Penman No. 222: An Education for the Well-Rounded Filipino

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Penman for Monday, October 24, 2016

 

IN A few weeks’ time, several hundred professors at the University of the Philippines’ Diliman campus will gather together for an important vote on UP Diliman’s General Education program—long seen to be the hallmark of a UP education. It’s important because what happens there will determine, to a great extent, what “tatak UP” will mean for the next generation or two, and what being “the national university,” as its charter defines it, entails as far as the quality and the breadth of its offerings are concerned.

The raging battle seems to be over how many units (or class-hours a week) to allot to General Education subjects, which have traditionally covered basic and compulsory courses in such areas as language (English and Filipino), history, math, science, and philosophy.

There’s a menu of options on the table, ranging from a formidable 45 units to a scant 21, and an emerging compromise of 30-36 units in between; the mix of courses in these totals is also under negotiation. Those who want more want to ensure that every UP undergraduate—whether he or she plans to become a lawyer, an engineer, a surgeon, or a painter—can talk intelligently as a well-rounded citizen about the Katipunan and mitosis and perspective and Sophocles and interstellar travel. Those who prefer less want students to graduate from their programs sooner, for UP to remain competitive with other schools, and suggest that students can imbibe some GE skills both from their K-12 add-ons and from their higher-level classes.

I don’t mind saying that I put myself squarely on the 30+ side. We can’t keep complaining that young Filipinos can’t write or speak in proper sentences or don’t know who Apolinario Mabini was—without doing enough to fix the problem, given the chance. Sure, some of these learning points can be addressed in senior high; but subjects like History, English, and Philosophy will still be different when taught in UP’s staunchly secular context and pitched as adult concerns.

But never mind me—let’s give a listen to one of our most accomplished writers, the Leyte-born but now New York-based Gina Apostol, whose novels have won the 2013 PEN America/Open Book Award and National Book Awards in the Philippines. Some time ago, Gina wrote UP Diliman Chancellor Michael Tan to plead for the strengthening of UP’s GE program, and I got her permission to quote from that letter here:

I am writing as a graduate of the UP English department, 1980-1984, a former teacher at the department, and as a novelist whose work has been indelibly shaped by my education at UP—in particular, by its General Education program, to which I look back daily in my own work as a teacher and a writer.

My three published novels owe their genesis to that program. My current novel, William McKinley’s World, about the Philippine American War, began in a PI 101 class in a classroom at Palma Hall Annex, where my professor taught me about a war I never knew about.

In those first two years at UP, I learned to think. The General Education program made me into a writer. I went to a private high school in Leyte that certainly taught me well (arguably just as rounded as the current K-12 program); but I needed the General Education program at UP to make me whole—a critical consumer, a nationalist thinker, a global reader, and finally, it gave me ground to think honestly and seriously about what education means, it gave breadth of thought to allow me to become who I am—a novelist whose work is absolutely grounded in the questions that UP had asked of me in my first two years at the school.

It is my misfortune (though some call it luck) that I have ended up teaching in the States, living among an extremely lucky group of students: the wealthy enclave of Manhattan’s private schools. But every day, teaching my very privileged, very wealthy students who can enroll in any school they want, I can compare what they have to my education at Diliman, and I am daily impressed by the foundational, long view of knowledge grounded in the breadth of UP’s General Education curriculum.

My experience as an educator and an artist here in America is that the education I gained at the University of the Philippines is equal to and (given the state of America) too often exceeds the quality of education abroad. This is true of my fellow alumni who come to America: we understand how well we were prepared.

I cannot underline this enough: I know that UP provided me with an incalculable, a priceless education. I am writing to state emphatically that the General Education program at UP should be enriched, not reduced.

Even today, having been to and taught at several schools considered the best of their kind in America—so acculturated and mired in the world of the privileged as I am here in America—every day, in my classroom, I still marvel at the amazing comprehensive education I got at the University of the Philippines.

Here in Manhattan, these kids are killing themselves to get into colleges with the kind of education I got at UP. My own daughter went to the University of Chicago, and I will say that I was proud (and fascinated) to know my education as a freshman and sophomore was equal to her own rigorous coursework in the General Education program of the University of Chicago, where highly able freshmen have to go through the GE program. As you know, Chicago’s program still stands as a beacon of higher education in America today.

