The World Is a Classroom: Reflections of a Fellow Traveler
By Georgina R. Encanto, Ph.D.
Regent and Former Dean, College of Mass Communication
As suggested by its title, The World is a Classroom is not just a compilation of travel articles, speeches delivered on various occasions in different countries and opinion articles published in Filipino newspapers but a springboard for the author’s reflections which generate abundant insights and lessons that can be learned from visiting different countries.
It is an impressive output of writings by a person who has built a reputation for himself as a social scientist with a keen interest in politics, a socialist, outstanding scholar and peace advocate.
The travel articles are engaging to read because of the author’s intellectual curiosity, keen powers of observation, diligence for documenting his travels, faithfully recording the names of historical landmarks in countries , public officials, revolutionary leaders and famous academics whom he was given an opportunity to meet and interact with and his obvious passion for supplementing his personal notes with further research to give him and his readers a better understanding of these countries and their people. Reading the book is a fast track reader friendly education on how there could be peace and mutuality in the world instead of the oppressive relations between the capitalist superpowers that dominate and exploit the smaller, developing countries, through peaceful co-existence and understanding of one another. Consistently, the writer finds from his travel experiences opportunities to learn from the experiences of other countries in their own struggles for liberation from their colonizers, to express admiration for and to be inspired by the small countries such as Cuba, Libya, and Vietnam that dared to resist Western imperial powers and even defeated them in wars despite their vastly limited resources and abject poverty, and still managed to develop viable alternative approaches to address their people’s needs for social services like food, education, and health. Ever the optimist, Simbulan emphasizes that everything—successes as well as mistakes in the history of nations and of the world —can be an occasion to learn, for the revolutionary, for academics, or for the general reader.
There are a total of 35 travel articles covering visits or extended sojourns to countries such as Canberra, Australia (where the author spent some of his growing years while his father Dante pursued a graduate degree) , Libya, Hanoi, Pyongyang, China, Paris, Cuba, Singapore with Subic, a naval base in the Philippines once occupied and dominated by the United States until the termination of the 1947 RP- US Military Bases Agreement in 1991 being the only exception.
There seem to be some implicit criteria for the choice of travel articles that were included. Some like “ New York on my Mind: Good Memories of the Big Apple” which he dedicated to the victims of 9/11 and “ “In Canberra the Future is Green” exude a feeling of nostalgia as the writer recalls the time he spent in the first as a graduate student and in Canberra as a young boy while his father was studying for a Ph.D. but while these articles are graphic recollections of his extended sojourns there, he finds occasion to express some inspiring insight, such as the aspiration that the spirit of New York with its openness to cultural diversity and resilience in the aftermath of 9/11 would also inspire mutuality and respectful co-existence among different countries despite their cultural, political , economic and religious diversity or the importance of green planning and development which Canberra is an outstanding example of.
Others like “Old Towne, Alexandria: Walking Through Colonial America” demonstrates the viability of blending history by preserving its historic landmarks including the homes of its most famous residents such as George Washington, General Robert Lee and John Adams a with the demands of growth through the “modern conveniences of the information age.” It is described as a genteel city which is a good model for architectural preservation for Intramuros and historic Manila.
Another group of travel articles like those on Libya, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea are occasions for the writer to point out the inspiring examples of small poverty-stricken countries that dared to defy the United States. Gaddafi, who ruled Libya for 42 years, expelled foreign military bases and facilities ( British and US) thereby breaking their monopoly of Libyan oil resources and nationalizing these as well as introducing an Islamic version of socialism through his Green Book. Cuba is a small country that dared defy American imperialism and since 1959 has conducted a social revolution that has made advances in education, health care and improvements in the quality of life of its workers, peasants and the poor. Despite the repeated attempts of the United States and other Western powers to isolate it through economic sanctions, military invasions like the Bay of Pigs, and attempts to assassinate its leaders, Cuba has become a model for countries searching for alternative models to development, refusing to follow the Capitalist model of the United States. Its innovative “social medicine” which advocates medical practice in the community was promoted by the Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevarra and been emulated by other revolutionary societies as well as by Filipino medical doctors who served in the rural areas and paid with their lives for it like Bobby de la Paz and Johnny Escandor. Vietnam, a poor country, can claim to have defeated the French in the Battle of Bien Dien Phu War and the United States in the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1975 humiliated the Americans by guerillas who with their innovative Cu Chi Tunnels outwitted the Americans despite the latter’s use of war machines and weapons, bombs, chemical and chemical defoliants like Agent Orange. Vetnam is cited as a shining example of a country that has stood up to American imperialism and even its former ally, China, with its recent incursions into the borders of Vietnam and is able to maintain its sovereignty with dignity and self-respect. Even North Korea, despite the economic embargoes imposed on it by the United States can claim to have made some gains in education and health care and land reform and it is the only country in the world where there are no taxes. The author, however, is critical of the practice of revering the leaders of North Korea as if the people belonged to a cult.
The health care system of Spain, which the author also had occasion to observe, is also a model that could be emulated, as it affords universal basic health care services to all its citizens. It is regionally structured, with the 17 autonomous regions of the country, directly managing the health care system. The regions ultimately have decision-making powers on health care and budgetary allocations for these, drawn from their regional budgets, so that health care has significantly extended the life expectancy age of the people.
In “Understanding China and Its Interest in Southeast Asia ,” which is particularly relevant because of our territorial and maritime disputes with China triggered by its claims on the South China Sea (or West Philippine Sea as our maritime lawyers prefer to call it) Simbulan proposes the adoption of an independent and patriotic policy that protects our own interests instead of becoming a pawn to other countries particularly the United States, with which China as the second superpower and Japan intensely competes for the world’s oil and other resources. He stresses the importance for the Philippines to have a historic and strategic stance in its relationship with China and to focus instead on bilateral ties with them which can continue to be strengthened through economic cooperation, trade agreements, investments, loans, educational and cultural exchanges and dialogues and discussion between Filipino and Chinese academics that would be more mutually beneficial. He reminds us of China’s experience for centuries as a victim of colonial imperialism when its security was constantly threatened by foreign powers like Britain and Japan and it was divided “like a watermelon” with most of the threats to it coming from the sea. He also points out the many lessons that can be learned from China particularly after its Revolution in 1948 and its modernization programs based on socialist principles which have catapulted it to become the world’s second largest economy. Among others, he cites China’s successful anti-poverty program and capacity to feed and provide other basic social services to its 1.3 billion population. As the veritable “factory of the world” it has asserted its sovereignty, self-reliance, and resourcefulness.
In “Subic Revisted: 20 Years Since the Rejection of the Bases Treaty” Professor Simbulan hails the termination of the 1947 RP-US Military Bases Agreement by the Philippine Senate , particularly the Magnificent 12 who refused to extend it for another ten years in 1991. Visiting Grande Island which was once exclusively reserved as a Rest and Recreation Facility for the US military serviceman and off limits to Filipinos, Professor Simbulan reflects that contrary to dire predictions about the Philippine economy should the US bases be pulled out, the former US bases have achieved impressive economic growth in the country by attracting huge investments from such companies as the South Korean Hanjin Heavy Industries among others. This experience of the Philippines has inspired other countries where there are still military bases as it is a lesson on the importance of sovereignty and self-determination.
The World is a Classroom is an engaging book to read, teeming with insights and lessons drawn from the history and experiences of other countries that are relevant and can be applied to the Philippines. While it is scholarly, its straightforward and lively prose style laced with a sense of irony and humor, make it accessible and illuminating.