The Burden of Being a National University

| Written by Randolf S. David

Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO.


Raising the quality of public discourse

Universities like UP are uniquely positioned to intervene in the ongoing public discussion of issues and problems. This is a terrain that tends to be dominated by politicians, social activists, church people, mass media commentators, and opinion writers. Each one of these players represents a perspective, a way of framing, speaking or understanding, a given topic. When the media turn to a professor for his or her views on a topic, however, they do not expect just any type of opinion but a specialist’s opinion that is informed by the disciplines in which he/she operates. There will be times when we may have no basis to give an expert opinion, but an interviewer may nonetheless press us to speak as a sociologist, economist, linguist, biologist, geologist, or physicist. Under such circumstances, if the statements we give do not proceed from what we know as specialists, then it behooves us to make clear that we are speaking as lay citizens rather than as scholars. To pretend otherwise—i.e., to lend the authority of our institutional or disciplinal affiliation to the plain opinions we hold as members of a society is to risk undermining the authority of our disciplines, and indeed, of the university we represent.

Certainly, the problem that our people face with regard to information cannot be underestimated. The exponential growth in the capacity of the mass media to bring a broad range of issues into the realm of public discourse has not been matched by an increase in the high-mindedness of public discussions. This is a social need that the university, especially one that calls itself the national university, must attempt to systematically address.

It should not be difficult for us, with commensurate support and encouragement from the university administration, to form working groups on a variety of public issues. Our interventions need not be couched in the language of advocacy—it is enough that they offer conceptual clarity, critique, and concrete proposals for finding solutions to problems. Such think pieces need not always be based on new research either; they could be syntheses of existing studies and data, new interpretations that can bring out the blind spots of current analysis.

The mandate we have earned for ourselves as a subsystem of society is not so much for us to take sides in the conflict of partisan interests as to be arbiters of what constitutes knowledge in our time, of what is true and what is false, and of what can be claimed as a rational idea or course of action. But we are not precluded from drawing conclusions that are politically consequential. It is important, however, that as we perform this task, we need to remind ourselves that political strife, even if we cannot entirely shield ourselves from it, is not the business of the university. Knowledge is. Reason is. No less important than writing these is getting them into the circuit of public discourse—by way of symposia, press conferences, media interviews, television appearances, and articles in the popular media. We could aspire to do this until we reach a point when, as far as the public is concerned, no issue is considered closed until UP has spoken.


Photo by Jun Madrid, UP MPRO


Forming our students as the future leaders of the nation

We love to say that every UP graduate is more than just a college degree holder. He/she is, above all, a leader with a clear sense of purpose, a profound awareness of the basic problems of the country and of the world, and a passionate commitment to the national good. I still believe that, in general, this is true, although that is no reason to place upon the shoulders of UP graduates the entire weight of the Filipino nation’s past and future.

Our students come to us as young adults already equipped with basic ideas of right and wrong. The values of their families and of the communities in which they are raised are already impressed on their character when they enter UP. But the public forgets that we do not run a monastery or a total institution that regulates every aspect of a student’s existence.

And so, during the period they are with us, our students remain open to a variety of other influences—the mass media, their families, their churches, their political organizations, their friends, and what they see in the larger society outside.

Still, we make sure our students pick up some important values while they are with us, notably those associated with the General Education Program: love of country, social justice, solidarity, the need to think for oneself, rational argument, critical inquiry, thirst for knowledge, etc.

Among the things we teach our students is precisely that they must learn to differentiate—e.g., that what is good for their family is not always good for the country, that what is profitable is not always legal, that what is legal may not always be moral, etc. I have always believed, in this regard, that the so-called moral crisis gripping our country today is not due to Filipinos’ lack of any moral sense, or a weakness in their values. Much of what we call corruption stems precisely from a failure to differentiate the multiple dimensions of human activity.

Whether we like it or not, our graduates, more than the graduates of any other tertiary school in the country, are today called upon to lead the nation through these difficult times—to inspire our people by their example, to personify the heroic ideals of public service, and to commit themselves to the unfinished task of building the nation. To me, this is the biggest burden that being the national university of our country has placed upon us. It is a reminder that we don’t just train professionals, we produce the nation’s leaders—Filipinos who, on top of what they must learn as professionals, are especially educated to become familiar with the nation’s history, to identify with its aspirations, to take on its manifold problems as their personal responsibility, to integrate commitment to the public good in everything they do, and most of all, to chart the nation’s future.

Prof. Randolf S. David is a professor emeritus of sociology at UP Diliman. He currently writes a weekly newspaper column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer and is a member of the board of advisers of the ABS-CBN Corporation.

Exerpts from the original article published in the UP Forum July-August 2009 issue

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