Let's return to liberal education

my Trade Tripper column in last weekend's issue of BusinessWorld:

(An excerpt from my Keynote Address "ASEAN Integration: Forget About It," at the 19th National Convention of Philippine Association of Administrators of Student Affairs on April 30 in Bohol.)
So it is, to my mind, a great tragedy that many schools are now turning their backs on liberal education. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, the Enlightenment thinkers: their deeds are our students’ inheritance. The culture and society that we have are because of these great individuals and more.

And if the point can’t be emphasized enough, here are two Filipino sayings:

• Jose Rizal -- Ang hindi marunong tumingin sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makararating sa kinaroroonan (those who don’t look at the past will not reach the future); and

• Fr. Horacio Dela Costa -- Those who know their history are bound to surpass it.

The other good reason for a liberal education is that it teaches our students self-mastery. As Princeton’s Robert George puts it: "Self-mastery is important because it is a basic, irreducible dimension of the well-being and fulfillment of rational creatures -- and, as Aristotle taught, we human beings are just that: creatures whose nature is a rational nature. Moreover, self-mastery -- the capacity to exercise rational control over one’s emotions, passions, and desires and direct them toward good and upright ends -- is indispensable to the project of self-government. If we believe in republican democracy, as we should; if we believe in the ideal of free persons, who participate as equal citizens in the project of self-government, as we should; if we believe in the dignity and rights of the individual in a regime of ordered liberty, as we should; then we must dedicate ourselves to educating young people for self-mastery. A political regime of self-government can only be sustained among people who are capable of governing themselves. People incapable of self-mastery will quickly prove to be unfit for self-government." (underscoring supplied)

James Madison, of whom we can also thank for our Constitution, once declared: "only a well-educated people can be permanently a free people."

So by all means, let us teach our students please about what Aquinas taught about just and unjust laws, and do we obey laws even if we know they are unjust? Let us teach them about the true meaning of freedom as demonstrated by Aristotle. Let’s teach them about Cicero, about Locke, Rousseau, about Hayek. And Apolinario Mabini. Horacio Dela Costa. Expose them to Shakespeare and Maugham and Garcia-Villa, Mozart and Bach, Ingmar Bergman and Fellini and Mike De Leon.

Because if we don’t teach them about it, who will? With the institution of the family under attack, it needs all the help it can get. And woe to us if our students’ main source of intellectual stimulation is Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show or culture for them is Glee.

And let us remember the Internet: undoubtedly a great force for good. But it has also inadvertently made people accept and love mediocrity. People that normally would have no claim to fame (or notoriety) would find their faces (and complete range of poses) on the Internet. Being ill informed, unread, or without any semblance of writing skills? Doesn’t stop them from airing their views extensively on Facebook.

What effect does this instant celebrity have on our youth? Without the need to acquire the skills and patience garnered from the constant supervision by one’s superior, the burden of redoing repeatedly a piece of work until it’s properly done, without the need of researching and looking up and the verification of the credibility of sources, the constant nagging by an elder whether a work has logic and methodical train of thought, how does that affect the development of their character? When all they have to do, by way of example, is copy and paste obscure articles on the net, Google and Wiki their way through research, then publish their works for the admiration of their peers who wouldn’t know any better because they can’t be bothered anymore to seek better? What’s the point of hard work and a demanding experienced mentor if one can be an instant star on the Internet anyway?

I remember the days when you had competitors like Michael Jordan (although there’s still Kobe Bryant). Guys who listen to their coach (even when they don’t like what they’re hearing), guys who became great not because they were creative but because they repeatedly did (without complaining) the simple basic stuff over and over and over again until they got it right. And, most importantly, guys who understand that they are part of a team or institution, with a history and tradition, which are far more important than their individual sense of self, ego, or feelings.

So let us teach them about the importance of self-discipline, about values, virtue, of self-denial and patience, of learning to do the same thing over and over again. Benjamin Franklin once said: "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters."