Eagles without talons?

Lisandro Claudio is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. He graduated from the Ateneo de Manila University in 2007 as class valedictorian. He is currently a lecturer in the Ateneo Department of History and Department of Communication and a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne. This was published in the Decembeer 28, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

The sesquicentennial of the Ateneo de Manila University presents an opportunity to celebrate not only the immense contribution the institution has made to Philippine society. It is also an apt time to consider what more the University can do to further its acknowledged institutional task of building the nation.

Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, university president, claims that the Ateneo’s current approach to nation-building is inspired by its most famous alumnus, Dr. Jose Rizal. The Rizal Nebres draws from, however, is not the firebrand who spoke the truth to power amidst massive injustices. His Rizal is the one exiled in Dapitan – the gagged Rizal forced to channel his energies towards community-building projects like the construction of schools and the improvement of irrigation systems.

He notes in a speech: “In his years in Dapitan, we see a Rizal not of the Noli or the Fili or of many letters and poems, but a Rizal who said less and did a lot.” This defanged and apolitical Rizal is the bedrock of the nation-building strategy of the university.  Instead of criticizing the government for its injustices, Nebres’s approach focuses on addressing immediate and concrete needs like housing and disaster relief. The flagship project of this strategy is Ateneo’s partnership with Gawad Kalinga (GK). To quote the president again: “In Spain and Manila, he [Rizal] wrote and preached against injustices. In Dapitan, he simply worked to create the foundations for a better life for the people. He may well have launched Gawad Kalinga a century ago.”

This Rizal may well be the solution to our country’s problems for, as Nebres argues, today “there is so much talk and so little done.” Indeed, although a lot of Gawad Kalinga’s development approaches have been questioned, it is undeniable that it has directed youthful energies towards charitable work. Moreover, Ateneo’s efforts at boosting national educational standards through working with public schools and its engagement with many local government units attest to the university’s ability to engineer social change.  But what are the implications of de-emphasizing political criticism in favor of immediate concrete action? Historian Floro Quibuyen argues that American colonizers used the image of an apolitical Rizal to encourage Filipinos to cooperate with them even as they subjugated the country. Reminding Filipinos of the anti-colonial and revolutionary Rizal would have been unwise given their mission of pacification.

Similarly, this Rizal together with the framework of nation-building that Ateneo’s associated with has been used to question and erase the university’s long history of political activism. As a former student and now lecturer, I’ve been told by students, faculty, and administrators associated with official university projects that Marcos-era activism is dead, that the aktibista’s approach of criticizing the national government did not and does not work. More action and less talk; let’s just build houses. As a student writing about GK in the official university website claims, “the aktibista and makibaka days are long gone.”

This anti-politics atmosphere has made it difficult to forward issues of national concern in the university. I was witness to the lethargy of many students and teachers during the time when mobilizations were being made to protest the NBN-ZTE scandal. This was the same lethargy that influenced the moderate stance taken by the Ateneo regarding the issue of whether Arroyo deserved to stay in power. While basketball nemesis La Salle called for resignation, Ateneo called for reflection.

An administrator personally rebuked me when I said the university should join the lobby for the Freedom of Information Act since the bill would allow the public to scrutinize shady deals like the NBN-ZTE. Won’t work, I was told; let’s just lobby for another disaster relief bill.

It doesn’t surprise me, then, that in her final State of the Nation Address this country’s most despised president claimed the university and its president as partners in her goal of building a strong republic.

Very few students have dissented amidst this because of the administration’s Orwellian tendencies. How can Ateneans think independently about social issues when the minutiae of student organization policies, including those of political parties, are subject to strict monitoring? It’s no wonder everybody toes the line.

At one point, though, Ateneans, students and alumni alike, should realize that there is one major flaw in the university’s anti-politics framework: the claim that activism with its attendant criticism of national politics does not work. It does. In the 1970s, the “talk” of student activists, many of whom were Ateneans, conscienticized an entire generation, exposing the youth as well as their parents to the ills of authoritarianism. It was a slow process – educating and opening people’s eyes takes time – but it worked. When the mass of people on EDSA overthrew the dictator, it was a victory for those who fomented dissent.

It is the legacy of the makibaka activism that is currently derided in the Ateneo. And lest we think that nothing was gained from EDSA, one should consider that we currently have a free press, participate in regular elections, and have a growing civil society. Political scientist Nathan Quimpo, for instance, claims that grassroots NGOs engaging in legal activities like aiding farmers in land reform cases were few and far between before EDSA.

There has always been an “other Ateneo,” and it was this Ateneo that helped build our democracy. I appeal to alumni and faculty – those who saw this “other Ateneo” in full bloom – to publicly question the Ateneo of today. This will stimulate critical thought among students and lead them out of apathy.

Despite my misgivings about the administration, I remain proud to be Atenean. I am proud of the Ateneo that produced martyrs like Edgar Jopson, Manny Yap, Billy Begg, Evelio Javier, and the revolutionary Rizal. And I am proud of the Ateneo that can be when we remember these heroes once more.

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