Sunday, June 12, 2005

Cultural Illiteracy/Ignorance

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- Bert 10/12/2012 update

What we Filipinos should know: Over 2 decades ago when I came to America, I was proud to know that Filipinos in the Philippines (at least at High School levels) were better educated than the average young American of their age. However, given what Philippine college/university professor Timothy Montes wrote below, it may not be true anymore.

The post-martial law generations of Filipinos are now showing the effects of WB/IMF/WTO tinkering of the Philippine educational system by discouraging or de-emphasizing the study of the social sciences, i.e. Humanities/History. Add the negative effects of pop/American culture facilitated and reinforced via globalized media and the internet.

(Please see also :

“...the sole function of EDUCATION was to open the way to thinking and knowing, and the school, as the outstanding organ for the people's EDUCATION, must serve that end exclusively.” - Albert Einstein, 1879-1955, German-born American Physicist

“The aim of EDUCATION should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think -- rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.” - John Dewey, 1859-1952, American Philosopher, Educator

“EDUCATION is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.” - Edward Everett, 1794-1865, American Statesman, Scholar

"EDUCATION... has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading, an easy prey to sensations and cheap appeals." - G. M. Trevelyan, 1876-1962, British Historian


Cultural Illiteracy

During the first week of classes, I decided to give a General Knowledge Test to three sections of my English 25 classes (The Research Paper). Although the test was not designed to be an empirical research to determine the students’ level of cultural literacy, I had been prompted to administer it when I read an article by a college teacher who, after years of teaching, suddenly realized when he gave such a test that he was culturally alienated from his students. He had reasons to be frustrated by his students’ diminishing grasp of classical ideas.

Although I was earnest in giving the 80-item test, I ended up more amused than frustrated with my students’ answers. Given certain cultural artifacts, each students was asked to “say a few words” about them. Here are some of their answers.

PEOPLE. Adolf Hitler is a brave man in Russia. Crisostomo Ibarra was the husband of Gabriela Silang. David Hibbard donated Hibbard Hall. The Palance Awards is a reward given for best actors or actresses in U.S. Claro M. Recto is the husband of Vilma Santos. Barbara Streisand wrote hundreds of novels. Albert Einstein discovered the lightning rod. Abu Sayyaf is a communist. Karl Marx was the leader in China. Jose Ma. Sison is the host in Kapag May Katarungan, Ipaglaban Mo. Michelangelo is one of the Ninja Turtles. Charles Darwin contributed some theories in Chemistry. Nick Joaquin is a foreign actor. Vincent van Gogh was a musician during classicle times. Isaac Newton was the first man who say atom is round and spherical. Manoling Morato is an actor. Mozart is a scientist who studies Chemistry. Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, was a great composer. Edilberto Tiempo is the owner of Tiempo (Tempo?) Magazine. Margarita Go Sinco-Holmes is the wife of Rolito Go.

GEOGRAPHY. The Philippines is composed of 750 islands. Mayon Volcano can be found in the National Capital Region. About half of the students thought that Basilan island is in Luzon. The capital of Malaysia is Myanmar. Palawan is the biggest island in the Philippines. Nile River is in China; Leningrad is in Germany; Bogota is in Belgium; Rome is in Greece; and Paris is in England.And so on and so forth. The list of quiz bowl errors is rather long. I don’t know how to transform the result into a statistical index showing the deterioration of student knowledge

But even if one considers the thread that links history to abstract concepts like “values” and “civics” which the youth ought to possess, I have reason to be disturbed by the fact that more than half of the students didn’t know what year the Philippine Revolution was. (In this regard, the Centennial Commission has a lot of educating to do before the majority of the country’s population, the “hope of the Fatherland,” will be able to fully understand what patriotism in the Philippine context is.

In the realm of civic consciousness and Philippine sociology, students may actually have a hard time discerning the implications of the conflict between Cardinal Sin and Juan Flavier because most students don’t know the population size of the country. Their answers range from 1.5 million (no qualms about begetting more children) to 600 million (Help! I’ve got no place to stand on!) Only a few hit the 65-70 million range.

It is true that ignorance of culture is not criminally liable nor is awareness of it necessary for survival despite the usual reasons often cited for its necessity, shibboleths like “technological competitiveness” and “globalization of culture.” I am usually suspicious of those cliché and trite ideas.