At UP, as my daughter was at Chicago, I was required to take philosophy, maths, history, sciences, and four rigorous courses in English that made me read across cultures (the stories of Akutagawa and D.H. Lawrence, Marquez and Achebe)—to read across time (Machiavelli and Madariaga, Rizal and Homer)—and to read across disciplines. I noted that just as at the UP in my time, the University of Chicago does not stint its students—my daughter was required to do the full two years of humanities reading before she did her majors, reading Hegel and Homer as a freshman and sophomore, as I was asked to do in Diliman. In my case, much of the knowledge that has stayed with me came in one packet (Dadufalza’s primer). The way UP taught its students to think then remains an incalculable benefit, equal to the best in America.

I repeat: I learned to think at UP, and the General Education curriculum made me into a novelist. It made me into a writer who can hold her own anywhere. It distresses me to think that the university will fail even one child, one student from the provinces, like me, who arrives at the university not knowing exactly who she could be—but now without the bulwark of its tough and extended humanities curriculum to point her to the myriad possibilities that creates not only engineers but also artists, not only scientists but also philosophers. The rigorous General Education program of UP is a boon to the country.

UP should strengthen its GE curriculum, not reduce it.

Please let me know how we, alumni across the world, can help to strengthen our alma mater. We love UP, we love our education, we would love to help.

Gina Apostol, AB English 1984

 

 

Penman No. 221: Teaching the Millennials

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Penman for Monday, October 17, 2016

 

 

THERE WERE?no marching bands, greeting cards, or fireworks to mark the event, but World Teachers’ Day was celebrated last October 5. As unofficial or secular holidays like Mothers’ or Grandparents’ Day go, it’s a relatively new one, proclaimed by UNESCO in 1994 to draw attention to the key role teachers play in molding the citizens of every country. My calendar shows that I did nothing remarkable that Wednesday, my day off from teaching, so I very likely spent it on a foot-massage-movie-and-dinner date with Beng. But surely teaching would have crossed my mind, as it does every day, because we keep preparing for our next class even in our idle hours, wondering how we can make our students’ encounters with us more interesting and memorable.

I’ve been thinking about teaching a lot more lately, first because of the recent deaths of some valued mentors and colleagues. Just over the past month, our department lost two of its stalwarts—Professors Sylvia Ventura and Magelende “May” Flores. I’ve written quite a bit in this corner about Sylvia, my Shakespeare teacher, who fired up my enthusiasm for Elizabethan drama and poetry. May was an English-language specialist and textbook author, a sweet, imperturbable lady with a caring smile for everyone. (Continuing the tradition, May’s son Emil also teaches with the department and has become one of our prime experts on science fiction and creative nonfiction.)

The second reason is my own impending retirement, less than three years hence. It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than three decades since I gave up my PR job at a government agency to devote the rest of my life—as I told myself then—to studying, writing, and teaching. I never did become much of a scholar—I guess I did become the writer I wanted to be—but even this close to the end of an active career, the teacher in me is still a work in progress.

That’s because every teaching day is a new performance, even if—like it would be for a theater actor—the script may essentially be the same for courses you’ve taught for years. Every new batch of students brings with it a new mix of challenges—even, over the decades, a generational drift to adjust to. For example, a teacher can’t simply blame millennials for their lack of a historical memory, which we helped create; I try to get them interested in the past not for the past’s sake, but to show them how an appreciation of the past can help their future.

Teachers, in other words, have to keep learning about their students and their interests, so lessons remain fresh and relevant, rather than boring incantations regurgitated from ages past. We need to relate the lesson to the student’s present realities, which may seem daunting if you’re talking about, say, a 19th-century short story about the French bourgeoisie, but which can be done with a little imagination (in this case, I’d begin by talking about the Filipino middle class and its aspirations—“Where do you see yourself ten years from now?”).

But as vital as it is to connect directly with millennials, it’s just as important to remind them that there are many things in this world that may seem to have little or nothing to do with them that will still affect their lives—in other words, that we’re still motes in the grand scheme of things, and that Nature can be profoundly indifferent to our noisome plaints and woes.

That’s a harder lesson to impart, even to older students—to any person who hasn’t encountered something much larger than himself or herself, like a World War, or martial law, or a terrorist attack. In a me-centered universe, no one wants to feel disempowered, so I then have to challenge them into getting out of themselves and enlarging the sphere of personal actions they can take to improve not only their own future, but also that of their fellowmen.

Back when we ourselves were freshmen and sophomores in the early 1970s, this message came down to us in the exhortatory slogan “Serve the people!” Exactly how seemed a lot simpler to figure out back then, when a predatory dictatorship was looming over everything and everyone (a dreadful specter I thought I’d escaped forever). Today a young person’s options are far richer and more complex, with all manner of personal advocacies, NGOs, weekend CSR programs, and Facebook groups competing for one’s political attention.

