Friday, October 24, 2008

In pursuit of excellence

In the 2008 list of 500 ranked universities in the world by the Times Higher Education Supplement in association with Quacquarelli Symonds (THES – QS World University Rankings), the University of the Philippines (U.P.) has been outranked by Ateneo de Manila for the first time in years. U.P. placed 276th to Ateneo’s 254.

The THES-QS ranking has been criticized for the subjective nature of its assessment criteria, which are largely based on a peer review of over 3,000 scholars and academics in various fields of study.

According to high-ranking U.P. officials, the University did not participate in the 2008 THES-QS rankings, thus they have no information on how the data were obtained on which the ranking was based. When it participated in 2006, THES-QS ranked U.P. 299th as against Ateneo at 500.

In addition to THES-QS, there are also other world-wide rankings such as the Academic Ranking of World Universities compiled by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the Top 100 Global Universities by Newsweek, the Webometrics Ranking of World Universities, and the Professional Ranking of World Universities by the Ecole nationale superieure des mines de Paris.

These world rankings serve as a guide to universities around the world which truly excel. While they may be useful, their utility does not extend beyond making comparisons. They are not supposed to be the yardstick by which every university must measure its excellence, or whether a country’s education program serves the needs of its student population.

To some degree, however, university rankings, according to the Center for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS), Leiden University, may have “strong de-equalizing effects. They directly confront scientists, university board members, policy makers, politicians, journalists, and the interested man-in-the-street with inequality. Rankings strengthen the idea of an academic elite, and institutions use the outcomes of rankings, no matter how large the methodological problems are, in their rivalry with other institutions.”

Let’s take for example the kind of bragging rights the current THES-QS rankings may generate between U.P. and Ateneo. The University of the Philippines is considered the premier institution of higher learning in the Philippines, and has educated some of the country's most popular political and social leaders, economists, scientists, lawyers, medical doctors, engineers, creative artists, educators, and entrepreneurs.

On the issue of reputation alone, any U.P. graduate can make the argument that U.P. has the significant edge since it has produced more presidents of the Republic, more chief justices of the Supreme Court, more members of Congress, 36 out of the 57 National Artists, and 30 out of the 31 National Scientists. U.P.’s historical tradition of excellence is a strong asset in evaluating its current reputation.

But a university does not live on past reputation alone. One has to consider its current performance. Thus, when Antonio Meloto’s fame and reputation soared on account of Gawad Kalinga’s success, it also uplifted Ateneo’s status. When Filipino leaders are being measured based on Meloto’s selflessness, sincerity and compassion for the needy, no current leader has emerged from U.P. who can equal Meloto’s reputation. And if Ateneo keeps on producing more Melotos from its ranks of graduates, U.P.’s historical tradition of excellence is in jeopardy. This probably could explain the slip in U.P.’s ranking among the world’s best.

There is nothing wrong in pushing our universities to excel. We need to enhance the best in order to achieve the highest quality in science, engineering, law, public administration, medicine and the arts. But this should not be done at the expense of social equality, by creaming off only the outstanding minds and devoting the best intellectual training possible to the brightest of our children.

The educational system must have an obligation to those left behind, to children who do not qualify to go through the rigorous discipline of higher education. Excellence should not be the only goal of a meritocratic system of education.

In reality, merit is not enough; money and influence have become additional requirements to gain entry in the best schools, as money and influence are likewise the most common determinants of social advancement in our present-day society. Our current education system has become a tool for the rich and well connected, which U.P. and Ateneo, quite sadly, both produce in more numbers than ever.

While Ateneo has always been a school for the elite, those who have money and influence, U.P. today is almost like Ateneo, except that it is still publicly funded being a state university. The U.P. College Admissions Test (UPCAT), considered the most competitive college entrance examination in the country, also diminishes the chances of children educated in public schools to qualify.

Considering the state of funding for public schools in the Philippines today, with their meagre resources and very low salaries for teachers, it is not surprising that they are producing less and less students who can compete with those trained in private institutions. This discrepancy between public and private education is no more apparent than in the results of the entrance examinations of these universities. Those trained in private schools find it easier to gain entry to U.P. or Ateneo, while more than majority of the school population has to be satisfied with the alternative of mediocrity.

These findings make it more clear why the pursuit of excellence in education has to start early, from the time a child is ready to start reading, writing and solving problems. In China, children start learning at an early age, with special schools for the brightest children. The French system of superior universities, hautes ecoles, subjects students to rigorous and competitive entrance examinations, thus children’s intellectual training also starts early.

