Who’s afraid of critical students?

Mar. 06, 2021

I had a chance to visit the Lumad Bakwit School in UP Diliman two years ago. We at IA, a small criticism collective now on uncertain hiatus, were doing a second project for our first-hand situationer series. Mainly on the struggle of the Lumad, the output zine was called, “Atin Ang Lupang Ninuno” (The Ancestral Land is Ours).

The brief discussion was no obstacle to their display of an advanced level of social awareness. They knew why they were in a Bakwit School and exactly why their communities are militarized. At a young age, it seems that they’ve explained and experienced enough the extent of corporate greed, to the point of their own displacement.

Such kind of sharpness and insight are a rarity in most schools in the Philippines, which probably explains the recent attack against the Lumad Bakwit School in University of San Carlos, Cebu. Even volunteers for Eskuwela Maralita, a makeshift school initiative held in the ruins of demolished houses in an urban poor community in Quezon City, were not spared from state harassment. Triggered by a graffiti, cops reportedly threatened community volunteers.

The Lumad Bakwit School is being accused of brainwashing students toward state antagonism. Such is the same claim against many schools, mainly UP, and against other equally red-tagged organizations, which bars some of their student members from getting admitted in schools.

Though it comes as no surprise, it can still be disturbing to confirm that the government sees students as passive learners, potential victims to gullibility, incapable of analyzing current state of affairs. As such, they are expected to stay hidden in schools, buried in textbooks whose contents have little to do with the realities of life outside the school gates.

In 2016, some students from a science high school in Manila held a protest against the secret burial of late dictator Marcos at Libingan ng mga Bayani. While many took pride in the initiative, there were claims as well that they couldn’t possibly have done it in their own accord. Meanwhile, a senior high school student in Valenzuela shared how university administrators prohibited to stage their play about the Sagay 9 and Negros 14 Massacres of Farmers. Given these and certainly a lot more cases, it seems like an unwritten rule about the separation of student life from issues of national concern exists, as if students aren’t citizens too.

Having been a working scholar in a Catholic school whose traces of activism from decades back had been waning at the time, I didn’t have an idea about how worse the Arroyo regime was, save for that one time when we joined the clamor to “Speak The Truth” regarding the infamous NBN-ZTE Deal. My being a “campus journalist” made this worse. I wrote things that had no national substance, perhaps not even local substance because in that university, as in most universities, though students are taught to be competent, even charitable, seldom are they taught to be critical.

Status quo-enabling curricula works for the most part until students join progressive organizations where they realize that they are not just kids who are told to keep quiet when adults are speaking, that speaking out needs no requisite nor institutional approval. Some parents have difficulty understanding this, claiming that their children have “lost respect” when in fact they have just become articulate and politically literate.

I’m afraid I had carried political illiteracy in the classroom for a time as a young teacher. Sure, I was able to come up with engaging strategies, have somehow made literature more palatable to some students, but to what extent have I related those readings to the real world? As Education students, we are usually taught how to make lessons exciting but seldom how to make them relevant.

We compute age problems but not workers’ salaries versus cost of living. We discuss pollution but refuse to name top polluters. We enjoy literature as a way of escapism. We talk about history as some relic from the past that has little to do with the present.

I wonder how many graduates of universities have been carrying their own political illiteracies up until now. I wonder what they do for a living. I wonder how they perceive and act upon the issues that confront us as a nation. I wonder if they too carry the illusion of working for a better world but are actually instruments to maintaining current exploitative systems.

But there can be no further wondering why government feels threatened by progressive education. State forces insist that they “rescued” Lumad students—they rescued them from further learning how government assists in the corporate plunder of their ancestral lands, from realizing the potential of their collective strength as our young heroes then realized their collective strength.

This is why it is important for all schools to create, maintain, and protect at all cost a progressive tradition which primarily includes the exercise of academic freedom. Schools can realign their curriculum against global neoliberal trends and encourage teachers and students to exercise political rights they might not even know they have.

Mounting alternative schools like Lumad Bakwit School and Eskuwela Maralita is arguably the highest expressions of this progressive tradition. Their persistence despite militarization, land-grabbing, and displacement realizes the emancipatory quality of schools.

Roma Estrada has taught for ten years in different high schools and universities. Currently maintaining a column for Davao Today, she also co-edited LILA, a poetry anthology by women, and Kult, a collection of capsule critiques. Her published works are archived at romaestrada.wordpress.com. Reach her at romaestrada@protonmail.com.

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