For My Students: A Note on Plato.

To my dearest students who graduated yesterday–CONGRATULATIONS!

Seeing you all donning togas, looking fresh and alive made me so hopeful and excited! The adventure is just about to begin, finally! But before I release you (for real, this time, kasi nag-dry run na tayo last year, diba? Hahaha!), please stick around for one last note on Plato. 🙂

Let me confess that the Allegory of the Cave was merely a point of departure. We didn’t need to spend too much time with it but I chose to stay because it was a good place to start. You were sophomores then and as a young teacher, I was more convinced to have you interested in learning than to teach you concepts you would surely forget in time. This is how “dogness” and that Cave came to be so finely etched in my memory. Now, why is it so important and what will it mean for the future?

Just two things.

First, if you still have your copies, please return to Book Seven of The Republic where Plato features Glaucon in conversation with Socrates. Recall the idea of people living in this cave and perceiving reality based on shadows reflected on its walls. They were chained to face the dark side while behind them was the entrance where eventually, one of them would make it outside. The light was blinding at first and then as his eyes gradually adjusted, the man, once imprisoned, saw things as they were. He returned excitedly into the cave hoping to share what he had seen and free the other prisoners but alas, they would not have it. They thought he had gone mad and were not willing, as he was, to be free.

Now before you use your Ateneo education to evangelize and free others on the basis of what you now know, make sure you first use your intellectual gifts to free yourselves from the chains you wear (willingly or unwillingly) as they have been handed to you by family and society. Choose what you decide to believe in but err on the side of truth, even if we cannot all agree on what that is. That is the point. Trust in your deep curiosities, even if, and especially if, these make you look and feel silly from time to time. The gift of an education isn’t just a job and the sooner you know this, the less intimidated you will feel about the world of work.

Remember too that Plato concerned himself with a dialectical method. Discussion and debate mattered because precisely, in the Cave, it’s easy to grow comfortable in our ignorance. Never be satisfied with yours–hold opinions but have them questioned and do not fear the use of your minds. Discover the truth of opinions but let the pool of your search be wide enough to encompass even the people you dislike. The point is not to win the argument but to have it and to enrich your lives with ideas. I doubt, too, if Plato would judge history on the basis of a meme or on what he could read on Facebook? So, please, pick up a book or two or three or many even if no one is around to quiz you on them anymore.

Second, and last, remember that Plato’s politics was grounded in his experience of injustice. He was the student of Socrates. You remember him right? Socrates was the guy whom the Athenian government put to death by ingesting hemlock just because he disrupted social order and questioned most things believed to be true.

I do not wish for you to see or experience injustice but something tells me that if you truly live in this world, you are bound to sense it. If you do, take a page off Plato’s playbook and remember that things need not be as they are. You can and must use the truths you know and those you discover to live a different way. Don’t let fear or anyone else tell you otherwise.

There’s life outside of that cave and it is full of all the wonders we might not have known or imagined when we were still in our classroom, thinking of poor Plato.

Okay, class dismissed. Go already! I miss you guys very, very much but in case I don’t see you soon, know that I’m super proud of you! I could not have asked for a better set of students! +AMDG

Education and Elections: Running for K to 12.

It’s always when elections are upon us that I feel a huge dis-ease slowly building, rising like a wave inside me. It used to be a sensation triggered by theory–by my mind telling me that something was amiss when Politician X shifted parties or “changed his mind” suddenly about things as if he hadn’t believed them to begin with. Then today, no longer working on the assumptions of the naïve, I saw for myself how ambition and a bid for relevance turned an otherwise sweet supporter of the K to 12 Program into a sour opponent. He spoke with an air of expertise and asked questions as if his truest intent was to uphold the right of every Filipino to access quality education. Surely, his current antics as a Representative will win him a seat in the Senate. It helps, too, that he carries the name of an old guard, memorable to many. But then, with all sobriety, I wonder what the real cost of his attempt at relevance is to the Filipino people? Don’t we all stand to lose more when we elect leaders who are only driven by a thirst for power and have no appetite for service? When we elect leaders who are unfit, lacking in experience and aspiration–not for the self but for the nation? For our people?

