Mar 172013



Roland G. Simbulan

Professor, University of the Philippines

(A book review of Lumbera, B. et al, editors., Mula Tore Patungong Palengke: Neo-liberal Education in the Philippines (Quezon City: Ibon Foundation, 2007). Read during the Book launching and Symposium on Neo-liberal Education in the Philippines, June 26, 2007, Claro M. Recto Hall, U.P. Diliman, Quezon City.)

      In the best tradition of progressive scholarship, this 347-page book is a collection of 25 reflective essays, grouped into four major chapters, written by teachers, scholars, and researchers who have a stake in the academe and are concerned by the alarming developments in our educational system. It is a powerful critique of what it calls “neo-liberal education” and the social structures that spawn it. The liberative impulses of a new world throbbing within the shell of the old are reflected in these essays by a group of young and not-so-young, committed progressive intellectuals. Collectively, the authors have written an engaging book about our educational system, not a polemic.

     Our economic system is driven by the accumulation of capital, that is, by an attempt by a small minority of persons who own society’s productive wealth to maximize both the profits and the growth of their enterprises.  This drive is incessant and engulfs nearly every aspect of life in every nation on earth. The book demonstrates the centrality of the dynamics between the now globalized market economy and the institutions that it has created to perpetuate itself.  For in the academe, we see the neo-liberals (as they are called in Europe) and neo-conservatives ( as they are called in the United States),  giving birth to ideas that would sustain it, how to supply the future managers for the system, and the arguments to rationalize the existing order. Thus, the academe becomes the ideological home for the rationalizations and analyses for the “free markets,” “free trade,” and “deregulation and privatization” which are relentlessly hammered home by the U.P. School of Economics. But our neo-liberal friends neglect to tell us that their prescription is based on freedom for business but discrimination against and repression for the laboring poor.

     The book’s contributors are right in pointing out that as the free-market steamroller moves forward on the economic front, its neo-liberal counterparts in academe trivialize the liberative aspects of education, emphasizing only its marketable aspects.  A crucial point here is that the material infrastructures of the neo-liberal educational system promote and attract the largesse–money and resources–to create the intellectual ammunition, to promote and to defend structural adjustment policies that devastate the lives of the poor and promote the interests of a privileged minority.  Thus, courses and programs that strengthen Filipino identity and culture against historical amnesia, that are deemed “less marketable” are gradually phased out by making them compete with more exotic sounding course offerings, or with courses deemed more attractive for foreign employment.

     Nevertheless, to confront these challenges and the dominant paradigm, those of us who understand the malaise need to stir up debate, to enable the emergence of a new vision for the future. Let me state that when we talk of education and the educational system, we speak of the future being in the present. The future, so to speak, is now. But while the educational system is the de facto appendage of the state, the corporations, and private interests, we also assert the primacy of intellectual autonomy to challenge that reality, through meaningful intellectual inquiry and public discourse. As such, this book and those of us who agree with its fundamentals are a “dysfunction” to the prevailing economic system and its cultural and ideological infrastructure. For in apprehending what the very power of capital is inadvertently proclaiming as it overruns, subordinates and dominates every aspect  of our lives and minds, we overcome pessimism and leap to optimism.  And as the book suggests, an alternative is possible, one that is rooted in our collective liberating potentials to replace it. But at the core of this discussion is this: the real challenge before us is not to limit or constrain, but to expand the space for academic freedom, and hence, the university’s inspirational and visionary function.  And since society is an association of free persons, it does not need to surrender to the logic of the market.

      In the University of the Philippines, the political and intellectual autonomy of the academe as a counter-institution to a repressive neocolonial state emerged in the 1970s during the Diliman Commune. This was the historic event during the First Quarter Storm when University constituents –students, faculty and the U.P. community – formed the “Malayang Komunidad ng Diliman” (Liberated Community of Diliman) and literally took up C. Wright Mill’s trenchant challenge to contemporary intellectuals “to speak truth to power.”

      The power structure in the academe is not left out in the book. For our institutions, too, adopt the neo-liberal paradigm in their university governance, curricula and programs.  As the facilitator of the cultural and ideological apparatus to the neo-liberal agenda in both the institution and in public policy-making, academic administrators often become the aggressive implementors for the smooth operation of the neo-liberal agenda. Why, the administrators have already begun to treat knowledge as “intellectual capital” and “intellectual property.” But while the law of the marketplace is promoted as the dominant mode in governance, are universities not supposed to counter the inequities of neo-liberalism and the market economy, to assume the role of social critic?   It is indeed imperative that we assert and extend democratic decision-making in the university, if only to develop the constituents’ leadership, intellectual and cooperative capacities.

     Whatever social, political or economic system we are made to endure, the academe must sustain its reverence for scholarship, its tolerance of diversity and dissent, and its belief in the freedom of speech and the academic freedom that we often take for granted – the freedom of inquiry and expression on any subject, whether on University issues or the state of the nation.  And even more important, social activism and transformation have to start at home, in our universities, and eventually develop ever broader, more inclusive forms of solidarity and action outside the confines of the classroom.