Every society needs to pursue excellence in education not in terms of reducing its people and their achievements to a common measurement, but in raising them as close as possible to an ideal level. The goal of education must be to uplift the human potential of the general masses, prepare them for work and for a better life, and at the same time, raise the intellectual promise of the gifted to realize their full potential.

Before any of these goals could be addressed, however, both public and private sectors must first establish the groundwork for an education system that grants access to learning to everyone, not on a favoured few.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Road to redemption

Last June 16, 2008, I wrote in this blog about two Filipino women on the verge of deportation after coming to Canada to work as live-in caregivers. When they applied for permanent resident status after completing two years of their work contract, they were both refused.

The first woman, Juana, was denied her application for permanent residence when she was diagnosed with colon cancer that has already metastasized in her body. She was considered a burden on Canada’s social services and health programs. A couple who was deeply touched by Juana’s plight started a petition on the Internet requesting the government of Canada to open its heart and grant Juana’s dying wish to gain resident status. The petition caught fire with thousands signing up. Ultimately, the Canadian government gave in and allowed Juana and her husband to stay as permanent residents.

The other woman, Mylah, received an exclusion order, which in common parlance is a deportation order. An immigration officer found that she had contravened Canada’s immigration laws by continuing to remain in the country after her work permit expired and her application for permanent residence was refused. The immigration officer did not consider her special circumstances which were brought about by a simple mistake when she submitted a wrong application, a mistake that could have been corrected at the very first opportunity by the immigration officer who reviewed her applications.

I brought an application for judicial review before the Federal Court of Canada on behalf of Mylah, and the judge hearing the application last October 8, 2008, made an order in her favour, setting aside the exclusion order and remanding Mylah’s case to a new re-determination hearing so an immigration officer can consider if there were special circumstances that would justify not to issue a removal order.

Two recent cases I was personally involved in, both pro bono, as part of my efforts for redemption from the error of my ways. Back in 1998, and out of character, I committed an egregious blunder that wrought havoc to me professionally. Constantly troubled by that past incident, I decided not to continue with my law practice. My mind was not into it anymore. Instead, I have chosen to offer my time and services for free, helping people in need of legal assistance to the fullest extent possible and within the bounds of the law. I have since joined the Parish Social Ministry of Our Lady of Lourdes in Toronto where I volunteer every Friday afternoon helping and counselling people applying for refugee protection as well as new immigrants needing assistance in resettlement and reunification with their families.

Rising up again from a devastating fall from grace and restoring one’s spirit is not an easy task in a society that looks down on people who go astray. Oftentimes, one’s persecution seems like the yoke of a life sentence, with the road to redemption becoming longer and narrower each passing day. People seem unable to forgive easily. Your detractors do not tire in resurrecting your past, and your list of critics and enemies gets longer while your friends slowly distance themselves.

How I wish it were a mere religious sin. Perhaps through repentance and acceptance of my sins, God would have loved me back and that would have taken the burden of guilt off my back. Because we all believe in a loving God, it makes it less painful to own up to one’s sins. There is always the hope that God in His goodness will offer redemption and reconciliation.

In the real world, however, reconciliation does not come easy. If it were only up to God, then everything in this world would have been a piece of cake. Mortals as we are, we human beings are far less forgiving; we keep memories etched in permanence. Despite one’s efforts to repay the cost of the damage and rebuild one’s integrity, some people will always be tempted to continue casting stones. While some may be ready to forgive, there will always be others who would refuse to forget. This is a challenge I try to face each day as I go about my tasks humbly, knowing that the road to redemption is not planted with roses.

Therefore, in the black holes of my personal universe, I strive to shine, hoping my star will sparkle again as I reach out to others to find our common human ground, or at least the ability to work and live together. Every morning, I continue to rise up welcoming the new day with the fervent hope that even though the forgiveness I seek will never change the past, that it has enlarged the future.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Giving thanks

Like Americans and Canadians, immigrants to North America have all embraced Thanksgiving Day as a yearly traditional holiday where families gather over a sumptuous meal, often featuring turkey with all its trappings: stuffed or mashed potatoes with gravy, cranberry sauce, corn and pumpkin pie.

We were told that Thanksgiving Day is a form of harvest festival. Over the years, it has been celebrated more as a secular holiday although its original purpose was to show gratitude to the Creator for a bountiful harvest.