I sat red-faced today listening to him talk, recognizing the need to hide my emotions–because feeling, they say, gets in the way of professionalism and wins us enemies. I “fixed” my face, smiled, spoke in a sweet tone until it was over and I forgot all about it.

Before entering the Department of Education, I was outspoken about education because I trusted my intuition. I went out of my comfort zone, traveled to different localities, listened openly to the heartaches of teachers, students, and parents alike. I withheld judgment knowing that it was an easy path that would lead nowhere, except to take me further from the truth. I won myself a slot to a “prestigious” fellowship because I knew that “the best decisions concerning development are not made from comfortable positions.” Then, upon entering the Department, I grew a certain impotence from having nurtured fear. I stopped writing about education because I felt I didn’t know enough and could not teach myself what I needed to know to be credible. I did not want to be wrong and/or outspoken because that’s a terrible combination. I imagined the impact my mistakes would make on this already tired agency–burdened by the size and scope of its responsibility–whose people could use more than just my two cents. A lot of our teachers and personnel work so hard, quietly, to make education a reality for many of our learners. What if I eclipsed that because I was wrong? Maybe (you think that) I think too much of myself–I do. 🙂 But, seriously, having seen how people react to my posts, I know I’ve grown a following. You are good audience whose time, talent, and patience I don’t want to waste especially seeing as a few lines shared here can trigger August movements in Luneta for good governance or the delivery of toys to Zamboanga’s children caught in the crossfires.

I apologize for having relinquished the responsibility to hold an opinion on education–on the need for K to 12, specifically. I made a fake offering of my silence because I was afraid to be wrong. My ego could not bear it but I know better now. What changed? I was struck by what my boss (Sec. Armin Luistro FSC) said to the press today when asked about our readiness for K to 12 amid calls for its suspension:

“Ready na ready na tayo! Para tayong tumatakbo ng marathon nito eh. Ang kulang nalang natin, “the last mile.” Tapos [biglang] sasabihin sa atin, “Hindi mo kaya.” “Eh, nakikita ko na eh, nakikita ko na yung finish line! Anong kailangan ko? Extra boost at tulong para sa lahat kasi talaga namang hindi kaya ng DepEd mag-isa ito. [Nandito na tayo]—kulang nalang, a little prayer and a little support for the DepEd team who is actually implementing [K to 12]. Aaminin ko, hindi kami perfect. Maraming, maraming mga pwedeng baguhin at i-improve. Bukas na bukas kami dyan. Pero sana sabay tayo—sabay sa batikos, sabay din yung tulong na [sabihing] “Kaya mo yan!”

That’s a leader: One who, without flinching, recognizes our inadequacies, knows there is bound to be other ways to get things done and is willing to listen to whoever can help us do our work better. He is not afraid as I am to make mistakes because he knows it’s par for the course–but more than that, he knows that building on a reform requires engaging everyone–naysayers and supporters alike. Why? Because relevance to him is measured by how well we do the work we set out to do. It’s measured by our commitment not to our office’s reputation but to our mandate: to protect and promote the right of every Filipino to quality, equitable, culture-based, and complete basic education.

Concerning the young representative, the wave of my dis-ease and anger toward him will surely crash at the shore. The sea, I know, will grow calm again, erasing my memory of his opportunism in favor of just having to “deal with the necessary evil.” It will be as if nothing’s happened and I will go by my business as usual–I will see my anxiety over elections as simply an ebbing and flowing of events that mark our nation’s history. It’s in our DNA as Filipinos to search for narratives to believe in, for heroes to save us and so, even the most unlikely become iconic and saintly in our eyes. Perhaps this time (and as early as now) I just want to register, for myself, that in the coming elections I’m not buying into that bullshit anymore. I will look for people who uphold good, time-tested qualities and values which I know exist among a quiet minority. And having known the effects of being uneducated, kept in perpetual poverty and indebtedness, separated from a world of opportunity by the inability to read, write, and understand–I certainly will not lose the will to speak up for every Filipino’s right to an education they deserve. K to 12 is it and in the coming days I will write more about what I know (and don’t know)–because this reform has the capacity to take us from where we are to where we want to be–and we best be prepared to understand how, why, and for whom it works.

