Mal Education: or reasons why you should never ask me for a recommendation letter.

The last thing you want to be told is that your profession doesn’t matter. Years ago I read a young poet’s words echo the frustrations of all teachers. I would never forget his words and later, in the years that allowed Youtube to broadcast a video of him performing it, I let the words to simmer once more and spark the same hopeful energy that’s so easily put out by certain realities.

They don’t really need us, you know? We’re simply around to fulfill utilitarian needs that society dictates but sometimes, we like our profession and that’s when all hell breaks loose. When I first realized how much I wanted to teach, the biggest obstacles were the resources. Entering one public library after another followed by school libraries in the smaller towns led me to believe that it was books people needed more than anything else. Later on, in a classroom of twenty-seven or so my heart would break upon discovering the more basic problem: these kids could not yet read or write. So we persevered. For many summers I would sit by a host of children, each with their own story to tell and each with a voice so necessary yet obscured by an inability to communicate. When finally three out of the twenty managed to write well-written essays,  I would find it very difficult not to suppress the tears that were a mix of joy and sadness. Always encourage those whose gifts are made manifest in detectable ways. As for the rest, well, no one will blame us for not trying. But the heart breaks nonetheless.

It’s unfair to live in such interesting times and have no tools to maximize our engagement in it. I don’t know if this is just the pessimist in me speaking but I suppose there is some merit in raising this issue. We aren’t educating our people enough or if we are, we’re only producing the world’s labor force which on its own we cannot even entice to fill our own social gaps. We’re losing professionals and the leadership of this country is in the hands of those who have little between their ears. This entire decade has witnessed shifts in the occupations of Filipinos. It used to be (at least when I was ten or younger) that few of our countrymen would appear in the news channels after having been chosen to give opinions and boy, would they ever knock your socks off. Their superb grasp of the English language and their own native tongue (be it Tagalog, Ilocano, Bisaya or other languages) mixed with their unique insight gained from years of hard work and experience in the art of gaining perspective made them very credible and quite a joy to watch. I was always proud to come across another Filipino in the world who could match anyone from anywhere else and break the age old stereotype about the Filipino as native subject.

It’s incredible what a decade can do…what leaders can achieve or fail at and what we’re willing to endure despite having the opportunity to consciously make decisions on a daily basis.

This is what we’ve become and year after year it’s much harder to get us out of this rut that we seem to happily occupy. Days ago, a very dear ex-professor of mine shared her frustrations about our country. I listen to her because she speaks of things that she has learned through work in the foreign office and she’s more Filipino than most of us will ever be. There’s a love-hate relationship going on inside her in which love definitely conquers all. In a nutshell she goes on about several categories of concern to our nation that have appeared in a survey of a government institution: Public Health, Education, Security, Economic Advancements, etc. All these get scores that are in the negative scale. The only positive one which she begrudgingly manages to tell us is our rating in Happiness. I share the joke with her and manage to laugh but the irony isn’t lost on us. We hear cries instead of laughter and no one can deny us this.

You’d think it were bad enough to have such glaring statistics but really, the worst possible heartache is the one that confronts you in the classroom. It’s always the classroom. But this time the audience differs. I’m no longer in the presence of young high school children whose parents’ hard work has placed shoes on the soles of those bright-eyed young things so eager to suck the knowledge out of you. Instead, I’m in the university facing a bunch of co-eds who are either on the brink of leaving school for the world at large or are at the second half of their college life basking in the glow of having sailed through it all. Don’t be mistaken, all students have a glow about them. For as long as you know which topics to speak of, they will listen and sometimes you will sit there encountering genuine voices you would not have heard anywhere else.

But the battle is fought in the classroom as you struggle to make sense out of ideas and choose which ones to share and which ones to keep so that they may be discovered, at a more opportune moment, by the students themselves. By then you expect them to be armed with the necessary tools for critical thinking and the desire to face all the evils unleashed upon them by Pandora. Zeus did not punish her because he knew that with curiosity came the necessity of having certain things slip past our grasp. But even then, what I wish most for my students is a mix of curiosity and courage because what the latter reveals the other one is sure to prevail upon.