However, the university setting, just for the sake of knowledge, I still insist that students in college should at least have a broad grasp of vital ideas involved in the different academic disciplines. University education is supposed to be an experience of students being exposed to a forum of ideas, and in the intellectual marketplace the currency we use for this exchange are cultural artifacts. How can teacher be able to engage in critical exchange ideas when student lack the intellectual vocabulary for such a discussion?

In many cases, teachers don’t even have a pretense towards intellectualism and reduce classroom discussion to chismis. Much has been said about inadequate training in high school resulting in a generation of students unprepared for the intellectual demands of college. (Often, the substantive element of education is overshadowed by mere socialization.) But the students who took the test were mostly in the sophomore and junior years and had presumably been exposed to the general education program of the university.

The blame-high-school argument cannot be invoked here. How can I possibly expect the average student, who leaves half of the test items unanswered, to go into research, that nitty-gritty compiling of details in order to push the frontier of knowledge, when he or she does not even possess the basic knowledge in the different academic disciplines? (In this connection, I’d like to ask: whatever happened to that proposed revision of the general education program of the university?)

I believe that classes to whom I gave the cultural literacy test are representative classes of this university, and the complaints I now express are also the usual complaints of the most teachers regarding that deterioration of education. I am, therefore, positing some recommendations which, when implemented, may stop us from glibly talking about “quality education” and “academic excellence."

First, it is high time for the university to be selective in the recruitment and retention of students. If Silliman has to retain its status as a “center of excellence,” it has to insist on high intellectual standards from its students. Grade inflation, satisfaction with mediocrity, and lackluster teaching have aggravated the situation of the school getting more than its usual share of rotten apples. Prophetically, I can see a slide from “cultural illiteracy” to “functional illiteracy” in the college level if this trend continues. (A student, for example, correctly indentified Raul Roco and Enrile as a senetor while another hit it right by saying Michelangelo was a paintor. How did they get past the spelling quiz in English 11? Beats me.)

Second, teachers, to avoid feeling like dinosaurs caged in a Jurassic Park, should be aware that the X generation’s culture has already shifted to a postmodern one, and that there are attendant challenges that go with negotiating the two cultures. The classical/modern culture most teachers stand on, if it has to be understood and appreciated by the students, should be bridged by the teacher who also has the responsibility of understanding the students’ culture. Many teachers act like hated dorm managers who consider the “generation gap” as an excuse for the hostility with young residents. How will you teach Mozart’s or Bach’s music when the only music he knows is that of Eraserheads’? The answer is challenge. (Incidentally, students were consistent in getting the right answers to pop questions. Everyone knew Eraserheads, as well as the new husband of Sharon Cuneta, Kiko Pangilinan.) Why not teach Film Appreciation (a medium young students are more familiar with) instead of exclusively confining ourselves to High Literature? (Who reads Shakespeare? Instead of Homer, Marlowe, and Matthew Arnold, why not Scorsese, Copolla, Spielberg, and Bernal?)

Third, we teachers should not presume that students know the systems of ideas and paradigms we swim in academically. The ordinary student pretends he or she knows until caught ignorant in an A,B,C test.There is no finger-pointing involved here as to where the fault or deficiency lies. Bad teachers make bad students. However, according to my teacher in poetry, even a brilliant teacher “can’t make hair grow on a billiard ball.”

"The media serve the interests of state and corporate power, which are closely interlinked, framing their reporting and analysis in a manner supportive of established privilege and limiting debate and discussion accordingly."- Noam Chomsky

"Television is altering the meaning of "being informed" by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation... Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information - misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information - information that creates the illusion of knowing something, but which in fact leads one away from knowing."- Neil Postman


dante said...


Very interesting article.

The results of the test conducted by the Silliman University professor was amusing, and also quite sad (Quite surprising, since SU is one of the leading universities in the country). I myself am not sure whether I can pass the same exam if it were given to me to answer. hehe. :)

I didn't know that the WB/IMF/WTO "tinkered" with the Philippine education system by "discouraging or de-emphasizing" the study of the social sciences. How have they influenced the 'shaping' of our education system's curricula? And does that only mean the public school system, or does it include the private universities and colleges?

I really agree that the study of the social sciences is important in molding responsible individuals in society. Each individual should at least have a good understanding of the essential ideas or principles of, for example, political science, sociology, history, philosophy, literature, art, etc. These subjects or fields of studies can equip the individual with the tools to understand society and life in general, and her place and role in it. They (for example with philosophy and humanities) can also give her life a "higher" quality as it enables her to appreciate life and its questions and mysteries more.