Growing up in the Philippines, we were taught in U.S. history class about the pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts, celebrating thanksgiving with Native American Indians after their first harvest in 1621. But as far as I could remember, we never had a similar traditional holiday although we have learned to say grace before meals and to be grateful for the blessings we have received. The Christmas holiday season and the New Year are traditionally times when we take stock of the things we have received and to give thanks to God, which is understandable since most tables in Filipino homes are full during the Christmas season, thus lending to the spirit of thanksgiving.

Giving thanks is a response to a blessing that has been received. It can be expressed in a simple gesture like a smile or bowing one’s head. It’s really no big deal because we say “thank you” almost every day more than once. It’s like saying “sorry,” it is so common that nobody really makes a big fuss about it.

But as a collective traditional national holiday, sometimes thanksgiving breeds hypocrisy. Who are being thankful, and for what? In the first place, you must have received a windfall, or you are really well-off to be thankful nowadays, if you wish to join those who celebrate thanksgiving annually. Otherwise, if you survive on a measly pay cheque and worry about how to bridge your household expenses to the next month, thanksgiving could be a constant painful reminder of how difficult living has become. Perhaps, even affluent families are now worrying more about their losses because of the U.S. financial crisis that is spreading like wildfire across the globe. Thus, the coming of Thanksgiving Day could be as equally distressing.

The reality is thanksgiving is for the most part only for the rich. For poor families, the starving children, the terminally sick, and the workers who have lost their jobs because of plant shutdowns, this is not the time to celebrate and be thankful. To join the thanking bandwagon is like being in self-denial, when pretense becomes a natural subterfuge for suffering. Being poor is uncool, so act rich and show the world how grateful you are.

Sometimes it is easier to live in make-believe. It has become more unbearable and demanding to continue to wallow in crisis. Take the case of the U.S. government. It has an almost ten trillion dollar-deficit, yet it acts as if it has plenty of dough to dole out to investment banks caught in the financial squeeze. So, it was easy to cough up more than $700 billion to Wall Street. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are draining the U.S. economy of more than 10 billion dollars per month, yet the military commanders continue to think that the U.S. army is invincible and it can continue to wage wars. More and more people in America are losing their jobs and homes, yet everything is more than perfect in Hollywood and in the films it produces. Reality has become a virtual fantasy.

If we want thanksgiving to be a meaningful celebration, perhaps we should also set aside a national day for grieving, not like the Lenten season or Yom Kippur or Ramadan for these are holy days prescribed by religion. We need a separate day to declare our collective grief over what’s happening to planet earth, or the unjust consequences of war, or how we have forgotten our oneness with humanity that we let so many go hungry or die from AIDS. For every blessing we are thankful for, we should also put aside time to grieve over every misfortune that falls on us. It’s an equalizing process; in the end, everything evens out.

The anthropologist Oscar Lewis first suggested the concept of a culture of poverty in his book Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. He followed up this book with an investigation of the urban poor in San Juan and New York that exposed sad tales of misery, brutality and cheapness of life. In his book, La Vida, Lewis asked, “What is the future of the culture of poverty?” He mentioned the efforts of planners and social workers in the United Sates to deal with hardcore poverty and the attempts to raise the level of living of these so-called families and to incorporate them into the middle class. That was in the early 1960s, yet the same problem still haunts the U.S. as it wrestles with its most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression.

In the underdeveloped countries, where great masses of people live in poverty, Lewis said that the U.S. social-work solution is not feasible. Because of the magnitude of the problem, the people with a culture of poverty in these countries may seek a more revolutionary solution: by creating basic structural changes in society, by redistributing wealth, by organizing the poor and giving them a sense of belonging, of power and leadership.

There is this enduring great divide between the developed industrialized countries and the rest of the world which is engulfed in a culture of poverty. The citizens of North America cannot just ignore the plight of these people and those suffering in their midst, and continue to celebrate their annual Thanksgiving Day as if the world were a bountiful paradise.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The absence of imagination

Filipinos today can be considered as the new diaspora. They are almost everywhere.

A writer for the Arab News once described Saudi Arabia’s dependence on Filipino workers and reflected that should they choose to leave, Arabs could “die a slow death.”

Outside the Philippines, Saudi Arabia employs the largest number of Filipino workers – about 1,019,577 strong. Filipinos also make up around 20 per cent of the world’s seafarers, and 23 per cent of the world’s total number of nurses. More than 9,000 nurses graduate from accredited nursing colleges and institutes in the Philippines and many of them work abroad in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Singapore.

