The Freedom of Intelligence

Originally posted at the UP System Website, available at, October 22, 2018. 

Speech delivered at the 39th anniversary of Health Sciences Center autonomy and the 36th UP Manila Day, UP Manila, October 22, 2018.

I’m very glad to be here in UP Manila, which I consider to be UP’s historic home, the cradle of its spirit, of its ideals and traditions. In keeping with that spirit, I’ll speak today about the freedom to think, to speak, to study, and to teach—things which we in UP tend to take for granted, but shouldn’t, and I’ll tell you why.

A few weeks ago, I received a flurry of messages from the media, asking me to comment in my official capacity on allegations expressed by the police and military to the effect that the University of the Philippines, among others, was a recruiting ground for anti-government rebels. I resisted the urge to respond immediately, and said instead, carefully, that I had nothing to say because we had yet to see a copy of the report on which the military’s charges were presumably based.

I don’t know if that reached the other side, but the next day, the police came out with another statement citing the brainwashing of students by showing them anti-martial law movies, and the anti-government positions taken by some UP professors. I was glad because they had provided more specifics, which people could now evaluate for their merits. Was watching a film denouncing martial law a subversive act? Was criticizing government a crime? The outrage that followed those ridiculous propositions proved that their apprehensions about UP in 2018 were no more tenable than the charges laid against freethinkers on campus back in the 1940s.

As you can imagine—as a veteran of the First Quarter Storm and the Diliman Commune, and as someone who spent most of his 19th year in martial-law prison—I would have had a mouthful to say about those accusations. But as a doddering senior and university official, I thought that I would leave the fireworks to others and frame a more measured if more leisurely response.

For this I will draw less on the present than on the past, specifically on a yet unpublished history of UP that I helped edit about fifteen years ago, when I first became VP. This way I hope history can help inform—maybe temper, maybe inflame—the passions that drive us so singularly today. For as serious and even life-threatening as the military’s allegations may be, there is something instructive and even amusing to be found in stepping back into the past.

Let’s go back to those questions: Is UP a recruiting ground for rebels? The only sane and honest way of answering this is to say of course it is; it always was. It’s no big secret that rebellion and resistance are coded into UP’s DNA, because we have always encouraged critical thinking, which in turn encourages—at least for a while, until complacency sets in—an attitude of dissidence, of anti-authoritarianism, of rejection of the status quo. That’s how knowledge happens, that’s how it begins, as every scientist since Galileo has affirmed.

Apply that to the political sphere, and not surprisingly, UP has for the past century been a crucible of protest, against both internal and external forces seeking to influence its constituents’ thoughts and actions. Those protests and their causes have ranged from tuition fees, uniforms, and substandard facilities to unfair dismissals, Malacañang interference, foreign control of our destiny, and the overhaul of Philippine society itself.

In 1928, a law prescribed the wearing of uniforms by students in all public schools, including UP. The uniform for men was a white suit (khaki on rainy days); for women, a white blouse and dress reaching three inches below the knees. UP students opposed the measure, and President Rafael Palma supported them.

In 1933, the first student protest against a tuition fee increase, from P30 to P50 per semester, took place at the College of Education in the form of a boycott led by, among others, Fe Palma—the daughter of the President.

The resistance got more serious when it came to political interference in UP affairs. In the early ‘30s, a young law student named Arturo Tolentino drew the ire of his dean, Jorge Bocobo, when he wrote an article in the Collegian taking a position on Philippine independence that countered that of then Senate President Quezon, whom Bocobo supported. Bocobo had 900 copies of the Collegian burned. Tolentino appealed to President Palma, who supported him. Infuriated, Quezon punished Palma—and the entire University—by removing UP’s lump-sum allotment and requiring it instead to submit an itemized budget. Palma’s woes didn’t end there. When he retired after ten years of service to UP, the Quezon-packed BOR voted against giving him any kind of terminal bonus. (But when Palma died in 1939, Quezon went to his funeral and offered generous praise for his former adversary.)

Quezon was a notorious meddler in UP matters, often coming to Padre Faura from Malacañang astride a white horse. He once even attended a BOR meeting to try and settle, once and for all, the valid causes for which professors could be fired—in other words, the parameters of academic freedom. But his mind wasn’t so simply anti-academic. Appreciating how lowly paid teachers were, he moved to grant tenure to professors to secure their jobs and, yes, their academic freedom.

A young UP law student even attacked Quezon for his “frivolity,” accusing Quezon of throwing lavish parties in Malacañang while the country suffered under the Americans. The student’s name was Ferdinand Marcos. Another law student, and president of the Student Council, led a rally which was met by Quezon himself at the quadrangle. Quezon charmed them, and the protest fizzled out. That student leader was Jose B. Laurel, the son of the future President and himself the future Speaker of the House.

This didn’t stop with Quezon. When President Quirino demanded courtesy resignations from all government officials, UP President Bienvenido Gonzalez refused to tender his, to protect UP’s autonomy.

In the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism, the Congressional Committee on Anti-Filipino Activities conducted a witch-hunt for communists in UP; the committee was led by Cong. Leonardo Perez, himself a former Collegian editor. A throng of 3,000 students led by Heherson Alvarez and Reynato Puno marched to Congress in protest. But some other UP students sided with the witch-hunters. When President Garcia went to UP to inaugurate the University Theater, he was met by placards saying, “Mr. President, Why Tolerate Communism in the University?”

Diosdado Macapagal made few friends in UP when, upon assuming office in 1962, he announced that his choice for next UP President was Carlos P. Romulo, practically bypassing the Board of Regents. Macapagal got his way.

