The Virtues of a General Education

My years in the University of the Philippines proved to be the most formative in my life, and this was largely owing to the U.P. program in general education.

The sheer diversity of courses that I took and the plurality of perspectives I was exposed to played no small role in my intellectual awakening. And this happened within my first two years as an undergraduate student, when I was sixteen and seventeen years old.

The general education program was eye-opening, not least in the way in which it exploded many of the myths and truisms that I had taken for God’s truth.

In my History class, I learned to rethink the wave migration theory which held that the Philippines was populated by successive movements of Negritos, “Indonesians” A and B (distinguished by skin color, height, and nasal bridges!), and Malays, into the Philipine islands. Teodoro Agoncillo and Renato Constantino’s nationalist readings of history came as a shock to me, and all the dates and names and places I had dutifully memorized in high school suddenly acquired new meaning and significance.

In my Asian History and Civilization class, I learned about the Mandate of Heaven and how easily it could be lost. I learned about the Chin emperor, Confucius and Mencius, and the 1911 Chinese Revolution. I also read Basho and Lady Murasaki, and found out more about Oda Nobunaga and Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea, the Meiji reformation, and the Manchurian Incident.

For Social Science II, we read Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Marx, with some Durkheim and Weber thrown in. My young SocSci II instructor, who spoke with a melodious Visayan accent (he pronounced Jean-Jacques “Jin-jacks”), secretly showed some of us in his discussion class his dogeared copy of Amado Guerrero’s Philippine Society and Revolution.

My SocSci I course introduced us to the basics of Linguistics, Psychology, and Geology. My professor in Humanities I made us read Sophocles, The Little Prince, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the Bhagavad Gita, and encouraged us to read Pramoedya Ananta Toer. In Math, I learned about Boolean algebra, and my Chemistry teacher in Natural Science I lectured us on cresols and warned us not to be taken in by the TV commercials touting the virtues of one brand of soap over another. I learned about logic and logical fallacies my first year in U.P., and also learned how to write (and properly format) term papers. My Humanities II exam consisted of a long essay on Vicente Manansala’s painting “Madonna of the Slums” (1950), and another one on The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five.”

The GE courses were my windows to the wide, wide world, a world full of exciting ideas and marvelous creations, of humans acting in ways good and bad and a full spectrum in between, of nature in all its glory and wonder, but also its own sense of time independent of the blink of the eye called human time. There was more that I needed to learn about—the plight of women and gays, the color line, Southeast Asia, the ideas and political experiments coming out of Africa and Latin America—but these first two years set me on the path that continues to branch ahead of me now.

What I appreciated most about these courses was how they wrenched us out of our intellectual and ideological comfort zones, challenging us to question our basic assumptions about who we are, what we want to do with our lives, and how we might contribute to our larger society and the world.

As a U.P. student, I attended my first rally; wrote and published my first short story; acted in the classroom production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Macbeth”; learned to identify and date antique Chinese porcelain; read Rizal in Spanish for the first time; and discovered the treasures of the Filipiniana section of the U.P. library. The library, in particular, became my haven, and I spent many happy hours browsing the stacks and poring over books on everything from Wagner to the Frankfurt School, from A Dream of Red Mansions to “Talks at the Yen’an Forum,” from back issues of the Philippines Free Press to first editions of Rizal: Contrary Essays, Mga Ibong Mandaragit, and Tutubi, Tutubi, ‘Wag Kang Magpahuli sa Mamang Salbahe.

I think of my life in terms of two chronological sections, with my U.P. years as the demarcating line. I was twenty when I graduated with a degree in English Studies. I taught in U.P. for another four years before (and right after) doing my Ph.D. in America, and before accepting a job offer here in Japan. What I am now I owe to all the good and dedicated teachers I was fortunate enough to have been trained by in U.P., and the classmates and colleagues I was fortunate enough to have encountered and worked with there.

U.P. gave me a solid grounding in the “classics” of both Western and Eastern thought, and most importantly, Philippine history, politics, culture and society. It taught me about what it meant to think critically, to weigh all available evidence and consider other people’s perspectives before making my own judgment and decision. I became a Filipino in U.P. at about the same time that I became aware that I was part of a larger humanity.

I haven’t followed closely the developments in U.P. and the raging debate over the revamping of the G.E. courses in the past decade or so. What I have heard—students who are unable to write term papers and format bibliographies properly; History majors who cannot read Spanish; colleges seeking to cut down the list of required courses because these courses are not “relevant”; the race to lift U.P.’s world rankings—is sufficiently worrisome. U.P. taught me to be broad-minded and skeptical, and it gave me intellectual breadth and the confidence to venture beyond my own narrow discipline to try and learn from other fields. If that multidisciplinary breadth is what is in danger of being lost, what a tragedy for future generations of our best and brightest!

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