Peace & Pata Island.


Pata Island, Sulu, 2014.

“Salaam alaikum kanyu katan. Ako si Nursima H. Tolentino, Grade 3 pupil. Ito po ang ginuhit ko, isang pulis. Gusto ko sa aking paglaki maging pulis at maging isang tagabantay ng bayan.”

“Gusto ko pong tumulong sa mga mahihirap at may sakit.”

“Sana po matupad ko ang pangarap kong maging isang guro.”

Scenes from better days, worth remembering today. We ventured to Pata Island (mentioned today by Mohagher Iqbal as among the sites where gruesome massacres occurred in Mindanao) to turnover classrooms and we were greeted by young students who were asked to draw what they hoped to be.


We were joined by no less than Gen. Guerrero of WestMinComm–a proud product of the Philippine Public School System. I keep these images in mind and replay the video I took of them speaking whenever I feel as if I’ve lost hope in our nation. Why? Two things: First, out of tragedy can spring hope–as it does in Pata today, where children can dream and are not bound to repeat mistakes of the past. Second, individual acts matter–the commitment of few to their communities and the will of others to see a future for our children through education–this is what has taught me to work hard and hope even more. If you doubt that there can be peace in Mindanao, just you watch. It will happen. These kids will make it happen.


Trusting what is difficult.

Yesterday we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Manila which took place from February 3 to March 3, 1945. This month, in solidarity with older friends of mine who are still alive and have lived to tale the harrowing tale of Manila burning, I would like to take some time to really think about the implications of war–to think about the truths that are passed on to us and also interrogate our forgetfulness. As I type this, news of Lt. Muath al-Kasasbeh of Jordan fills my feed. He has just been burnt to death in a cage by ISIS militants. Last week, Japanese journalist Kenji Goto was beheaded. Here in the Philippines, we lost a great deal in the Mamasapano incident. My thoughts are with their families–but I am also alarmed as an educator. I ask myself where our ideas have taken us and I also want to know why, despite being better informed, our ideas about war and violence have not changed very much? Why have we allowed fear to get the better of us–and if we do choose peace, why do I sense that we are afraid still? Apt reflections for Valentine’s day, too. I’m reminded of Rilke who in his 7th letter to young Kappus writes: “It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” Love is difficult. Peace is difficult. But I can only trust what is difficult.

In Defense of Alienation: The Road to Freedom.

Dear Don,

Your article on yesterday’s Youngblood column really captivated me. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve referred to you in the familiar, as opposed to the formal. Your words were once mine and so I feel a deep sense of recognition–mine, of your current disposition, and yours, of what mine used to be. I appreciate your honestly and your openness to questions. These are foundations one must nurture to build a spine to tread a course that’s uniquely your own. I hear that in your writing and the sound is sweet, similar to the sound of a flowing creek in the mountainside.

Your desire for freedom, for the triumph of good over the many injustices that plague our fellow men and women really moves me. It’s the world’s way of saying that sometimes we do not have to be like Atlas, carrying the weight of the world solely on our shoulders. I am selfish at times and I bear it forgetting that there are others, like you, who share this anxiety, this dis-ease over the way things are. In your own essay of what you know to be (un)freedom, I hear you ask, sometimes angrily (and rightfully so): WHY? Why must things be the way they are? Why are we so complacent when we could all be asking the same of the world? I hear in your voice the alienation that Marx so clearly identified and though his words have been used and abused so callously, I ask that you trust what you’ve felt yourself. Ignore, for a moment, the din of critics, of our teachers, of theories and books–even of our friends who might call us out on being so predictable. In the quiet room of your mind, allow yourself the feeling of being alone, of being alien–to others–but never to yourself. Nurture what the poet Rainer Rilke calls, solitude.