It is estimated that there are 7.4 million Filipinos working overseas, with 1.5 million in the Middle East and 2 million in the United States. Workers send home more than 6 billion U.S. dollars annually, exactly the amount of money that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California is asking the U.S. federal government for bailout to keep the state’s cash-strapped government afloat. This money is also what gives life to the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, without which the Philippine economy cannot survive.

Much has been said and written about the Philippine diaspora. A great number of Filipinos have settled in the U.S., Canada and Australia, The United Kingdom is also becoming another country of choice for Filipino immigrants. All these countries appear to be the best destinations for Filipinos abroad, where English is the dominant language.

Filipinos in the United States have long established themselves as an economic and political community. Second- and third-generation Filipinos and children from intermarriage between Filipinos and Americans have integrated deeply into the American social fabric. They have done well in the fields of education, arts and literature, medicine and sciences, and in the public service either as elected officials or professional civil servants.

We have not achieved that kind and quality of integration in Canadian society like our Filipino-American cousins. Partly because we are recent newcomers in Canada; the first wave of immigration started in the early 1970s. Perhaps, this is also due to the quality of our immigrants, the best among us either stayed home or left for the United States. There are a few who are well-educated and intellectually equipped to take the leadership in promoting our national group but they seemed to have been outnumbered and out-led by the more aggressive and fame-seeking ones in our community.

Either we have accepted our lower status in the larger Canadian society by default or allowed the thirst for power, prestige and fame of those who are able to manipulate and exploit the weaknesses of the Filipino psyche to dominate our aspiration for a better and loftier place in our culturally diverse community.

Just take a survey of the leadership and the purposes of organizations in our community and it would not be surprising to find that these are determined by their local origin in the Philippines and the insatiable drive to satisfy our penchant for beauty contests, parades, annual dance galas, singing competitions, and for Hawaiian hula which is not even part of our cultural heritage. Filipinos in Toronto love to showcase our cultural heritage without understanding its historical and social significance, as if audience reaction were the only important metre and not the meaning or relevance of the performance.

Let’s take the University of the Philippines Alumni Association (UPAA) in Toronto, for instance. Founded a hundred years ago, the University of the Philippines (UP) is the country’s premier educational institution. It has produced most of the country’s national leaders after the American occupation. Thus, it is only natural to have very high expectations of UP graduates.

Thirty years ago, UPAA started with a bang with Halinhinan, an evening of Philippine dance, music and fashion. At that time, it was a very big cultural event. No Filipino group in Toronto had yet brought to town cultural fare of this magnitude. That was before Harbourfront became synonymous with Filipino festivals. The next year came Walang Sugat, a zarzuela by Severino Reyes, whose staging made Filipinos in Toronto proud of their heritage. Then the cherubic voices of the U.P. Mixed Chorus regaled the town. During the dying years of the Marcos dictatorship, some UPAA Toronto members joined the swelling protest movement in North America. When our young children fell prey to insidious discrimination and harassment at the Scarborough Town Centre, some of our members were in the vanguard of the boycott of the shopping mall and the protest against racism.

Today, UPAA Toronto is hardly a shade of what it was. The organization seems to have hibernated to the safety of a monthly coffee klatch and the annual ball, impervious to the social justice and labour issues that other organizations have taken a lead. Although it has grown in membership, its agenda seems to have thinned down to participating in the inter-alumni summer sports fest or the occasional fundraiser. In short, it has opted to shy away from the road less travelled, and of late has shown signs of succumbing to AOI, i.e., the absence of imagination.

Why is imagination so important?

Albert Einstein once said "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand while imagination embraces the entire world and all there ever will be to know and understand."

Imagination makes it possible for us to experience a whole world inside the mind. A developed and strong imagination does not make one a daydreamer or impractical. On the contrary, it strengthens our creative abilities, and it is a great tool for recreating and remodelling our world and life.

Why is there this absence of imagination?

Well, human beings are like most objects: we choose the path of least resistance. It takes less energy to watch television than to read a book. Sometimes the unimaginative can become dangerous; the unimaginative may also become a deadweight.

What to do? Let us all harness our imagination to the fullest, not be bogged down by the easiest and simplest tasks, but to be challenged to do things beyond our capabilities, to reach for the infinite, for our imagination is limitless.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The passing scene

Today, October 1, I ran out of ideas to write.