      There are a few points I would like to draw attention to:

1.    The book would be very much improved if it confronted the unavoidable question of how to pursue excellence without being beholden to government or corporate interests that are often the biggest funders of education and research institutions. It needs to debunk the thinking that neo-liberal education, both in its essence and administration, is a necessity for academic excellence. The book mentions commercialization in neo-liberal education as lowering the standards and quality of Philippine education. But the reality is that top universities of the world, with their “grow or die,” “up or out,” “publish or perish” academic culture–as in Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Massachussets Institute of Technology, Stanford, etc.–are controlled by neo-liberals and are necessarily governed by the principles of neo-liberalism, so how can this argument be challenged?

Harvard University, which tops practically the criteria set for standards of academic excellence both in the U.S. and globally, is a very expensive and highly commercialized university.  It has even successfully marketed its branded name, prestige and reputation. In the recent THES-QS World University Rankings, the private, commercialized universities led by Harvard consistently lead the pack in terms of excellence. Thus, in hammering the question of excellence, I also sense a continuing tension between the elitism spawned by the rigorous standards required for excellence versus equity, democratic accessibility especially in our admissions system.  Excellence often brings with it a stamp of meritocracy and social privilege.

2.    The bankrupt neo-liberal system seeks to reproduce itself through institutions like our universities, where it expects to have undisputed cultural hegemony.  When U.S. imperialism created the University of the Philippines in 1908, it created it to maintain and reproduce the system, not to produce a counter-institution or counter-culture that would challenge the very system that created it, or produce revolutionaries who would undermine it.  Educational institutions reproduce not only ideas, but also the managers and personnel of a neo-liberal economy. Let us not be deluded or be complacent about illusions of a “liberated academe” or a “Diliman Republic” that was inspired by the First Quarter Storm’s Diliman Commune.  Ultimately, we should not underestimate the power of these institutions to mold and nurture neocolonial minds. Should we expect the institutions that are part of the ideological infrastructure of the existing dispensation to produce reformers and revolutionaries who would later challenge not only its fundamental assumptions but also the existing order?

3.    Among the values that neo-liberal education nurtures and perpetuates is competition, which undermines the spirit of cooperation. But is competition per se bad to attain the highest limits of excellence and achievement?  Are competition and the neo-liberal credo a normal, and natural part of the air we breathe in our quest of pursuing the goals of excellence as it is made to appear?  We must dismantle this view of the neo-liberals by dominating the intellectual debates in the classrooms, and reach out to the mainstream of public consciousness.  For even if we cannot yet control the material infrastructures, at least we should be able to defeat with our intellectual initiatives the doctrines of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization.  At least, the intellectual infrastructure that defines, sustains and controls culture is turned in favor of the disadvantaged poor, the grassroots sectors who are enhancing community empowerment. The point is that, at the moment, it is still better to promote and advance an academic culture than a corporate one .

4. Lastly, I would have wanted to see more space in the book devoted to analyzing and critiquing the research role and function of our current educational institutions. The complicity of the academe in the repressive state apparatus is all too apparent in the research and consultancy role of our neo-liberal institutions.  It is in intellectual work hatched through research and publications in some of our neo-liberal institutions that progressives have been complacent, for our impact on public policy decision making has been nil and dominated by market-dominated paradigm. We must understand that to transform the economic, political and social landscape, we have to first change the intellectual and cultural one. For ideas to become part of the daily life of people and society, they must be packaged, conveyed, propagated through books, magazines, journals, conferences, symposia, professional associations, mass media, and so on. Research and the knowledge generated and disseminated build the intellectual infrastructures to promote a particular worldview.      U.P. as a research university has become one of the biggest institutional “think tanks” for the government and big business in the country, in such undertakings like preparing many of presidential decrees during martial law, and the notorious “Tadhana” project which haunts U.P. even today. It has also uncritically accepted research grants from foundations and governments which have tied their endowments to donor-directed research agenda. It is unfortunate that when it comes to research and generation of knowledge, many of our scholar-colleagues are more interested in accruing money from corporate or government institutions, than in critiquing it.

          Educators will appreciate the excellent Teacher’s Guide at the end that completes the volume, helping to make it a most useful tool not only of pedagogical, but more important, of political enlightenment.

     One theme ties together all the essays in this book: the need to understand what is at the root of our educational malaise and the system that perpetuates it, in order to better improve it. In this regard, the book’s contributors are at their best and they make for compelling reading.

      I am heartened to note that we have many young scholars as contributors to this volume.  For in the war of ideas, any movement is in trouble if it cannot renew its ranks of committed intellectuals, thinkers and writers.

     Until that day of human liberation when we shall establish a new social order based on social justice and human dignity, the corporations, the government bureaucrats, their material infrastructures in the academe, and their academic pimps will continue to sustain one succession of scum regime after another.

     As my parting word, may I commend the editors and contributors of this book for making it clear that victories can be won in our schools. And perhaps, after the schools, larger victories in society can also be won. The ultimate spirit and lesson of this book is that progressive change in our institutions and society is possible if it is linked with social movements and built through popular struggle. Let me quote from the American civil libertarian, Frederick Douglas:

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are people who want crops without plowing up the ground.

They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be physical; but it must be a struggle.  Power concedes nothing without a demand.  It never did, and it never will.”


The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip in July 5th 2007



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