[EDITORIAL] For our education system, “normal” is not enough

With the Philippines being last in the world to resume in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, all eyes were on the 100 public schools that conducted pilot testing for limited face-to-face classes on Nov. 15.

After years of distance learning, students from different grade levels returned to their familiar classrooms, which the Department of Education (DepEd) called a “success.”

But children in Alaminos, Pangasinan returned to Longos Elementary School with an unsightly image. Intimidating guns greeted them as they entered classroom doors. Heavily armed men were distributing educational handouts alongside their teachers. Police personnel stood guard at the back of the classroom sporting camo uniforms.

A series of finger-pointing ensued. DepEd cited a report from its field unit and said the armed officials were part of the “security detail” of a local official who visited the school at its reopening. But Alaminos Mayor Bryan Celeste said the security team was “requested by a school official.”

The Philippine National Police (PNP) office in the Ilocos region apologized for the “apparent overreacting” of their members.

The image of military men in the Pangasinan classrooms is not a novel sight. Even before the pandemic, students, educators and administrators have witnessed armed personnel barging into academic spaces, which the DepEd itself asserts as “zones of peace.” 

As officials gear for the gradual return of face-to-face learning, their militaristic tradition is unambiguously bridging us into a post-pandemic world. The return to in-person classes must not be a return to old martial practices that hamper genuine learning, but a dawn of a radical shift in how pupils learn in a mass-oriented education system.

Safe spaces

UP Diliman has recently received certificates of authority from the Commission on Higher Education, allowing graduating students from certain courses to return to the campus.

To prepare for that fateful return to campus, the PNP said on Dec. 11 that they are “gearing up” to deploy police personnel to enforce health protocols. With the legal protections afforded by the decades-old UP-Department of National Defense (DND) Accord absent, there is nothing stopping the armed officials from doing so.

This militarized approach to education is an appalling—yet unsurprising—form of the state’s obsession with sowing fear among its citizenry. History reveals that their fascination with fascism has been going on for a long time.

The 1989 UP-DND Accord, signed with the vision of making UP a safe space from state forces, was crafted as a result of ex-president Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship. His administration struck down on students who were critical of the government’s martial rule.

While there have since been efforts to institutionalize the accord, they have been met by delays and an illegal motion for reconsideration. These moves are testament to how far the state will go to encroach on academic freedom.

No health crisis will injure the government’s crackdown on the youth. State-sponsored trolls took to social media to red-tag progressive students and organizations. Government agencies used public funds to prepare virtual webinars that seek to demonize youth groups. Students received death threats for the exercise of their democratic freedoms.

And without effective guidelines for the implementation of face-to-face classes, the government seeks to imprison students in this virtual world, away from their physical learning spaces and from the masses they must serve. Before officials could even iron out plans for a safe return to classes, they indubitably opened casinos, shopping malls and tourist attractions.

Now that students are gradually returning to their classrooms, police and military would not be absent from schools. Because what else does the government have in its arsenal of solutions if not uniformed men with loaded guns?

This is symptomatic of how the state views the ‘new normal,’ with policemen more prepared to return to classrooms than students or their educators.

Education must not be predicated on fear and obedience. The point of education is to seek greater knowledge beyond the status quo. And this is exactly what the government fears: a student that explores beyond what their armed forces can control.

A radical turn

The shift to distance learning exposed much of our education system’s inherent flaws — not the least of which is its neoliberal orientation.

Students are forced to learn despite problems with connectivity, calamities and surges in COVID-19 cases. These are the marks of capitalism at work: an emotionless robotic workforce at the expense of one’s personal well-being.

READ: Unseen Enemies: Lonely Battles in Distance Learning

In the powerful’s books, being educated is less about knowing how to save lives, but is more about knowing how to secure and generate wealth for transnational corporations and oligarchs. In the best case, students can only attain success in a world where they are exploited. 

Speak evil of this flawed education system and you will become a state target. Sixteen students from Mindanao State University – Iligan were arrested during an Independence Day protest. Earlier this year, the PNP detained 26 lumad students, teachers and elders for the alleged training of future armed combatants. 

When students are prepared solely for labor and employment, the importance of critical thinking is severely downplayed. To corporations, students are trained not to become thinkers, but blind followers of a grand world order where the bourgeoisie are to benefit the most.

For education to be truly liberating, it must embolden students to question the status quo instead of fitting them into the same mold of consumerism that has led to most, if not all, of the crises of the 21st century.

In defining post-pandemic learning, we must recognize that dissent is a fundamental part of education. A student cannot genuinely learn when pushed into their own beliefs. Art withers away when confined to rules and regulations. At the heart of science is learning novel truths that may come in the way of others. 

The COVID-19 pandemic challenges governments to quickly adapt to fickle scientific discoveries and adjust policies to our ever-changing knowledge of the virus. The Philippine government’s own ego bogs it down and its inertia causes it to trail behind. Just like the men in Plato’s cave, its own pride gets in the way of a bright and proper pandemic response. 

State officials think too highly of themselves to even think about admitting the ineffectiveness of plastic barriers and face shields. The government cannot follow a systematic and self-correcting body of knowledge like science, nor support an educational system that values it.

READ: Can public schools pandemic-proof their classrooms before students’ in-person return?

Prioritizing education

The challenge of protecting the integrity of our education system lies in our fight amidst threats to academic freedom. It bears pushing back against attempts to silence dissent and holding the line for our democratic rights and freedoms.

Our post-pandemic reality should not be one where libraries are raided for “subversive” materials or where academic institutions face budget cuts while military forces receive pay hikes. It should not be the reality where students are hounded with attacks for their opinions and where activists are jailed when fake news peddlers and corrupt politicians roam free and run for office. 

Our tomorrow should not depend on uniformed men being able to freely bring their guns inside our classrooms. This must not be the future we look forward to. 

The pandemic is salient proof of how a neoliberal education system is bound to fail. It reminded us of what we already knew, that we need to transcend towards education that is nationalist, scientific and mass-oriented.

As we recognize the importance of a strong educational foundation, we must also leave behind the idea that students should be subjugated to silence and remain unsympathetic amid social injustices that surround them. We need critical and empathetic students who are not afraid to deviate from the status quo in order to build a better and fairer society.

One can only seem to dream of an empowering education, free from the chains of neoliberalism and oppression — but it is not impossible. Part of the path to triumph is recognizing that we are indeed part of a system that seeks to engulf rather than liberate us.

In the end, whatever the form of learning, we must seek to go beyond the enclosure of our classrooms — be it physical or virtual — and move towards the masses whom we aim to serve and learn from. We can only call our education system a “success” once the Filipino people are genuinely free.

As the 2022 elections draw near and promises begin pouring in, candidates must answer to the attacks on academic freedoms. How far would these candidates be willing to go to protect safe and genuine education?