But whatever the chosen means may be, the overriding need for building empathy remains, for leading young urban, middle-class Filipinos to see, to appreciate, and to grow their stake in a future that they share with the millions of others who live unlike them, many without the opportunities that they enjoy. We can’t truly be a nation—much less a Christian one—if we continue to dismiss the bullet-riddled bodies of the poor as trash because we find nothing in common with them.

A teacher’s job is to help students draw the line between two points, including and especially the most seemingly disparate ones. That includes the line between teacher and student, between student and student, and between student and society. If that’s all I’ve done these past three decades, I can retire happy.

 

 

AND NOW?for something liberative. According to the exhibit notes, “Ebarotika! (You are Erotic, Eve) follows the story of Eve who dared venture into the forbidden. Her defiant act opened knowledge’s connection with sexuality, the knowledge of one’s sexual and erotic desire. But it also resulted in shame and punishment. Thus, many of us cover and hide our sexual and erotic life. Those who are bold enough to come into the open are subjected to stigma, discrimination, and death. Sexuality and the erotic are a source of life, joy, and pleasure.?They are not objects of fear, horror, and anxiety.?They must be opened, shared, and celebrated instead of being censored, concealed, and criminalized.”

Curated by Lia Torralba, Ebarotika! features 19 Kasibulan artists: Yasmin Almonte, Lot Arboleda, Chie Cruz, Cecil de Leon Escobar, Imelda Cajipe Endaya, Anna Fer, Lorna Fernandez, Kristin Garanchon, Lorna Israel, Amihan Jumalon, Nina Libatique, Eden Ocampo, Jonabelle Operio, Fel Plata, Rebie Ramoso, Benay Reyes, Doris Rodriguez, Christine Sioco, and Lia Torralba.

It opened last Saturday, but will run until November 23 at the Sining Kamalig Art Gallery located on the Upper Ground Floor of Ali Mall in Cubao, Quezon City. See you there!

 

Penman No. 220: Viva Visayan Artists

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Penman for Monday, October 10, 2013

 

JUST LIKE?the city itself, which has undergone a refreshing makeover these past few years under the watchful eye of its chief political patron, former Senate President Franklin M. Drilon, Iloilo’s artists have been brimming with a new vitality that art lovers beyond the region have begun to appreciate.

I know that, because a few months ago, my wife Beng—herself an Ilongga artist and conservator who’d gone briefly back to Iloilo on family business—came home with the news that while in Iloilo, she had found and purchased a large painting by one of the city’s brightest young talents. The word “large” pricked my ears because it somehow sounded like “expensive” to me, but then she said she was paying for it herself, so I asked no further.

But I had to find out who the artist was, and Beng—who regularly tends to Amorsolos, Manansalas, Botongs, and Ocampos in her line of work—began gushing like a fangirl about a young painter she’d met while touring the Iloilo art scene with her old friend Rock Drilon. Rock, himself a painter of no mean stature (a recent exhibit at West Gallery displayed a penchant for organic, microbial forms), has been based in his home city for many years now, and has been a guru of sorts to younger artists there. So it was Rock who took Beng around to introduce her to his wards and their work, which was how this haunting painting of a young woman in white drapery found its way to our home in Quezon City. (It was too large to fly home with Beng and had to be professionally packed and shipped; I didn’t get to see it until months later.)
That’s when I first heard of Kat Malazarte, whose first solo exhibit Beng had seen at Casa Real de Iloilo, where Beng’s chosen work titled “Purity” (an apt choice for anyone surnamed Dalisay) had been the centerpiece. Just 20 at the time, she had already won the Vision Petron National Student Art Competition in 2015 for her video entry “Tingnan nang Malapitan, Damhin nang Malaliman” (Examine Closely, Feel Deeply). Indeed there’s a classical composure and pensiveness to Kat’s work, uncommon in artists of her age more prone to wanton kineticism. Her self-avowed themes of “purity, innocence, chastity, modesty, inner silence, contemplation, and state of nothingness” are monastic notions one might associate more closely with a nunnery (Kat’s a Fine Arts cum laude graduate of the University of San Agustin), and her subject’s luminous hands might have been rendered by a Renaissance master.

