Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Eagle without talons? Nation-building and the Ateneo de Manila University

The celebration of 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, but also to consider what more the university can do in light of its frequently articulated goal of building the nation. University President Fr. Bienvenido Nebres outlines his general approach to nation-building which he derives from Dr. Jose Rizal, the Ateneo’s most prominent alumnus. The Rizal that Nebres draws from is not the firebrand who sparked the first nationalist revolution in Asia – the hero 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 building of schools and the improvement of irrigation systems.

He notes in a speech to the Knights of Rizal: “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 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 contributed to the reduction of slums. Ateneo’s education programs in depressed areas likewise contribute to long-term national development.

But what are the implications of de-emphasizing political criticism in favor of immediate concrete action? Historian Floro Quibuyen argues that the image of an apolitical Rizal was used by the American colonial government 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, in the context of the Ateneo, this Rizal and the framework of nation-building that it’s associated with has been used to question and erase the university’s long history of social and political activism. As a former student and now lecturer, I’ve been told many times by students and faculty associated with the university’s official nation-building programs that Marcos-era activism is dead, that the aktibista’s approach of criticizing the national government did not and does not work. More actions 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. I saw how this withdrawal from issues of national concern 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 it 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.

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 them Ateneans like Edgard Jopson) conscienticized an entire generation, exposing them to the ills of authoritarianism. It was a slow process - educating and opening people’s eyes takes time – but it worked. When the crowd in EDSA overthrew the dictator, it was a victory for those who fomented dissent. It was 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 who engage in legal activities like aiding farmers in land reform cases were few and far between before EDSA. It was the revolution that opened this democratic space. Our system isn’t perfect, but it’s significantly better.

After discussing my critical take on the university’s nation-building programs in my Philippine history class, I was asked by a student, “so are you still proud to be an Atenean?” I did not hesitate to say yes. 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.


  1. Actually, I would even question that GK "has definitely reduced slums." What baffles me is to date, there has been no rigorous study done to test the theory that giving people prettier houses would someone motivate them to lead better lives, have better development outcomes. Without that evidence, its just blind faith.. perhaps a waste of time. Has anyone even thought that building people prettier houses to make their lives better is actually quite an absurd idea?

    What we know right now is GK is charity. Its a group of people who want to feel that warm glow of giving. Its more for them really.

  2. You're right Pao. Faith does not equal a sustainable development strategy. Moreover, I think the gender aspects of GK need to be questioned as well. I recall somebody telling me about a policy where the keys of the house were only given to men. This needs to be confirmed though

  3. Sir, if you didn't know... Ateneo DENIED the family of the "communist" Jopson to be placed in the Ateneo Chapel. After several years...Ateneo considers Jopson a hero, and recognizes him as an Atenean. I am NOT against communist Filipinos, even if my brother was murdered by the NPA. I am against the fact that ATENEO DENIED THE PARENTS of Edgar Jopson, who are Catholics.

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  5. Not for public consumption:


    Thank you for your analysis. I, too admire Rizal's stance in Dapitan. However, I disagree with Fr Nebres (and the Ateneo? admin's? present?) apolitical stance.

    Two remarks I still remember from the 60's come to mind.

    1) If you're not a revolutionary at 20, you have no heart; if you're still a revolutionary 50, you have no brain. Rolf Kleindienst.

    2) I don't provide them any incentive; if they don't like Math, too bad. (then scholastic HS math teacher, Fr Nebres)

    I don't want this to be reduced to ad hominem but Rolf is an economist by training and Ben used to be a Math teacher, neither endeavour notorious for its bleeding heart (read, compassion.)

    Could it be that Ben is being the cold Mathematician, not heart-less but "heart-devoid" in his senior years or as ADMU pres?

    Fr Juanito
    (currently in Japan)

  6. Hi Fr., sorry I only noticed your comment now. Do you think we could correspond about this through email since, as you say, it's not for public consumption... my address is salamat po.