When I accepted the invitation I wondered what a Filipino historian could contribute to a discussion on contemporary education, religion, development and social cohesion.
When I found myself on a panel with the grandson of Rabindranath Tagore, I realized the need for some historical perspective from Asians who had thought of these problems long ago--Tagore in India at the beginning of the 20th century, Rizal in the Philippines in the late 19th century.
In an undated essay on education, "La Instruccion," whose manuscript is preserved in the Philippine National Library, Jose Rizal presented a critique on primary instruction in the Philippines during the late 19th century and provided suggestions for its improvement.
Before taking further studies in Manila and Europe, Rizal was taught by his mother, private tutors and a small private school in Biñan, thus his essay was based on personal experience and observation.
His essay was a reaction to foreigners who visited the Philippines, wrote about their travels and concluded that Filipinos were backward and indolent.
Rizal replied by explaining that these traits were symptoms rather than the actual disease and that the root cause of backwardness and indolence is poor education.
Rizal argued that due to an overemphasis on religion (here meaning Roman Catholicism which was the official religion of the Spanish Philippines), instruction by rote, and other factors, students were not encouraged to think critically or understand what was being taught.
Furthermore, Rizal noted that there was no common language in the Philippines of his time, no common medium of instruction. Although Spanish was the official language and repeated decrees from Spain mandated its teaching, it was not taught well (if at all) leading students to parrot their lessons without actually understanding what they were saying.
If Spanish would not be allowed as a medium of instruction, then Rizal favored the use of Philippine languages for textbooks and instruction.
Using Philippine languages, according to Rizal, would make education penetrate all the way from the elite down to the grass roots.
Due to this essay and references to education in his many writings, it has become standard to quote Rizal on the importance of education as a solution to the country’s problems and to see "the youth as the fair hope of the motherland."
In "La Instruccion" Rizal wrote:
"...Instead of novenae...and mysteries that serve neither to foment or awaken faith nor to make one a Christian in the true meaning of the word, if it is desired to make of him not the friend of praying and murmuring words without reflecting on them or believing in them, but the man who believes, works and loves his fellowmen; instead of these textbooks, we repeat, could they not give to the child simple books on morals, on the geography and history of the Philippines and above all a good treatise on agriculture but written in the language he speaks, since the immense majority of the people are engaged in working and cultivating the soil and raising cattle, inasmuch as the country is very suitable for these?
"...This modest and almost rudimentary education would be enough to awaken in the pupils ideas of education and progress, and the people, the rulers and even religion would gain much, for thus would disappear superstition, routine, crass ignorance and certain customs which would be immoral were they not the offspring of extreme innocence and candor. There are books on true and sane morals as well as little compendiums of history and geography and treatises on agriculture adapted to the country. What does it cost to translate them and disseminate them in the public schools for those unfortunate children who cannot go to better schools in order to get a more useful education?
"Let us cease to be empirical and routinary. Let us learn to progress. Let us seek the direct good, for life is short and the mission of man is great. Let everyone fulfill his duties and obligations in the sphere in which he lives, not only for the sake of complying with and not failing the mandate, but to do good and to help in the common task of suffering and progressive humanity."
One reads these century-old words and much of it holds true in the 21st-century Philippines, leading some to see Rizal as a prophet. After we marvel that he was able to see present educational concerns over a century ago, shouldn’t Rizal’s words sting? Shouldn’t Rizal’s continuing relevance in many aspects of Philippine life underscore the fact the Philippines and the Filipinos have not changed much in a hundred years?
Instead of this being a case of history repeating itself, should Filipinos actually learn that it is they who repeat history? But then heroes should inspire rather than depress the people. The worst part of it all is that Rizal is a voice sought and appreciated abroad but neglected and ignored at home.