school subjects. This seems like a no-brainer at first glance, but the issue is far more complex. Not every college teacher is trained to teach. The concept of “normal” as applied to schools for teachers offers a glimpse of the nature of this demanding vocation.

I have always wondered why schools for teachers were called “normal” schools. What was the concept behind this usage? Where did this usage originate? And what does the term “normal” in, say, the name “Philippine Normal University” mean?

From my cursory reading on the subject, I have come to know that the term refers basically to the goal of establishing clear standards or norms for public education; hence, “normal.” In traditional society, the task of education belonged to the family and was defined by the idiosyncrasies of the local community. The emergence of the normal school signaled the entry of the state in the educational sphere. Normal schools came to our country in the first decade of American colonial rule. The Philippine Normal School in Manila, from which some provincial branches subsequently sprang (like the Cebu Normal School), was founded by the colonial government in 1901 to serve as a training institution for the country’s first Filipino public school teachers.

It is remarkable that the Philippine Normal School was founded seven years ahead of the University of the Philippines, and that it was not incorporated as a unit of UP after the latter’s establishment as a state university. The Philippine Normal School remained a separate institution devoted solely to the preparation of teachers for the public school system.

The public school system pioneered by the American teachers, who were known as “Thomasites,” functioned as the single most important instrument for neutralizing three centuries of religious indoctrination under Spain. From the start, the Philippine public school system embodied the secular spirit that was at the center of the original normal schools established in France after the French Revolution.

Known in France as the “écoles normales supérieures,” they were the institutional embodiment of Europe’s Enlightenment spirit. There are four of these schools today in France, offering research and training in a variety of disciplines, and they have all been integrated into the University of Paris system. The most popular of these, and the toughest to get into, is the ENS (École Normale Supérieure) in Paris. This school is known as the training ground of Nobel laureates, philosophers, scientists, writers, and statesmen. There is also an ENS in Lyon that specializes in science, another one—also in Lyon—that is devoted to the humanities, and a third one in Cachon that offers training and research in the applied sciences, sociology, economics, and management.

These centers of learning are today no longer limited in their function to the training of teachers, but that is how they started. They were originally teacher-training schools offering 4-year courses to high school graduates, in preparation for the so-called “aggregation,” the state examination intended for people who have embarked on a career in high school and university teaching. Their graduates were steeped in pedagogy—the art and science of teaching. One could not be a teacher at any level without passing the state examinations.

It is perhaps a testimony to the importance that France accorded to teacher education that the ENS in Paris became the country’s top school. This school for teachers had the hardest and most highly selective admission exams in the whole European continent. From the beginning, France recruited generations of its public school teachers from the best minds among its people. Thus, it is not at all surprising that some of the most prominent French philosophers, writers, and scientists had been high school teachers early in their careers. The ENS was the nursery of the French intelligentsia.

The normal schools that were introduced into our country by the Americans did not develop this intellectual exclusiveness, perhaps in keeping with the American democratic ethos. But, they were deliberately organized not only to lay the foundations for modern education throughout the islands, but also to serve the ends of American rule. Their product was to be not just a modern Filipino, but an Americanized Filipino. This was the thesis of Renato Constantino’s classic essay “The Miseducation of the Filipino.” In such manner did formal education spell, on one hand, the emancipation of the Filipino from ignorance and, on the other, his estrangement from his ancestors.

Under the colonial educational system, the more formally educated we became, the farther away we drifted from the memory of our own people’s struggles. Today’s public education has to be different. While preparing our children to live in future social systems, it has to make a willful effort to bridge the many gaps that have troubled us as a nation—our alienation from our people’s past, the split between the educated and the masses, and the sharp and persistent inequalities that have excluded the poor from the main circuits of the nation’s life. The best way to begin such an effort is by encouraging the best of every generation to become public school teachers.