As a student of history, I fear for the judgment historians will render when they review the record of my generation. I believe, and I say this in all humility and with deep regret, that their verdict will not be kind to us.
I hope they will give a fair assessment; that they will take into account the burden of history the previous generation had left for us to bear. We started to move into leadership positions in the '80s, when the country's institutions were finally beginning to collapse under the accumulated weight of a decade of authoritarian rule. I did not think that, in less than 20 years, easily within one lifetime, my generation would have to go to the streets twice to throw out two presidents.
I think future historians of this period will recognize the individuals and institutions that did try to rebuild the kind of nation that Rizal thought might be possible a hundred years after his time. But historians cannot escape the contemporary context
within which they write their accounts. In the end, looking at the bottom line today, I think they will conclude that my generation had failed in many important ways: that our people deserved better from us; that we could have done better for them and for the country, that we did not deliver.
Whatever battles we may have won, we did not do enough to turn the tide in the war for a more democratic, a more just, a more Christian social, economic and political order for our people. It is cold comfort to keep telling ourselves what I also honestly believe-that we would be worse off today had we not prevailed at Edsa I and Edsa II. Whether because of timidity, negligence, or self-interest, we have squandered the gains painfully won in those battles. We have thus allowed to fester the bitter divisions that were both their cause and consequence.
I have spent much of the last six months overseas. Foreigners express puzzlement at our country's failure to move ahead. Often, they are sincerely sympathetic. With increasing frequency, as some of our ambassadors abroad have also reported, their expressions of sympathy have become both pitying and patronizing.
Those who had studied in the Philippines, not at the Ateneo, but at places like Adamson and Centro Escolar, FEU, Mapua and UE, are the most puzzled. They speak with genuine fondness of the Filipino friends they had made and gratefully acknowledge how much they learned in the Philippines. Those who know the country best are too polite and too sensitive to ask what is happening in the Philippines and to the Filipinos. But their reflections on what they and their countries have achieved, however modestly conveyed, serve as a silent reminder and a rebuke of what we have failed to accomplish.
Not without a sense of irony, I think to myself: imagine if they had studied at the Ateneo. How much more might they have done for their country or, conceivably, how much less?
Failure in education
There is also some irony in this honor that the Ateneo had decided to confer on me today [a doctorate degree, honoris causa]. My tenure as secretary of education doubtless entered into the decision. But I must confess that I never received congressional confirmation for this post. As you know, there is a Commission on Appointments, and the honorable members of the commission found me wanting. It was somewhat amusing that friends appeared to think that having served without confirmation was some kind of distinction, deserving of congratulations.
A deeper irony lies in the fact that the education sector arguably demonstrates best how badly our generation and those before us have failed our people. Until the mid-'30s, the country had an 11-year public basic education system. To my knowledge, we are the only country that, upon gaining autonomy from the colonial power, actually reduced the investment in basic education, cutting back the cycle to 10 years.
My generation was not responsible for this decision, but we are accountable for not having done anything about it. If we had been able to add another year to the basic education cycle, we could have at least regained what we had 70 years ago, and we would at least have caught up with Myanmar. Today, all the other countries in our region, in addition to promoting two to three years of preschool, now require 12 to 13 years of primary and secondary education before entrance to university studies.
Despite post-independence political turbulence, fueled by insurgency, cronyism and corruption, the Philippines remained, until perhaps the '50s, an object of admiration-a regional center for academic and professional education, culturally vibrant and diverse, globally connected through its command of English, the only Catholic country in the region, and the showcase of democracy in the developing world. We never had much of a military force to boast of, but we had a good bit of "soft power" then, derived not from armaments but from the respect Filipino scholars, artists, writers, professionals and even some politicians enjoyed in the region and beyond.
Today, even your Ateneo diploma will not ensure immediate acceptance of your readiness for graduate studies abroad. We have to negotiate to get international accreditation for the graduates of our professional schools. And whether we are truly democratic or even Catholic have become subject to debate.
We have embraced a political system, anchored on the principle of one-person-one vote. Its effective functioning requires an educated electorate, and the failure of our educational system inevitably translates into the fragility of our democracy. Some political analysts have already concluded that many politicians do not really want educated voters. They need voters who can write their names, but otherwise prefer compliant clients who are easy to confuse, to corrupt or to coerce.
Let us concede that this is an overly cynical view that applies only to a few. But my recollection of many discussions with local and national level politicians during my term as education secretary is troubling. I can count on the fingers of one hand the occasions when any of them asked me, without any prompting on my part, about the quality of the education in the public schools. They were interested mainly in my budget and on the appointment of specific officials and sometimes, even of specific teachers in their constituencies. Whether the children were actually learning did not naturally surface as an issue.
Commitment to quality
Let us also accept that improving the quality of the educational system is a long-term goal, perhaps beyond attainment within only one generation. But our generation of leaders has shown little effective commitment to quality. Singapore has about 10 post-secondary educational institutions, only three of them granted university status. Considering our larger population, we should have 200 or, allowing for our geographic spread, perhaps 300 post-secondary schools. We have about 1,500 colleges and universities. The number is still increasing and, in the memorable phrase of a high education official, "every two-toilet school wants to be a university." Sadly, there will be no lack of politicians willing to make this happen.
Improving the educational system requires leaders willing to take decisions that may initially appear unpopular. My generation has not produced enough of this kind of leaders. Most politicians have avoided any action that might risk the loss of political office. They have temporized and compromised, postponing difficult decisions and promising action at a later, more opportune time.