Not that there is nothing interesting happening around town worth commenting about. News of the U.S. financial crisis and the rejection by Congress of the $700 billion bailout by the Bush government has been on television and radio since Monday at about 2:00 p.m., and CNN continues to air opinions from economists, politicians and the spin-makers from both major American political parties nonstop, explaining to the public who’s to blame for the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass the rescue package that aims to stop the bleeding in the stock market.

There are more well-informed blogs on this subject, and I would encourage my readers to go to these blogs instead, but if they are still interested in what I usually spew out on this site, then bear and stick with me as I comb through some not-so-important matters in the life of my own community in Toronto.

Someone from my alumni chat group recently raised his concern about a proposed bill in Philippine Congress that seeks to tighten the existing law on obscenity and pornography in the Philippines. He was particularly worried that the proposed law might lead to possible censorship of art that explores nudity. He thought of the Oblation, a statue of an almost completely naked man with arms stretched to the skies in front of the administration building of the University of the Philippines, a figure which becomes visible as one enters the university grounds.

As a young freshman, I thought the statue was just a welcome sign but it really meant more than that. This fellow alumnus fears that an art book of nude studies by well-known artists, a book launched during the school’s centennial celebration, would be censored under this law. How horrible it would be if the proposed law would declare the Oblation and the art book obscene, and therefore banned, he mused.

If he were a lawyer, he would have understood that the proposed law was not meant for censorship. But he is an artist, therefore his concern is valid because censorship has a genuine chilling effect on any artist.

Before sharing his indignation, he and his group of Filipino artists had a sketching session during our alumni association's monthly breakfast social gathering. A model was invited, perhaps hired is the better term, to pose while interested onlookers watched the artists sketch. It was set up like a performance art show similar to a spoken word artist or poet reading before an audience. After they finished sketching, the artists displayed their works and some of the sketches were either sold or bought.

This sudden interest in nudity as an art form from a group of people, with the exception of a few, who have not shown any proclivity towards the arts in the past is somewhat very disturbing, if a bit unsettling. If the organizers of the breakfast meeting were simply motivated in raising attendance or perking the enthusiasm of those who regularly attend, then that is fine and well-intentioned, even if a nude sketching session might have turned some people into accidental voyeurs. And if this interest in nudity is reinforced by making it a regular feature of future breakfast meetings, then voyeurism masquerading as art appreciation has indeed been aroused to a greater extent particularly among the older men.

Nude sketching is common to artists, particularly those who are just starting or are novice artists. But art appreciation is something else, and one does not need to be exposed to nudes or to watch artists draw nude models to really value or understand what good art is.

The most practical way is to see the works of the masters through books or the Internet or by visiting museums. I have visited many art museums, among them the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, the art museums in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Philadelphia and San Francisco, as well as our art museums in Toronto, but I have yet to see a significant number of nude paintings on display. Because artists, when they become really good in their art, would usually set aside their nude studies and sketches (part of their preparation as artists is to study the forms and shapes of the human body) to tackle the real world: draw from their life experiences, or their impressions about landscapes, or inanimate or still life objects, or social issues.

Picasso’s nudes were mostly sketched during his Blue Period, in the early part of his career as a painter.

The Coit Tower in San Francisco, for instance, is a virtual art display of the Depression Years in the United States, featuring in detail of how life during those years had been difficult for everyone. (Mural at Coit Tower, San Francisco. Photo by Alitaptap.)

The same could be said of the San Francisco Institute of Art: no nude paintings or photographs, but works interpreting man’s struggle to live (as in Diego Rivera’s mural of industrial workers) or of the joy and beauty of life.

Nudity in art is well and good, but there are other more serious and socially relevant subjects in the works of artists that can pique our interest. If our aim is more than mere appreciation, but to promote the work of our own artists, then let us do so.

We can start with our young Filipino artists, who at this time in their lives, are struggling to establish their identity in an adopted and foreign society like Toronto, and at the same time searching for their heritage, of who their ancestors are and what it is like to be a Filipino. These are the artists we must encourage and invest on for they are the ones who have the potential to leave a lasting legacy in the art world, not only in our own community, but beyond our national group.

If you don’t have the time to visit the yearly art exhibitions in Nathan Phillips Square, the Riverdale Farm in Cabbagetown or other public art displays and scour the various paintings, sculptures and photographs to find one or two Filipino artists represented, you may visit Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts and Culture, 167 Augusta Avenue, home of young Filipino artists in Kensington market downtown Toronto. Or you may simply check their website at