In this choice of ours to care so much and to hold so firmly to our convictions, we will often need the gifts afforded by our solitude. Many will criticize you for your questioning and regard you as a gadfly without even giving you the courtesy of a question as a premise for a conversation. Already you are being told that your youth and inexperience do not qualify you to come to these conclusions.

You are being told that the same academic institution that gave you the freedom of choice, to think or not to think, lacked in educating you for “the real world.”  The same people whose taxes funded your education now doubt the gifts they’ve endowed you with. Really? Well. Thousands of students pass through those academic halls year-in and year-out. How many of them have given a thought to their lives? How many of them have probed beyond the necessary yet mundane realities of their days? I am not even asking how many of them have thought of the real value of being young and Filipino in a country like ours. I am only curious to know if the multitude has chosen to think, just THINK, as you clearly have.

They’ve asked you to learn the ropes of life so you can fix institutions, like UP, and make them run better, then they close by counselling you against giving excuses. I agree, you must never dish those out. We have no room in our hungry, burning bellies, for excuses–so do not listen to theirs, no matter how seemingly well-meaning they are. It is the folly of the elders who perceive themselves wise to tell the young that they must fix what they have left broken. Learn early on to distinguish between the truly wise and the mediocre.

Your responsibility, as a student, is to get an education. So get one. Learn as much as you can from your professors who are generous to share their knowledge, their reading lists, their own musings. But beware of their dogmas. We all have them but it is not our place as teachers to replicate them into sweaters for you to wear until they become second skin. They are for you to try on, to cut, and form into other things. Discard them completely if they do not answer what calls to you in the dead of night. Relish the feel of ideas coming over you when you least expect it. Enjoy the pleasures of good books and find, for your own sanity, a pool of friends to speak with about everything and nothing. Bounce off each other extremes of trivial, noteworthy, and sacrilegious over good music, cheap oily food, and long nights spent asking–always, asking–“WHY?”

For each of our failings, we will be judged according to our alma maters. The critics will deem our schools lacking, catering only to the few, coddling the elite. Those who cry out in our defense will do so with the added pinch of nostalgia, claiming these institutions are not what they were in some heyday of yore. Right.

Our critics ask the university to find you employment. They consider your education only as good as the value that society gives you in accordance with your pay-check. Here you can already learn much about our country. The value of an education in the Philippines is so cheap and shallow, at least until it earns you higher figures.

Grow up or grow bitter? What kind of life is this that narrows choices down this way? It’s as if you’re being asked to grow familiar with your anxiety and certain of regret. Please, I implore you, do not pay heed to these commands just yet. Instead, listen. Listen because even the oldest, most jaded, most cynical, of our people still harbour hopes and it is our responsibility to acknowledge them. They will not always admit this, of course, but if you allow them to respond to earnest questions, they will betray their own self-image and remember what it was that once gave them a spring in their step. This, my friend, is the true gift both generations give to one another. It is the privilege of both the old and the young–a shared right of passage that allows both to bloom, one into the grace of old age and the other into the fertile grounded-ness of the present.

You will need to apply the praxis you speak of because it is the only way to do justice to all our shared hopes and visions. Praxis will allow you to test the certainty of theory against the uncertainty of the world. Our words in the academe are our only economy and grounding them on substance is what ensures the integrity of our institutions. This is not blind allegiance to the academy but rather, a bold acceptance of the scholarly life–however difficult it may be to live our questions.

Everyone thinks those who don’t do, teach or study, as you and I have chosen. They may be wrong but if our output isn’t commensurate to the task of expanding knowledge and exploring the depths of meaning, then we are just as they say we are.

