By Roland Rabang
A RETURN to in-person learning activities for students of both the basic and higher education levels signals a return to normalcy in the country’s educational system. It has been more than two years since the COVID-19 pandemic caused a significant disruption in the customary teaching-learning dynamic of schools all over the world.
In whatever manner in-person learning is conducted – full face-to-face, hybrid, hi-flex, etc. – the anticipation and visibility of the students’ gradual return toward the confines of the classroom is eclipsed only by the words of Trade Secretary Alfredo Pascual that the time spent for a college education should be reduced; and the way to do that is to purge general education subjects from the higher education curriculum and relegate its instruction to basic education.
As if basic education could not be in any deeper excrement, Pascual’s proposition leads us to a situation where general education is being suggested to be taught at a level where learning skills are found to be wanting. The information in July coming from the World Bank that over ninety percent of schoolchildren in the Philippines are both learning impoverished and learning deprived causes us to question the wisdom of, or even justice, in the idea of dumping general education instruction to basic education when, at ten years old, according to the findings of the World Bank, more than ninety percent of Filipino learners are unable to “read and understand short, age-appropriate texts.”
Clearly the Philippine educational system has its work cut out for its stakeholders in more ways. Which is to say that the work is not merely confined to the need to address learning poverty and deprivation. For one, there should be an assessment of how far back the COVID-19 pandemic had caused a deceleration or even reversal in the Philippine educational system. The online-modular alternative to in-person learning for the past two years only addressed the need for continuity but leaves the question of quality up in the air.
Thus, to even suggest a layer of tasks to an already overburdened educational system is cruel to say the least and speaks of the perverse way by which our decision-makers regard the teaching-learning process. The World Bank report for instance leads us to infer that the problem of reading comprehension extends toward learners in the higher grades. If so, how can we begin to introduce general education subjects if learners do not even possess the fundamentals for learning acquisition, that is reading comprehension?
And the challenges are manifold as we have gleaned from the opening of the school year. Lack of classrooms, flooded classrooms, lack of teachers, underpaid teachers, outdated equipment, the lack of equipment, and so on. Pascual’s cavalier view on general education is told in the context of the employability of college graduates. Thus, he suggests that higher education should focus mainly on the major subjects in order to reduce the time spent on a particular college program.
Following the logic, if corners have to be cut in college, that will have to be the general education corner. If so, what we might end up with is a college program without literature, language, and history among others. By this, we can produce a college graduate that is versed in the computation of sine, cosine, and tangent but generally deprived of the workings of the mind – a world view, erudition, a social conscience.
This might happen because Pascual thinks materialism and consumption are what matter. Therefore college should produce workers who are competent in the assembly line, but uninitiated in the humanistic principles of justice, inclusivity, equal opportunity, restraint, equanimity, creativity, and imagination. It is important of course to put people to work in order to stimulate the economy. But even the principles of economics itself are veering off from the idea that individuals are universally inclined to undertake activities inclined towards accumulation and consumption. The developmental concept of economics suggests that the economy does not exist in a social vacuum. This means in society there are those who are marginalized and deprived. The idea of class, equity, and distributive justice for the marginalized and deprived is learned through general education.
We have long regarded general education as a foil to the major subjects and therefore regard them as “minors.” This has been the history of general education in this country such that it is carried through in the course of professional careers that some regard a degree in liberal arts as not a real profession. Worse, they engage in philistinism. I have spent a good part of my working life in a “technical” agency and many times I have been told that “only engineers” have the ability to resolve the challenges of this service-oriented agency.
But more is needed to resolve the problems of a consuming public than mere technical determination. In this aspect, these technical people are blindsided by the absence of linguistic and social competence.
Just as Pascual has a blind spot in his statement. After all, he said this because he was, after all, president of the University of the Philippines system before he was appointed Trade secretary. During his stint, he presided over the revision of the UP general education curriculum in view of the K to 12 rollouts. He needs to provide clarification on why he wants to set aside arts, literature, language, and history in higher education because we are not buying the argument that such is being done because the person needs to get a job right away.