Academic freedom

Published August 21, 2019, 12:52 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat



Jejomar C. Binay Former Vice President
Jejomar C. Binay
Former Vice President

As a student at the University of the Philippines (UP) in the 1960s, I was exposed to nationalism and the nationalist writings of intellectuals like Renato Constantino. These writings and the class discussions we had were eye openers. This was not the sanitized version of history I learned in elementary and high school. I acquired a different view of society. I saw injustice in the conditions of farmers and workers, and questioned the unequal relations between the Philippines and our former colonial masters. My mind was in ferment. It was a reflection of the times: the university was also in ferment and so was Philippine society.

I never lost my nationalist perspective even after graduation. I had the option to join the corporate world but I chose instead to become a human rights lawyer. After the 1986 EDSA Revolution, I was given the opportunity to serve in government as mayor of Makati. Public service would be my career path for the next 30-plus years.

As mayor, the policies and programs I initiated were honed by my activist and nationalist perspective. “Paglingkuran ang Bayan” (Serve the People) was adopted as a slogan and rallying call. Theories I learned at the university became reality through government programs that recognize the equalizing power of education and the primacy of human dignity.

I say these things because I have seen of late a disturbing pattern of public pronouncements that threaten academic freedom. The weak-willed would probably be tempted to avoid describing one’s self as an activist, considering the media attention given to these efforts to demonize activists as troublemakers, prodigal children, subversives, and terrorists.

The public figures leading this assault on academic freedom tend to forget, or choose to ignore, one thing – that they use as their forum the very institution restored by the sacrifice of students whose values were shaped in universities. It reminds me of the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s in the United States. A lone senator abused and misused the powers of the Senate to expose alleged communists in government, schools, Hollywood, and even the US Army. In the process, the rule of law suffered. The credibility of the Senate was eroded, and reputations were demolished, some irreparably.

The oft-repeated line is that students should only be concerned with getting a proper education. But what should be the role of education? In this, I defer to the wisdom of Constantino: “Under the present system, education is limited to the formal mechanisms of democracy and not its substance: empowerment of the people from their active and critical participation in their own governance. In this sense, democracy stands for social change; it is a process and not an end in itself. Education in furtherance of democracy must encourage critical thinking, social criticism, dialog, and practical experience. Its colonial underpinnings have to be extracted.”

The proponents of restricting academic freedom want greater police and military visibility in campuses ostensibly to deter activism, forgetting that activism thrives because of social inequities. They forget that colleges and universities exist to hone minds, not to produce automatons. When the authorities control what students learn, that is not democracy; that is dictatorship. When the authorities tell students how to think, that is not academic freedom; that is brainwashing.

Students need to be exposed to all ideas, even those ideas that make the powers-that-be uncomfortable. Students need to be free to debate and discuss these ideas without fear of repression. That is how we build and sustain a democratic society.

In 1974, a committee was set up at Yale University to “examine the condition of free expression, mutual respect, and tolerance” at the prestigious university. The committee, in a report, concluded:

“The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.”

Not all activists end up taking arms against government. If they did, then the communist movement would not be the supposed “spent force” that authorities describe it to be. I would hazard to say that a great many activists have pursued careers in non-profit organizations, the corporate world, the academe and, like myself, government service. Whatever their chosen fields, activists bring with them an ethic of critical thinking and social awareness. For activists, “Serve the People” is not just a slogan. It is a way of life.

[email protected]