On Pisay and the Pursuit of a Glorious Thee (A Comment)

I have read the article of Garrick Bercero (PSHS Main Campus ’07) over in the “Filipino Freethinkers” blog as it made its rounds throughout Facebook. I can see why many are sharing and linking to it — a lot of it largely rings true. Parts of it also captures the unstated progressiveness that members of the community hope for there to be — a genuine valuing and loving for science. It would be absolutely fantastic indeed to have our students freely choose a science course rather than be compelled to take one. Pisay, indeed, should be at the forefront in the formation of scientists, technologists, public servants, and innovators who contribute to social change.

My only problem with the article is that I, as a member of the community, cannot seem to entirely relate to the Pisay he was describing. Of course, this could be because of shortsightedness on both our parts — Garrick now a detached observer viewing the world through his freethinking lens, and I as someone deeply engaged with the school’s community, culture, and system. We all have our intellectual blind spots, sure. So suffice to say the article fails to capture the Pisay I know. But mind you, I wouldn’t call his critique unfair or unwarranted — he’s right on most points and I actually agree — just merely incomplete.

The article’s incomplete characterization of Pisay stems from what I consider to be a flaw in its main premise — that the school’s romance with sectarianism and religious values is a symptom of its shortsightedness on focusing only on generating science workers and not individuals with an authentic scientific literacy.

This logical flaw is highlighted when you trace how Garrick defines scientific literacy. Going by the article alone, he conflates his issue of science illiteracy with the prevalence of sectarianism and religious values. As a primary example, he cites how there are ‘creationists’ in his batch, and thus individuals who can be competent science workers and yet get the basic science concepts all wrong.

He further conflates this issue with coercion, stating that if only they had a genuine love for science then they wouldn’t have to be compelled — required — to take a science course. After laying out this impressive point, he returns home. That Pisay should, in its pursuit of the ‘untarnished truth’, instill instead a genuine value and love for science. Unstated by this time, of course, is the contrast between its romance with sectarianism and religious values. Suffice to say: Pisay should be romancing science more!

His points, while not unwarranted and valid in their own way, inadequately describe the Pisay I know. While I can affirm first hand what he says about what every student experiences about the retreat and recollection, I don’t consider religion — or fine, sectarianism — to be that ominous force his piece describes them to be. Neither is it sanctioned nor romanced. If ever Pisay fell short on anything, it is that it has been too tolerant.

He cites the Bronx High School of Science as one of the main inspirations of Pisay; that is correct. What he may have missed is that the Bronx High School of Science inspired the PSHS culture as well — a thriving community of learners, educators, and parents working together for the well-being of everyone. This inclusiveness and tolerance has been part of the PSHS culture from its inception. This is why we have the PSHS Foundation, Inc. to provide a channel for stakeholders to support our students and faculty. This is why our PTA is so robust and our parents are given quite the latitude when it comes to helping out in our activities and programs.

It is in this same open culture that the PCORI has taken root. And while we may have a lot to say about how the retreats and recollections are conducted, at the core of it you have parents who genuinely care about the spiritual formation of their children. Indeed, we too can contest their beliefs and the ideas they put into their children’s heads, sure. But that is one view, theirs is another. In the spirit of community and tolerance, we coexist and find ways to work together, not pull apart.

This, ironically, is what I’ve learned after standing up to them in my account that Garrick links to in his very article. Yes, I still stand by what I’ve written then. I do think that the issue of fairness must be taken into account, and that as much as possible we keep a batch together, not apart. I stand with Garrick and every other student who feels this way on this. What I just had to correct was any notion of the school romancing, sanctioning, or putting a premium on religious values. There is no conspiracy on our part to subvert science for the sake of faith. These are two separate things.

I don’t want to speak too much on Values Education out of respect for my colleagues who are complete professionals in their own right. Perhaps, the question I simply have to ask at this point is this: has our Values Education program (let’s say it is how it is characterized) in any way diminish or impair our students’ ability to discern or think critically about moral and spiritual issues? Does it make them less ‘scientific’? Less human?

I raise these questions because let us note that Values Education isn’t their only subject in Pisay. One emerging notion among educators now is that every subject is a Values Education subject. What this means is that we teachers communicate values by our mere presence. Whether we teachers come to class prepared or not will have an implication on how much we can talk about procrastination and time management. When we miss classes and have to make up, how we deal with stress tells our students more than any lecture can. How much we pay attention to our students’ needs says a lot about compassion and empathy. And so on. Values and beliefs, therefore, are not the domain solely of the Values Education class.

The entire culture must be looked at then to arrive at a fair assessment. We have teachers who are openly atheist; we have teachers who are visible activists. Just as there are teachers with conservative sensibilities, there are those who are liberal. Just as you’ll have the radical, you’ll have the unwavering.