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So it was with much delight that Beng dragged me a couple of weekends ago to a three-day show at the Gallery at A Space on Legazpi Street in Makati, where a unique concept was being tried out by a pair of young and enterprising creatives, Karen Nomorosa and Prim Paypon. On show were the works of none other than Kat Malazarte and another rising Ilonggo star, the sculptor Harry Mark Gonzales. Dedicated to the theme of “The Quiet Strength of a Woman,” the show of Kat’s paintings and Harry’s sculptures proved a perfect pairing—much like the show’s instigators themselves, who both have outstanding corporate and science backgrounds (both are summas—she in CS, he in Biology) but who’ve taken on the more daunting challenge of promoting Filipino art through their startup venture, Curious Curator.

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“Curious Curator was conceptualized in order to help budding and potential artists from outside Metro Manila, especially from the Visayas and Mindanao, penetrate the mainstream art scene,” said Karen and Prim. “Keeping the welfare of the artist front and center, Curious Curator manages the financial, marketing and sales aspect of the collaboration so that the artist can focus on the creation process. Curated and conceptual art exhibitions are held in non-traditional venues to reach a wider audience. This enables the startup to promote the evolving Filipino artistry while diversifying and simplifying ways that budding art collectors can secure original but affordable art pieces.”

The two-person exhibit at A Space realized that mission. While we had already seen Kat’s work, Harry’s cold-cast marble figures, more than vaguely reminiscent of Henry Moore’s sinuous women, were another revelation. Coming from a background in IT and with a large brood of siblings to help support (he once drove a sikad around the city), this carpenter’s son put his faith in his vision and his hands, and began sculpting pieces that quickly won local collectors over. The self-taught artist won a Metrobank Art and Design Excellence Award in 2007 for a terracotta sculpture he crafted to protest an oil spill in Guimaras. “My main inspiration for these pieces is my mother,” he told me as we surveyed his pieces, whose exaggerated torsos suggested an overflowing fullness of all good things.

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It was too bad the show ran for only three days, from September 30 to October 2, but with rentals at a premium, Karen and Prim have had to be more creative in their marketing, aggressively promoting the featured artists and their work online and selling a good number of them even before the show opened.

As for myself, I got the best part of the deal when Beng generously agreed to lend me Kat’s signature work “Purity” to hang in my new office at the UP Institute of Creative Writing (after the Faculty Center fire last April, we’ve found a new home in Room 3200 of Pavilion 3 at Palma Hall in Diliman).

But there are even more exciting events on the Iloilo art calendar to look forward to, chiefly the Visayas Islands Visual Arts Exhibit and Conference (VIVA Excon) which will be held from November 17 to 21 in Iloilo City. The event will take place in four different venues: the University of the Philippines Visayas (UPV) Art Gallery for the Garbo Sa Bisaya Awardees Exhibit; the Museo Iloilo for the Romeo Tabuena Tribute Exhibition; the UPV Auditorium for Turns in Form (Curated Contemporary Art from the Visayas); and the Visayas Art Fair.

VIVA Excon will also feature lectures on contemporary art practices, talks by artists, and workshops; an art conservator named June Poticar Dalisay, aka Beng, has been invited to talk about art conservation and restoration, and I’m going to do my darnedest best, my schedule permitting, to tag along. Left to herself, Beng just might drag home another local discovery—not that I’d mind too much.

 

Penman No. 219: The Chase and the Company

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Penman for Monday, October 3, 2016

 

THERE COMES?a time in every collector’s life when he or she realizes that the road has suddenly ended—that there’s hardly anything more to be found, no further byway to be explored. It’s a sad acknowledgment but also in some ways a relief, knowing that one’s disposable income (and better yet, one’s savings) can go to more prosaic but in all likelihood more practical objects—a roof repair, or new tires for the car, or a larger fridge, all long overdue.

None of those, of course, will quite compare with the gleam of a 1786 Carolus III dos reales or an early edition of the Noli or Fili, or a 1950s Mercedes 180 (nothing too special, just one of my favorites) tucked away in an old garage. Or, in my case, a 1936 Wahl Eversharp Coronet, widely upheld to be the “acme of Art Deco pen design.” I’ve lusted after a Coronet in more than 30 years of pen collecting, even keeping a picture of it in my burned-out Faculty Center office, and maybe came close to acquiring it once. But like all “grail” pens, it remained a wisp of a dream, within tantalizing sight but always beyond one’s feeble grasp.

I knew I’d come to the end of my collecting road when the thought struck me the other day that if a Coronet were to be offered to me tomorrow for a reasonable price, I would probably smile and politely decline, preferring to keep it a pretty phantom forever. If I actually held it in my hand it might seem dull and stale, its Pyralin inserts (whimsically described as “Dubonnet red”) somehow lacking in the fire of fantasy.