It's just sad that our schools today function more like "factories" that produce people who are trained to become mere specialized workers to fill in specialized roles in the different industries, e.g., as call center agents and nurses, etc. I have nothing against those professions, I myself worked in a call center before and will be studying nursing this school year. It's just that there must be more to education than merely training individuals to fill in specialized roles in the different industries. Education must have a higher function. It should not only teach facts and ideas, but also "teach" students to *love* the process of learning itself, to *love* the seeking and the discovering of facts and ideas.

But, I'm just thinking, isn't the poor knowledge of the students in history and the humanities, isn't their poor performance in tests, etc., a reflection of how formal schooling or traditional education has failed in its goals? The Silliman professor suggested that the university be more selective in the recruitment and retention of students. But that would only "filter" the already "gifted" and the "fast learners" from the "average" students and the "slow learners". The educator John Holt believes that there are no "dumb" or "intelligent", "smart" or "stupid" students, only "fast" and "slow learners." That would defeat the purpose of education, since education should be open to all. Silliman University would only be able to "weed out" the "slow learners", thus freeing them from the heavy burden and difficult task of truly offering quality education to its students.

I remember a quote from William Butler Yeats that said: "Education should not be the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire." Or something like that. The educator and philosopher Paulo Friere also believed that education should not be the depositing of information to a receptacle (the strudent); instead, it should be a dialogue between the teacher and the student wherein the teacher is also the student because he learns also from his students in the same way that his students learn from him. My point is, there might be something inherently wrong with formal schooling why it has failed in producing individuals who love learning and who are able to think critically and are responsible actors in society, and not just passive spectators who are adept not in transforming the world around them but are efficient only in adapting to the existing state of affairs. Our educators should study the works of Paulo Friere, John Holt, Carl Rogers, and other educators and thinkers critical of traditional schooling, in understanding what is wrong with the present education system and how the problems might be remedied. In the US, an education movement called "unschooling" (You've probably heard of it) or "homeschooling" is already fast becoming an alternative for many families. I think here in our country that would be hard to adopt since most of our countrymen don't have the means to access a wide range of resources for educational purposes.

I like that quote by Neil Postman. I read that before somewhere. I've read his book "Amusing Ourselves to Death". I found it very fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Sorry i have to make correction here in the geography section.The philippines isn't compose only of 750 islands but over 7,100 islands.

Bert M. Drona said...

Actually, the writer Montes was highlighting errors that demonstrated the ignorance of the atudents, as product of our deteriorated educational system.


Anonymous said...

i was born more than 3 decades. i am not that intelligent but all my younger years as i've remembered it was always about discipline. i thought i was always punished. as im reaching at the end of this road. i found that those penalties made me a better person. the saying goes "a gem cannot be polished without friction nor a man perfected without trials." the youth today lacks controlled behaviour. who's to blame? my one and only mega senator? yes or no? he saved less juveniles but crumbled the future generations. education? or discipline?

Anonymous said...

First Class Teachers = First Class Students. Lousy Teachers = Lousy Students. Where have all the best teachers gone? Away from home and across the ocean.

Bert M. Drona said...

Thank you for your comments.

That was a good quote.

Having taught for 2 years, I think it has to be a combination of discipline with education, especially for the young, i.e. grade and high school.

That is why, as you implied, one can become a better person. Youth needs enlightened guidance.

- Bert

Bert M. Drona said...

Hi All,

Please check out this post:

Albert Einstein on Education

Bert M. Drona said...

Hello Dante,

Yes,The IMF/WB partnership work together to maintain and expand the capitalist world order (nowadays under globalization, i.e. economic, cultural,etc.). Re education, emphasis was/is to be on vocational, technical and secondary education as explained in its "World Development Report 1980."

You may want to check out "Re-orienting Philippine Education" by Vivencio R. Jose, in a chapter in the book: MORTGAGING THE FUTURE - The World Bank and IMF in the Philippines, 1982, published by Foundation for Nationalist Studies. I do not know its availability nowadays. I highly recommend this important book for concerned native Filipinos.

it's quite long but I might be able to transcribe it sometime later.

Thanks for your nice and involved response.

- Bert