The charge of Pisay being sectarian and religious does not fit with me at all — if it were I wouldn’t be able to teach about the history of religion as I do. My students know this: I can go on and on about The Buddha, Laozi and Confucius. I can also quote the Bible. I can describe how a fictional meeting between Buddha and Christ would happen. I can explain how Confucius would argue to Catholics to be more devout, and I can explain why The Buddha will tell those deeply religious to focus not on outward symbols but on inner transformation. In these discussions I hope to impart not just an understanding of the various tenets of religion and their historical contexts. What I hope emerges is a critical literacy when it comes to ideas and values — that the Truth is one, but the sages know it by many names.

I may just be one example, but this is precisely the open and tolerant culture of Pisay at its best. I have never been reproached or reprimanded by anyone for how I’ve handled my subject. Neither, do I think should my peers teaching ValEd. And whenever a student raises the observation that I’m teaching them something that is against what they were taught in ValEd, I simply reply that The Buddha himself, before attaining enlightenment, sought wisdom from every teacher he could find. He learned from atheists, deists, from nihilists and humanists, but he was never satisfied. His Enlightenment, eventually, would only come from within. This is a simple story where I remind them where they are — that they’re still learning so it would be wise remain open-minded, tolerant, and yet never forget that it is only up to them to discern.

Many other teachers impart a similar sense of wonder and awe; we just use different tools. Some use Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo; some use the entire expanse of English literature. Others use mathematics — the language of the universe; others draw perfect circles. Whether we look at the particles that make up the universe, the cells that constitute life, or the way matter works — we teachers are always conscious of who we are teaching, and we are empowered and hence immensely grateful to a system that is open, tolerant, and respectful of individual talent. (And aren’t these ‘scientific’ values, too?)

So how can there be a lack of value for science again? Just because we tolerate religion? I hope it’s clear why I don’t see how that is the case, really.

But then there are other issues.

Garrick makes an impressive point about our students coming to freely choose a course in science if only they genuinely loved it. I admire the sentiment. But at the same time I can’t help but be realistic — does not one know that, coming into Pisay? Isn’t it made clear, at the start, that one is required to take a science course as stipulated in the scholarship agreement?

Then we’ll have to retreat to traditional arguments — How am I supposed to know what course I want to take at age 11 or 12? What if I realize by fourth year that I’m not really cut out for a science degree?

These are real concerns, real issues that aren’t predicated on our school’s tolerance for religion or a purported lack of value for science. Perhaps we have to beef up our admission policies. Maybe we need an even more robust guidance and career counselling system as our students mature. I think it’s time we really look at a bridge program that will ease their transition to the university. These are all being looked at. Providing better opportunities for our graduates to pursue meaningful work and further studies is a primary concern of our new Executive Director.

Pisay, in my view, will always be a work in progress. This is what it means to be a community after all — always changing and adapting to the needs of its members, shifting with the times and addressing new needs. The challenges posed by Garrick are very much welcome, and I think they come at an important time as we review, revise, and expand the curriculum as we adjust to a K to 12 world. We have a new Campus Director, too, so I hope his article finds its way to her desk as I’m sure she’s busily mapping out the direction of her directorship.

On my end, I simply felt the need to clarify and perhaps round out the picture Garrick’s article laid out for us. While his accounts largely ring true, it is not the entirety of the matter. Pisay’s failing is that it has perhaps been too tolerant, too free — but that is by design. This openness nonetheless has allowed for a rich intellectual culture to thrive with teachers who are free to be as excellent as they can so that our students can receive the best education they deserve. Pisay’s task remains largely unfinished however, but such is the life in the pursuit of a glorious thee.

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2 Comments

  1. Amen on all points! I think this commentary frames the values Pisay teaches its students and its prevailing culture more accurately. But there is still the standing challenge to the Pisay administration – how will it foster the scientific minds of future scientists? how big a part should support groups play in contributing to the holistic development of students? should scholars be coerced into getting a science/engineering degree?

    I have to comment on this though:
    “has our Values Education program (let’s say it is how it is characterized) in any way diminish or impair our students’ ability to discern or think critically about moral and spiritual issues? Does it make them less ‘scientific’? Less human?”

    I don’t really know how the ValEd program was conceptualized or designed, but I only know how it was practiced based on my experience as a former student. I could say that far from encouraging critical and scientific thinking, we were taught only to accept what is “moral” or “ethical” by the standards of whoever was teaching. I remember we talked about abortion. It would have been an interesting discussion on morality and how we value human life, and biological perspectives could also be brought up. But what did we do instead? Hello, guilt-trip expressway. Abortion was merely portrayed as gruesome and only for the evil, cold-blooded and the soulless. But why? We couldn’t ask. Just take it as it is.

    It’s really a waste. I remember one perio in ValEd where the answer sheet was all blank lines and the questions were just about defining virtues (e.g “What is patience? What is fortitude? What is temperance?”) I mean, really, now? Tuloy, binobola lang lagi ng mga estudyante yung mga essay-type questions.

    So as far as learning how to think for myself, examining my values, making ethical decisions, Pisay’s ValEd program informed me the least on this. I wish it had done more.

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