Come to think of it, I’ve bought only two or three pens over the past three months—at least one of them for resale—when I used to acquire one almost every week. At its peak three or four years ago, my collection of vintage and modern pens numbered more than 300, ranging from the 1890s to the present and representing many of the best pens of every period (excepting the Coronet), by brand and model. It was a collection put together over many years of patient pursuit, of moving up from one model to the next tier, of selling five average pens to buy a first-rate one, of foregoing ampler lunches in my grad-school days in the American Midwest to be able to afford mid-range Parker Duofolds, Vacumatics, and 51s.

Some of those early buys turned out to be bargains and lifetime keepers. Back in 1987, I agonized for a week over whether to purchase an ebony Wahl Eversharp Doric from 1934—another Art-Deco icon, with a 12-sided cap and barrel and a latticed cap band—for the princely sum of $28. Thankfully beauty won over economy and I still keep the Doric, now easily ten times its purchase price.

Another classic I found at a Milwaukee antique shop in 1990 for a small fraction of its true value was a Parker Duofold Senior in Mandarin Yellow, a large fat pen from the mid-1920s, much sought after for the rarity of its color. Bought for $68, I had to resell it a year later for $380—still well below what it would fetch today—when I was living on turkey backs and trash fish on my meager stipend. And how can I forget the gorgeous 1938 Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy red which I found in Edinburgh in 1994 and based my “Penmanship” story on?

It was stories like these that kept my interest in collecting alive, almost as much as the pens themselves, the remaining 150 or so of which I can’t possibly all use and learn to love, even if I rotated them every other day. I still value my best pens as marvels of both art and engineering, which also just happen to lay exquisitely shaded lines and whorls of glorious ink on fallow paper.

I suppose the end began a couple of years ago, when I turned 60. I started selling pens from my collection—even pens I had kept for over 25 years—to allow the members of our pen club, especially our millennial newbies, the privilege of owning and writing with something their grandparents may have used. That’s also when I began using my best pens, like the Montblanc Agatha Christie, on a regular basis—a bit like driving a Rolls to the 7-11—but my reasoning was, as we UP people like to say, if not now, when? What might have been ostentation at age 35 can now only be fondness in a senior, and the silver-snake-clipped Agatha gives me sublime pleasure even in the pocket, and many times more so when I sign my name—even on office forms—with its double-broad stub nib and sepia ink.

Such, I think, are the pleasures of aging, when one turns from sheer accumulation to discernment, and to the dawning acceptance of the finitude of all things, including and especially material objects, no matter how lovely and intricate and painstakingly acquired, be they pens, cars, watches, or Persian carpets.

Whereas I used to check eBay literally a dozen times a day (employing a special search term to ferret out the most desirable vintage pens), today I hardly blink when, say, a 1928 Parker Big Red sails under my nose for less than $100—let someone enjoy the bargain, as I’ve done myself many times. It was the hunt that kept me in the game, but I’ve learned that spotting the target but letting someone else take the shot could be just as satisfying.

In what was likely my last big pen adventure, a few months ago, I found another of my “grail” pens—the much-coveted Montblanc Ernest Hemingway from 1992—being sold online for about half its usual price (if you really want to know how much these babies cost, try Google). The seller was in Malaysia—reason, perhaps, for Western buyers suspicious of anything too far East to shy away, but to me a heaven-sent circumstance.

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I closed the deal (drawing deeply on my savings, but what the heck, a Hemingway appreciates better than a time deposit) and, in a moment of inspiration, I did some quick computing and figured that it was only marginally more expensive and a lot safer to fly out to KL on a budget fare and pick up the pen personally the next day than to entrust everything to PayPal and a courier service. And that’s what I did. I always enjoy KL for whatever excuse takes me there, but I daresay no Argonaut ever crossed the South China Sea just to pick up an orphaned Hemingway and bring it home. (To be honest, it’s my second Hemingway—I use the other one, the gift of a generous friend, exclusively to grade student papers, in a bright orange ink.)

Over the next few years, I’ll be trying to bring down my remaining stash to an absolute core of about two dozen pens, which will be our daughter Demi’s inheritance from me (sorry, anak, no tracts of sugarland or bubbleback Rolexes here). They won’t necessarily be the most expensive pens—Demi can sell those off, if I don’t—but the ones most laden with story, blobbing like ink at the very top of the nib, eager to be disgorged. It’s been a privilege playing steward to these fine shapers of fine words, and I may miss the chase but not yet the company.