But alas, even these wishes of mine are doomed to fail (or maybe I’m being too cynical?) The thought of returning to a classroom in June makes me nauseous and exhausted even before the real work begins. True, there is hope left in the box which every Pandora could easily dip her fingers into but again, the reality is different. In a private institution that echoes the virtues of excellence and service, we are breeding a labor force of slightly better individuals who can quote their Kant and extol the need to build houses for the poor. Yet, often, I think that what really sets them apart (in this country at least) is the name of the school which is carefully placed on every CV complete with recommendation letters from teachers who barely know their students. There’s that condescending little promise that hiring one of our students proves a better investment than anyone else who did not manage to go where the best of the best go. Truth be told, this cancer isn’t solely ours but it belongs to many other universities who claim to produce good students.

But that’s not my point. Diploma-mill or not, we still have the responsibility to educate every student that comes our way. We do so with hope and bouts of optimism because for every student that lets us down, two or three will make up for it in ways that don’t just involve belonging to a high paying corporation. In fact, it’s in the small things: the kind of people they become or, to provide an image, it’s that one apology you’ll get during graduation from a student who fucked up but knew just how to make amends. It’s recognizing that they understand and they’ll be better people because of it. Though love for sure.

In the meantime I’m stuck with a bunch of complainers who cannot be bothered to read unless their grades depended on it. I have to plow through each text and create powerpoint after powerpoint if only to get you interested in the lecture. Sometimes I’m forced to perform and while my paycheck often leaves me feeling like I’ve been paid peanuts for good sex, it’ll all be worth it in the end. I will endure even the sharpest of criticisms from my own family because you there, the person at the back with a blank stare—you—you matter to me. If not to the rest of them–your family, your peers–then at least to me.

I will get rid of all of you one way or another and if there be blood, let it flow. Let the scars be huge and the wounds deep enough to shake you to your core. You must realize that this is not a joke, that after being schooled in ideology, language, history–much is expected of you.

Unless you feel that you have adequately met these expectations, please don’t come crawling to me for recommendation letters. I don’t make it a habit to lie to employers or other schools who might suffer from your mediocrity. Be warned, I’m not one to flub these documents. Other people are and perhaps you ought to ask them instead. But if you want honesty, it really all just boils down to this: work hard and it will pay off. Otherwise, get the hell out of my inbox and stop spamming me.

*Our jobs don’t matter and neither does the creation of knowledge. This post was inspired by an article written by William Deresiewicz. I was supposed to echo his opinions on the current trends in higher education because I’m a grad student and lately, writing these papers feels as if I’m only feeding a void instead of filling it. There’s little future for us in the liberal arts and his article struck me most when he said:

Well, but so what? A bunch of spoiled kids are having trouble finding jobs—so is everybody else. Here’s so what. First of all, they’re not spoiled. They’re doing exactly what we always complain our brightest students don’t do: eschewing the easy bucks of Wall Street, consulting or corporate law to pursue their ideals and be of service to society. Academia may once have been a cushy gig, but now we’re talking about highly talented young people who are willing to spend their 20s living on subsistence wages when they could be getting rich (and their friends aregetting rich), simply because they believe in knowledge, ideas, inquiry; in teaching, in following their passion. To leave more than half of them holding the bag at the end of it all, over 30 and having to scrounge for a new career, is a human tragedy.

Sure, lots of people have it worse. But here’s another reason to care: it’s also a social tragedy, and not just because it represents a colossal waste of human capital. If we don’t make things better for the people entering academia, no one’s going to want to do it anymore. And then it won’t just be the students who are suffering. Scholarship will suffer, which means the whole country will. Knowledge, as we’re constantly told, is a nation’s most important resource, and the great majority of knowledge is created in the academy—now more than ever, in fact, since industry is increasingly outsourcing research to universities where, precisely because graduate students cost less than someone who gets a real salary, it can be conducted on the cheap. (Bell Labs, once the flagship of industrial science, is a shell of its former self, having suffered years of cutbacks before giving up on fundamental research altogether.)

This long post was intended to be about the pursuit of knowledge and grad work but since I haven’t really found a clear voice in the scholarly world, I offer instead insights on being in the classroom and what this means in a country like ours. If this hurts you or offends you in any way, I’m glad. That means there’s still hope left. If, on the other hand, you happen to be in any of my classes upon reading this then take heart. You’ll need it when the finals come rolling by.


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