Reading and Such

Reader on a roof

I am at pains to imagine how liberal education can survive in this illiberal democracy

There is a story I tell my sons, of their grandfather, who as a child, would often sneak to the roof of the house to steal a few precious moments of uninterrupted reading. He lived in San Juan, a barrio not too far from the bayan in Malolos; but in those days, proximity was a mere geographic reference. Barrio and bayan were worlds apart, and for my father, further still. The street he lived on, Kalsadang Munti, was not the place for big words and big ideas, as its name would suggest. There were pigs to feed and floors to scrub; still, reading proved irresistible, and the roof offered refuge. It was, I suppose, an act born out of necessity, although youthful mischief certainly must have played a part. At any rate, for my father, it was the beginning of a liberal education in an otherwise illiberal society.

To protest the point ran the risk of a metaphysical meal, a dinner of Plato on an empty ‘plato’

It was not so much that barrio life, or Philippine society in general, did not value education as that its value was qualified. Education was a vocational enterprise, a means towards a better job, a better profession. My lola, in particular, proved perilously pragmatic: philosophy and poetry were well and good, but hardly a source of sustenance. To protest the point ran the risk of a metaphysical meal, a dinner of Plato on an empty plato. Even my lolo, a romantic himself, gave way to conventional wisdom and guided his children towards what were deemed more useful and familiar college courses.

And so my father found himself enrolled in the veterinary medicine program of the University of the Philippines (UP), in Diliman, in June of 1960—a track only too sensible for my grandparents’ rural sensitivities. This may well have been the start of my father’s journey into respectability, and the end of this particular story, if not for the fact that two years earlier, UP had introduced groundbreaking liberal reforms in its curriculum. The 63-unit General Education (GE) program of 1958 was, in the words of then UP President Vicente G. Sinco, the ”unifying factor” needed to counter “the danger of community and national disintegration” by forming “the ideal citizen of a democracy.” The program included basic subjects in English, Spanish, the humanities and the social sciences, among others. I do not know if the GE program did indeed stop national disintegration, but at the very least, it reintroduced the wonders of a liberal education to my father.

As it turned out, my father would find himself unable to finish the vet-med program. He would, however, take to heart that particular maxim: that education is only begun, not completed, in schools. In time, he would earn a degree in another university—a story for another day—although by then, it was merely a formality. Education, with or without schooling, had done its job. The reader on the roof had become a man of the world.

This is, of course, a slightly different version of the story I tell my sons. Most of the time, the story ends where it begins, with the thought of their grandfather, a retired diplomat, on the roof, deftly avoiding my lola’s line of sight, dog-eared paperbacks in tow. But all those other thoughts—of liberal education in the Philippines in general, and its impact on my father’s life in particular—do weigh in on my mind with each retelling. Somehow, I cannot shake off the feeling that for all our advancements in the field of education, there is something missing. What that is, exactly, is beyond my comprehension, but if I were to hazard a guess, I would start to look at the connection between liberal education—reading, really—and the ability to think clearly and critically.

It is hard not to long for the times when erudition was a part of public life

My father’s story is by no means unique. Others are, by far, more worthy of adulation, or imitation. Nick Joaquin dropping out of school and educating himself in the National Library, or the former senator, Ka Blas Ople, reading astride a carabao immediately comes to mind. Granted, nostalgia does have a habit of romanticizing the past, but it is hard not to long for the times when erudition was a part of public life. In the post war years, it was not unheard of for writers to become public officials, and vice versa. Nowadays, a quick look at our stable of professional politicians, and I am convinced of the virtues of nostalgia.

Maudlin musings aside, I am at pains to imagine how liberal education can survive in this illiberal democracy. I keep telling myself that it must (look at what it did for my father) and that it can (reading is cheap currency), but it is difficult to remain sanguine. Reading may be the great equalizer, but it also does feel like a privilege. I, for one, am hard pressed to pick up Nick’s Culture and History after an hour on the streets of Metro Manila. Imagine those who have it far worse. Then again, that is the paradox, isn’t it? I suppose, whatever the circumstance, we all have our own roofs to climb.

About author


Carlo L. Santiago is a fulltime house husband. When he can, he farms a little plot in Laguna. On occasion he writes, mostly on history, politics and culture, and speaks on these to whomever will listen as an audience or with a more intimate group over beer, bourbon or coffee, his preferred beverages. He's a member of the Anastasio Institute and co-host of Proyekto Pilipino, a weekly public affairs program on history, politics and civics. He is the co-author, with Vergel O. Santos, of Oscar, a biography of Oscar M. Lopez.

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