In practice, you will enjoy the chance to try different things. There will be an option to fail and I hope you do, preferably on a magnanimous scale that shakes you out of your stupor, out of your comfort. If it breaks you completely, you will have defined “struggle,” overcome it, and you’ll no longer accept it for it’s own sake.

You will triumph in the end because you will still be YOU–you with the questions, the one who nags this country back to its senses. I know you will succeed.

In the meantime, thank you for this rare chance at authenticity. You’ve given me much to think of and aspire to. Here’s hoping our path’s cross one day and when they do, I hope the road finds us both a step closer to freedom.



Difficult Questions: What I Struggle to Understand.

New Path

The deeper I go into this line of work I’m in, the more I realize the need to constantly examine what it is I truly believe in. There are many voices that speak up and all of them are equally correct, the challenge is to listen to the one that speaks closest to the truth in my heart.

A few days ago, after a 12-hour bus ride back home, I stole time to think about nothing. Sometimes the mind needs to be stilled. The fast pace of decision-making and reaction often compels me to speed up my absorption of information. Countless hours I now recall having wasted worrying about the amount of things I don’t yet know and could if I only kept still enough to read–but even then, the lists I draw up overwhelm me. Everything that interests me deeply offers an embarrassment of riches in the form of text that’s all yearning to be processed somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind.

Yesterday, though, in the attempt to return to the beginner’s mind, I flipped channels and paused to watch Whale Wars. In it I saw passionate individuals driving a van into the heart of the Faroese Islands during a festival known as the Grind. During this event, the people of the islands set out to sea capturing and killing pilot whales to retrieve meat for their survival. In the course of time, this practice has formed what is now their culture and though there are multiple ways of surviving apart from hunting whale, it’s become something symbolic for them. Naturally, this is questioned by members of the Sea Shepherd who have made it their mission to prevent humans from killing whales.

This may not be the best example of its kind but before dozing off last night, I recall understanding (profoundly!) a very simple truth: People act according to what they value and though values change over time, they aren’t always immediately right or wrong. Again, perhaps Whale Wars is really not the best example because if I had used Rwanda instead as an issue to ponder, I would have said with absolute certainty that the massacre of Tutsi’s by the Hutu majority was just wrong, TOTALLY wrong. [Excuse my digression but this is still something I’m trying to grasp.]

But yes, interests and values. We all have these as human beings and the more deeply I work with communities–both in the grassroots and middle-management, even top-leader groups–the more clear it is to me that a judgment of right and wrong is not the first recourse…at least I should teach myself this.

If I’ve learned anything from history it’s that our judgments have compelled us to act in certain ways that have often excluded and marginalized more people as opposed to liberating them.

When I was younger, I knew I had a lot of angst–some I’ve carried over into my adulthood–and I used to think angst alone and a sense of right and wrong were enough to realize certain fundamental things about being…but now I’m not so sure.

My anger has kept the fire in my belly burning but experience has tempered my desire to cast blame and I’m now beginning to see a different side of justice that my younger self would never have contemplated–something I still struggle with today and am often blind to understanding. It’s the possibility of reconciliation knowing fully what the crimes have been but understanding that moving forward requires not forgetfulness but embracing persons in their totality as human beings.

I often think of what dignity truly means and how, as we restore this to the poorest among us, there should also be room to view those that hurt us as greater than the crimes they commit.

It’s so difficult–especially because often, our biggest problems are ethical ones that hang on the balance of social justice. It’s usually the case that we know the perpetrators of poverty and the wardens of corruption–but as I look them in the eye, I feel my own blood-stained hands and ponder the depth of my own complicity. How much of these collective sins are my own? What don’t I say that allows things to go on as they are, that sows hatred instead of goodness?

If there’s anything worth praying for this Lenten season, it’s probably this. I hope to examine Christ’s passion and anticipate Easter, desiring only that I might come to the faintest understanding of what it truly means to be fully alive and present to fellow men and women whom I encounter—the hope also is that I preserve the essence of the encounter that I might discern better and judge less.