The Long View: Learning abroad

Learning abroad

First posted 01:33:14 (Mla time) November 11, 2004
Manuel L. Quezon III

Inquirer News Service

IF we have an emerging middle class, one different from the old middle class because it represents a nearly clean break with the middle-class culture of the past, what will happen? A new nation will arise.

Education in the past aimed to mold people. Not just practical knowledge was transmitted by teachers, but the idea that culture mattered was instilled as well. This was fortified, in a sense, by the expectations of parents that manners would be learned and enforced in school. The old middle class could claim that besides learning a trade, imbibing a culture was worth it as well, because having a career and acting in a certain way got you ahead in life. Teaching, engineering, law, and accounting are all professions, but they were held in respect because they were perceived to represent certain virtues: responsibility, dignity, an appreciation of the finer things in life.

But teaching a way of living, and not just making a living, takes time and attention. When the system to transmit these things is overwhelmed, only a superficial passing on of both knowledge and how to live can take place. We often forget there are many cultured Filipinos, many wise and talented people among our countrymen, but their efforts, and more importantly, their ability to influence others in a positive manner, have become increasingly limited by the sheer number of people we have.

A Japanese officer once said of Manuel Roxas, “Only one Roxas in one country in one century!” By which he meant, of course, that not only was Roxas a splendid person, but a rare one not often produced anywhere at anytime. The same cannot be said of the talent in our country. We are, I think, remarkable in the way we keep producing talented people. In fact, the problem is, we keep producing so many talented people that not only are they unable to maximize their talents at home but they may also be unable to practice their talents, period.

We have a gift for song and gab. So we export musicians and singers by the thousands, but they are condemned by the need to make a living to practice their arts superficially. We now send our most eloquent and charming graduates to work in call centers although most likely they have gone to school to learn a difficult profession. We have architects with an inherent sense of style that stuns architects abroad, so they are hired to work in local Autocad sweatshops, doing plans for foreign firms that look down upon their own architects because they lack the instinctive Filipino flair for nice designs.

And of course, so many of us are already abroad or dying to get there. When we do get there, chances are we do well. As I pointed out in my previous column, these are the people, liberated from the dead-end confines of our overpopulated society, that are building a new Filipino middle class.

They are doing so without having learned the middle-class culture at home, but every day of their lives overseas they are exposed to it. They will eventually learn it. And it is this that, to me, offers the prospect of genuine change in the future. It will not be the kind of Socialist change many of our older thinkers and activists obsess about, but it will be change nonetheless.

To be sure, it is debatable what forms this new middle-class culture will take. Whatever they learn abroad, Filipinos who try their luck abroad suffer from a sense (conscious or subconscious) that when it comes to dealing with fellow Filipinos, nice guys finish last. It is wrong to think that our national problems arise only from having selfish petty tyrants in government. We have petty tyrants everywhere, from teachers to professors embittered by mediocrity or unfulfilled revolutionary fantasies, to ROTC officers, middle and upper level managers, lawyers, judges, bureaucrats, etc. The only way to get ahead is to cheat, bribe, and bluff, and while we may all have a healthy respect and even affection for those who buck the trend of mediocrity, we view them as hopelessly impractical, even irrelevant.

When your teacher is bored or unconcerned, your priest out of touch with your fellow parishioner’s lives, your professor more interested in ranting, your lawyer only a conduit for placing bribes, your cop an extortionist, your local and national officials thieves, your countrymen less interested in righting wrongs and more concerned with getting a share of the loot, and your response is to leave the country-who can blame you? Then the better you do abroad, the lower your opinion becomes of your countrymen.Things will change when the OFW, or the doctor or dentist who has become a nurse, gets sick of sending money home to parasitic relatives, and sees their children begin to show signs of being made unproductive imbeciles by the school system. When the hard-earned gains of working abroad (a house, a lot, a motorcycle or a car) are placed in danger because of the endless appetite of officials to raise taxes, extort fees and not deliver on basic services so the folks at home get sick or can’t keep in touch (much less be easily visited during vacations), exasperation with the system takes on a real urgency. You work hard, and yet government rewards those who won’t work hard with public land (whether this is a fair characterization or not), it keeps trying to milk you for all sorts of licenses, it can’t teach your kids and your country starts to embarrass you-then you realize your country counts, and you have to do something about it.

This was precisely the sort of realization that fostered democracy in the 1950s and resulted in the EDSA People Power revolt in the 1980s. Those were the achievements of the old middle class. The achievements of the new one may still be a decade or two away. If our current society has nothing left to teach, societies abroad do. Particularly the ones with durable middle classes.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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