The truth is we often concur in these practical decisions as necessary so that friends and allies can retain power and, presumably, the capacity to do good when the time comes. Looking back, I begin to wonder whether such calls offered the easy way out, when, perhaps, lines should have been clearly drawn and the risks taken. Because there is always, down the road, one more election to contest, one more piece of legislation to pass, and consequently, one more excuse for appeasing a political patron, one more Jesuitic reason to evade the critical issues that, in the long-term, would help bring about fundamental changes.
Act of Contrition
Fr. Tito Caluag invited me a few years ago to a dinner to explore how the University could mobilize its alumni resources for nation-building. He presented his alumni guests a list of other alumni holding top positions in business and government and academe. The list was truly impressive. It included leaders in all the branches of government, in academe and the media and in the biggest business corporations. After a quick look at the names and the titles, I suggested that the group begin its deliberations by praying the Act of Contrition.
Clearly, many Ateneo alumni have done exceedingly well for themselves and for their families, and the Ateneo can justly take pride in their success. Ateneo has given them an excellent educational foundation. The sobering thought for the Ateneo and for the Jesuits, and indeed for all those who run the country's elite schools, is that the individual success of their alumni has somehow not translated into the greater welfare of the national community.
Ateneo has graduated distinguished leaders in many fields. It has even produced politicians who can actually win elections. And yet, despite controlling so many of the levers that move society, these alumni, including those of my generation, have not been able to exert a decisive influence on the direction of the country to make it more democratic, more just, and more capable of providing our people with the opportunities for a decent life.
Reason for hope
These concerns, I am happy to say, appear to have surfaced also among the Class of 2005. Last month, I met with a group of their representatives, who shared with me their fears about their future in this country. They said they wanted me to give them a reason to stay home, instead of seeking their fortunes abroad. They wanted me to give them the good news.
That seemed a strange thing to expect from someone who had just left the country and whose main contribution, as secretary of education, was to proclaim the bad news-that the educational system had suffered from sustained neglect, that it was in critical condition, and that heroic efforts would be required for repair and rehabilitation. Like an Old Testament prophet, I was preaching, less hope than impending doom.
And yet, despite the apprehensions I heard from your classmates, I believe that the Class of 2005 is leaving the Ateneo far better prepared than my own Class of '62. Admission policies have given you a more diverse, a more representative social environment than we had. Girls were in your classes, not across the creek. Your contact with the world beyond the campus and the range of options for social and cultural and co-curricular activities were certainly much more extensive than ours.
Your preparation for engagement in civil society work was also superior. You had the lessons of martial law, the Aquino assassination, and Edsa I to learn from. Edsa II provided a less traumatic initiation into political activism than the First Quarter Storm and martial law that an earlier generation had to endure. You have also received a more coherent framework for civic engagement. Ateneo did introduce us to the concept, but the phrase "men and women for others" had not yet been coined in our time.
It is a good thing you come better prepared for the world beyond the campus than we did. Because we have failed, the necessary task of nation-building now belongs to you. I cannot tell you to hang on, to keep faith, to keep fighting for your ideals because things are becoming better and victory is at hand. I can only tell you that things will not become better unless you work to make them so. Is this not what Ateneo has tried to teach us? Some things must be done, not because it is convenient or profitable, but because it is the right thing to do. We can show you where we failed and how you can do better. But only you can decide your course of action.
Positions of power
Fortunately, most of you will still have some time before you must bear the burden of leadership. In the meantime, you can help yourself by keeping a close watch on the cohort between the ages of 40 and 60, the group that has moved or are moving into positions of power and that can stay in power for a long time.
Pay close attention to the alumni among them, especially if they are kith and kin. The course of action they pursue may be good for you and your family, and may even be good for the Ateneo, in the short term, but not necessarily good for the country as a whole. Remind them, when necessary, what they and you were taught to become at the Ateneo, men and women for others. And "others" does not mean only those from the same family or fraternity, school, church, or political party.
The problem with many developing countries, scholars say, is their lack, not just of financial but also of social capital. People trust only those to whom they are bound by blood and language. Countries endowed with a larger stock of social capital can mobilize more easily for more comprehensive, more inclusive goals.
Building social capital means projecting the radius of trust beyond the usual boundaries to embrace a larger collectivity. I believe your Ateneo experience, more than ours, has given you a greater capacity to connect with people beyond your immediate family and social circles.
What good news then do I bring? It is simple. And it is the one that your valedictorian already recognized. You are the good news. You are the message of hope that must sustain all of us, the message that you can succeed where we have failed. Our failures need not be yours. Even prophets of doom believe in redemption, with repentance and reform. From this faith, springs hope.
Forty years from now, perhaps even earlier, one of you will ascend this stage for a graduation ceremony. My prayer is that the commencement address then will not be another mea culpa, because your generation would have bequeathed to your children a richer legacy than you have received from us. I am sure that this is also the prayer of the Ateneo, which must, sadly, share in our failure, as it will share in your triumph.
Congratulations and thank you for sharing this moment with an old alumnus.
Sayang, wala na siya sa FEU. E di sana hindi ko nakikita yung ad ng FEU na katulad nung nasa page A6 ng Inquirer ngayong araw. Nakakainis yang ad na yan.
At isa pa. Dahil sa speech na ito, naging malinaw na sa akin kung bakit mas gusto ko ang mga graduates ng Ateneo kaysa mga graduates ng De Le Salle. Hahahaha!!!