The battle for hearts and minds

Former police chief and now Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa complains about what he calls an “imbalance” supposedly existing in state universities like the University of the Philippines and the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. The imbalance, he declares, favors the recruitment of students for revolutionary roles in the communist movement over professional careers in the police and the military. He blames the 1989 agreement banning the presence of police and military personnel inside UP campuses for this state of affairs.

As far as I know, there is nothing in the 1989 UP-Department of National Defense Agreement that bans the police or the military from entering UP or PUP to conduct lectures on career options in the armed services. Many of the big companies regularly do this around graduation time. Why can’t government agencies like the Philippine National Police do the same?

Furthermore, if the police and the military strongly believe that the country’s state universities — UP and PUP in particular — have knowingly allowed their academic programs and venues to be used for illegal activities, they could bring their concerns to the schools’ governing bodies. If I were in charge, I would respond by inviting police chief Oscar Albayalde, defense chief Delfin Lorenzana and Senator Bato himself to come to UP and address their grievances to the students and faculty in a symposium expressly organized for the purpose. I am certain it will be well-attended.

When I was director of the UP Third World Studies Program, we held a series of well-attended forums titled “Academe Meets Government.” This was just a few years after the 1986 Edsa revolution. We invited generals, policymakers, politicians and heads of government departments to speak at these events.

The exchanges often led to heated debates, but they were always uniformly informative and rational. In many instances, they paved the way for the tearing down of the communication barriers that had caused so much misunderstanding between the general public and the government. Of course, there were a few times when some irate students would swarm a controversial guest and pelt him with rotten vegetables. But those instances were rare. Such disrespectful behavior toward invited guests was always denounced by the academic community itself.

The so-called UP-DND Agreement of 1989 was precisely born during this period of redemocratization. The preceding martial law years had locked the university community in a hostile relationship, not just with the police and the military but also with most of the departments of government. The new government of Cory Aquino felt an urgent need to rebuild communication lines and restore a modicum of public trust in government agencies.

By the same token, people in academe felt that those in government needed to understand that state universities are not like other government agencies. Indeed, they are supported by public funds, but they are also protected by their charters and codes, as well as by the law itself, from direct government interference in their academic functions. The government may not tell them what to teach or how to teach, and who to admit into instruction or who to graduate. These are decided by the appropriate academic bodies in these institutions of higher learning.

The UP and the PUP, or any university worth its name, do not exist to serve the needs of any given regime or political administration. They are open marketplaces for the broadest range of ideas and ideologies. A student’s most reliable shield against the seductions of any system of ideas, dogma or political persuasion is the capacity for critical thinking. This is a quality of mind that a university like UP takes pains to cultivate in its students as part of its core mission.

I don’t expect President Duterte or Sen. Bato dela Rosa to feel comfortable around UP students. No one who is used to exercising absolute authority, to being obeyed without question, will ever feel at ease dealing with someone with a critical mind. To the latter, every idea is open to doubt; you can’t invoke rank to win an argument. In matters of thought, the only force that a critical mind accepts is the force of the better argument.

The best universities have always been those that not only create and transmit cutting-edge knowledge, but also fulfill functions that strengthen democratic culture. “[T]he university has always fulfilled a task that is not easy to define,” writes the sociologist Jurgen Habermas; “today we would say that it forms the political consciousness of its students.”

Whether they are aware of it or not, parents take a great risk when they send their children to universities that consciously promote and preserve the liberal milieu of learning. If they are bright and conscientious, these youths will return to their families as transformed human beings, worthy not only of their parents’ name but also of the nation that paid for their education. One will know them by the type of questions they ask. In UP, we call this badge of honor “Tatak UP.”

As a parent myself and, more recently, as a grandparent to a UP student, I am not immune to the worries that all UP parents are heir to, even as I have lived almost all my life in this university. I try to keep in step with the young by engaging them in meaningful conversation, constantly reminding myself of Kahlil Gibran’s words: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”