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Our damaged culture

In 1987, American journalist James Fallows won an award for writing a long piece in the Atlantic Monthly about the Philippines, where he had spent six weeks as an investigative reporter after the EDSA Revolution. He concluded that our main problem was the lack of nationalism, which would deter progress for our country. He correctly predicted that Korea and our neighbors Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia would do better because of a sense of nationalism. Perhaps he is right in many ways.

Certainly, South Korea, which had been our peer in terms of economic development when Marcos came into power, has more than quadrupled its economy compared to ours today. And Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia, which were behind us in economic development at the time, have out-performed our country in many ways. The corrupt Marcos regime, notwithstanding its authoritarianism was clearly a failure. The aftermath of political and media corruption and weakening of institutions of democracy have continued to this day and clearly is at its worst in our history.

Our young students rank at the bottom among 79 countries in an international reading, mathematics and science exam given to 15-year-olds among participating countries. We were 79th in reading and 78th in mathematics and sciences. Perhaps the test designs were culture bound and that may have affected our performance. But there were 78 other countries in the samples.

Why are we being such sad sacks?

If we go by what Socrates and Plato asserted in their day, that to gain wisdom, we need to know ourselves, it seems to me that is part of the problem. We do not know ourselves.

When we were “discovered” by the Spaniards in the 16th century, we were really a group of islands in an archipelago. The colonists, for better administration and control, in coordination with Catholic missionaries, mobilized populations into towns “bajo de la campana” (under the church bells) where municipal halls, markets, and schools were set up. That is how we began to become a country.

The Americans, who were new at colonialism, tried to turn us into brown Americans. We had to speak English in school, and set aside tribal arts and crafts such as weaving, basketry, and pottery in favor of “modern,” Western-oriented and branded products. We even copied their government structures, and political systems. It should be clear by now that these structures and systems no longer work for us. We are really kind and nice people. Why do we choose rascals and thieves, and even their progeny to run our country? Clearly, we do not think or analyze. We merely express our admiration for celebrities, famous or notorious. And politicians pander to this.

If we come right down to it, who are we, and what are we really good at?

I have recently discovered on YouTube videos featuring Filipino songs sung by non-Filipino choirs in Germany, Switzerland, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, and Texas. Some of the choirs won first place in international contests because the songs they sang (“Rosas Pandan,” “Paro-parong Bukid,” “Leron-leron Sinta,” “Bayan,” and “Anak”) were so melodious, and lent themselves so well to imaginative renditions. Some of our nurses working in other countries have received awards for their outstanding dedication and commitment to their patients, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tourists rave about the friendliness and hospitality of our people. We have recently been rediscovering our tribal arts and crafts and beginning to patronize our own attractive fabric designs.

If we go by psychological theories of left and right brain tendencies, it seems to me that we are generally more right-brained than left-brained. “Left brain” refers to tendencies toward logic, methodical analysis, and linear thinking. Better at reading, writing, computations, mathematics, thinking in words, and attention to facts. “Right brain” refers to tendencies toward intuition, holistic thinking, imagination, creativity, rhythm, feelings, non-verbal cues. It is therefore not surprising that we do so poorly in these international exams which measure “left brain” skills. These “right brain” tendencies are probably what make us effective in people-oriented services.

If we are to go by what we are good at, what can we do to turn our right brain tendencies to our advantage in improving life for our people? Certainly we should raise consciousness among our people and the rest of the world about our talents in music, arts, and crafts, and reinvigorate our now confused appreciation for beauty. International beauty contests where contestants wear bathing suits should not be our standard for measuring our own good looks. Tourism has been good for our economy and its employment generation potential has been proven at the community levels. Pride of place and own culture will help enhance our people’s sense of self and help direct their energies into positive accomplishments. Constructive tribalism, instead of being a divider, should become an enricher of our sense of nationhood. We can be awakened Cebuanos, Tagalogs, Bicolanos, Ilocanos, Kalingas, Pampangos, Pangasinenses, Warays, Boholanos, Maguindanaos, Maranaos, Tausugs, Higaonon, T’boli, etc. while being Filipinos.

Meanwhile, our educators can look at how they can contribute to how their communities can get to know and enhance their own cultures, by documenting and promoting their music, arts and crafts to their own people, and to the rest of the country. Their students and teachers can lead the effort at documentation and promotion of these indigenous arts and crafts. At the same time, educators can enhance left brain skills at reading and analysis in order for their students to become competent at relating to the rest of the country and the world. But they should not forget who and what they are. Sharper thinking and analyzing skills should enable our voters to see through the nonsense peddled by our exploitative politicians.

The nation will become stronger as its members are awakened to who they are; and become better able to build on their own talents and skills. Community leaders should support the effort. We need to build our nation at community levels. We have barangays that can help respond to this need.

Small is beautiful, and in our context, often more effective. Let our communities sing our songs, and patronize, produce, enjoy and take pride in our varied and multicultural arts and crafts. This, to me, is what our nationalism should be about.


Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and Fellow of the Development Academy of the Philippines.

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