Educators and psychologists should not be the only ones worried about the consequences on education and everyone’s mental health of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) contagion. Historians, political scientists, economists and other social scientists, political, social and development activists, and everyone else aware of how much the state of Philippine society affects their own lives should also be concerned.
Among other issues, whether things in this country will ever be better, with poverty at least reduced and the poorest provided some measure of relief by competent and honest leaders, depends so much on the capacity of its citizens for the informed political and social engagement that education can encourage. On the children of today will fall that responsibility only a few years from now. Their failure to discharge that duty — either through indifference, malice, or ignorance — will mean that the changes so urgently needed by this country and its people will have the same chance of surviving, or of even just being proposed, as an ice cube in Hades.
Months after the Department of Education (DepEd) implemented its remote learning program, the surge in both anticipated and unexpected problems has led even some of its analysts to agree with many teachers and parents that the education of elementary school pupils and secondary level students during the current public health emergency has not been up to par. The DepEd boast that 99% of students passed only suggests that flawed as the standards of the educational system are, they were even relaxed over the past months.
The problems of connectivity in a country with the slowest and most unreliable internet connection in Southeast Asia, compounded by the floods wrought by the 2020 typhoons, are among the factors responsible. The limited mentoring capacity of some parents who, out of poverty and the need to contribute to their family’s finances by working at an early age, stopped schooling at the lower grades is another. Some teachers’ limited capacity to cope with the technological intricacies of online teaching and their demanding of their students more and more requirements than neither they nor their parents can meet; plus, difficulties in many pupils’ and even parents’ correctly understanding the printed modules and answering the questions they raise also strongly suggest that the past months have not been as beneficial to students as face-to-face classes.
Allegations that it has approved the use of badly written, factually- and grammatically-challenged, and even revisionist, blatantly ignorant textbooks that depict the Marcos dictatorship as a golden age, and hired less than competent teachers are among the criticisms that for years have been leveled at the DepEd. Because even the times of education “normalcy” have not been exemplars of excellence, the shortcomings of remote learning mean that far from arresting it, online teaching is contributing to the continuing decline of Philippine basic education in terms of its limited success in achieving the already minimalist goal of developing numeracy and literacy among the millions of future citizens and fair hopes of the Fatherland. These issues are further complicated by the legions of breadwinners losing their jobs as the economy contracts, and their resulting inability to adequately provide the food and other needs of their children. The country could be going through a period comparable to that of the late martial law era when the average Filipino protein intake was lower than that of Bangladeshis, with all that it implies in terms of brain development.
Together with the disinformation that the Marcos dictatorship spread through government media and the regulated press, and the failure of the educational system to provide the mass of Filipinos with the knowledge they need to understand the country of their birth, the low protein intake of many Filipinos during the Marcos kleptocracy was at least partly responsible for the election of incompetents and crooks in the late 1990s and onwards as the children of the martial law era came of age and became voters. The runaway corruption in government and the rebirth of despotic rule are among its ongoing consequences.
The less well-informed members of that generation are still contributing their fact-deficient opinions to discussions in the public sphere of such urgent issues as human rights violations, the culture of impunity, the extrajudicial killings attendant to the “war on drugs,” the restoration of the death penalty, and Constitutional amendments as the backdoor to extending the terms of office of incumbent officials. As if that were not bad enough, there is now the distinct possibility that elements of another equally information-challenged generation will eventually take their place in this country as adult citizens and voters who will add their own brand of cluelessness to the already rampant certitude among the misinformed and miseducated that they know better than anyone else what is best for this country and who can best lead it. They would eventually join the very same benighted Filipinos whom an international research study found in 2017 are the third least informed people on planet Earth about public issues, but who are nevertheless among the most confident about the validity of their opinions.
One of most distressing results of this anomaly is the country’s continuing penury, the decline of living standards, and the perennial threat of tyrannical rule that has once again interrupted the country’s never ending, problem-plagued, snail’s pace journey towards the democratization of its political, economic and social structures.
As disturbing as these possibilities are, the Duterte regime, through the DepEd, is preparing for the pilot testing of face-to-face classes in some 1,000 public schools with only the justification being that the country’s students have to “catch up,” presumably with the usual expectations of “reading, writing and arithmetic.” But it isn’t just its young catching up that the country needs. It is for them to surpass the conventional standards of achievement that recent Philippine history has shown are not enough to contribute to the urgent need to pull these isles and their people out of their decades-old misery.
Yes, there are such other considerations as the impact of isolation at home on the mental health of the country’s children, and their need for human-to-human, peer-to-peer contact as part of the socialization process that should drive the return to classroom teaching and learning. Surely, however, equal attention must be paid to the imperative of providing the young with the knowledge and the reasoning skills that will enable them, once they’re adults, to intelligently participate in the conduct of the affairs of this nation. This requires an emphasis on the teaching of history, the Constitution and human rights, as well as on discharging, with some sense and love of country and people, such civic responsibilities as electing the officials that will represent them.
The assumption that education at the basic level should go far beyond the conventional essentials should inform the country’s return to face-to-face classes. Because not everyone can go on to college — where it is presumed that imparting a commitment to civic responsibility and respect for the Bill of Rights are part of the curricula (but often are not) — developing among the young the capacity to make informed decisions as citizens charged with deciding the future of this country should be among the fundamentals of basic education.
The respite the pandemic threat has imposed on Philippine education should be an opportunity to rethink its goals and to devise the means of getting there. Going back to the classroom should not mean a return to business as usual.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).