About Macapagal’s successor Marcos, I can only say that as a 17-year-old participant in the Diliman Commune, I carried but never got to throw a Molotov cocktail—but I would have if I had to, firm in the belief that the military had no right to drive their armored vehicles onto UP grounds. One night during the Commune, we snuck out of the campus in the backseat of a car driven by Prof. Alfredo V. Lagmay to publish what we called the Free Collegian. One year later, martial law was imposed, and what freedom we had would be lost for a long dark period.

I cite these instances not just to show how tenuous the relationship between UP and the Palace has always been, but also how time can make an ironic mockery of our experience.

Some of these protesters were Marxists and Communists, or were soon to be; most were not. As I have always emphasized to my audiences whenever I talk about martial law, the Left has always been in the minority, in UP and in society in general. It just happens to be well organized, loud, and influential, which accounts for the hysteria in response to its growth.

True, since the 1940s, many of the leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines (the old and the new) have come from UP, from the fascinating Lava brothers to the English major Joma Sison. But UP has also bred Presidents Laurel, Roxas, Macapagal, Marcos, and Macapagal-Arroyo. Ramon Magsaysay and Fidel Ramos both spent time in UP before moving elsewhere. We can add hundreds of senators, congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet secretaries, and icons of industry, the arts, the sciences and the professions to this list.

In other words, UP has attracted all kinds—communists and socialists, yes, but also capitalists, ultraconservative Catholics and born-again Christians, Rizalist cultists, military agents, the Ananda Marga, and Muslim separatists. Our 300,000 alumni can count saints as well as scoundrels, Jedi Masters and Sith Lords, democrats and demagogues.

And the same thing can be said of top global universities like Cambridge, which in the 1930s was home to what came to be known as the “Cambridge Five,” led by the top Soviet spy Kim Philby. Harvard’s Law School was said to be dominated by Left-leaning professors and students in the 1960s, although the Harvard Republican Club has since risen in prominence. There’s a Communist Party of Canada Club at the University of Toronto, alongside an American Culture Club and a Chinese Christian Fellowship. Even Wharton has a Marx Café, an underground club of Marxist enthusiasts.

UP’s less-famous but reputed Communists included the delightfully eccentric professor of English Ignacio Manlapaz, who sang Wagnerian operas in class, taught Marx and Hegel, and gave students a piece of chalk with the cryptic instruction: “This is the subject. Write.”

I would posit that the true heart of UP lies neither in the Right nor the Left, but in that great liberal middle—“liberal” with a small “L”—whose members value the freedom to think, to speak, to study, and to teach, subscribing neither to State propaganda nor to Party doctrine, but trusting their own reason and education to illumine the way forward.

I locate myself in this middle, coming to UP from both extremes—as a sometime public-relations man for a government ministry under martial law, which I left to march at EDSA, and also as a former member of the hardcore Left, whose bright red star has sadly dimmed in my eyes in the wake of its internal purges and more recently in its opportunistic dance with despotism.

In this broad middle, we may quarrel passionately over the distribution of units among the humanities and the sciences in our GE program, but we will link arms, almost instantly and without need of exhortation, when it comes to any form of repression, especially of our academic freedom. Do not mistake this middle for just “Yellows” or robots for certain candidates. We may have voted differently in the last election, but our principles go beyond persons and presidencies. If there is anything we will die for, it is country, family, and university—not necessarily in that order.

We badly need to refresh the tone and quality of discourse in the University, and to rescue it from the trolls and the sloganeers. We must secure and defend the University as a zone of free thought and free speech—ironically, no matter what they may espouse, and no matter how obnoxious—employing reason to distinguish truth from lies, and right from wrong. We must resist intolerance, wherever it comes from, mindful that Left and Right can be as intolerant as the other—toward each other and to anyone in between.

Indeed, these days, I have often had a problem distinguishing between Left and Right. Historically, the Left itself has always been a rich recruiting ground for the Right—the disaffected, the corruptible, the cynical. Nothing makes a better reactionary than a former rebel.

Some people I once respected and admired, even idolized, for their courage and commitment in fighting the dictatorship half a century ago are now among the most ardent and artful defenders of strongman rule, deploying their ample talents in the service of falsehood. Former comrades who once barked loudly against the Marcoses and were even imprisoned by them have now become their lapdogs, their apologists and strategists. Jedi Masters have become Sith Lords.

Despite all that, we must believe that academic freedom also implies the freedom to disagree—a condition that could lead to occasional confrontation, but which we must learn to accept as the norm in a free and functioning university, under a regime that devalues freedom and human rights.

If we surrender discourse—say at the University Council—to these polar opposites, if we fear being criticized or shamed by them, then we surrender as well any right to complain afterwards when one extreme prevails. In our society, the freedom to speak—a right uniquely claimed by us Filipinos, which many of our Southeast Asian neighbors have yielded to their rulers—will mean little if it is not matched by the obligation to speak, to speak clearly, and to speak well.

So to our inquisitors, this I say: there has been no modern administration—whether in Malacañang or Quezon Hall—against which UP students have not marched when they felt they needed to. Your charges will only revive and strengthen a proud tradition of resistance now more than a century old. And I pray that we will continue to breed students who will not only be outstanding performers and citizens but also Filipinos of conscience who will march again for good and right when the country calls. Learning to lead requires critical thinking; learning to follow demands nothing more than blind conformity.

UP has survived both Marcos and the benign Prof. Manlapaz. With our community’s continuing commitment to truth, reason, and justice, we will survive this season of intolerance, and secure the freedom of our children’s minds.

Let me end with what the Philippine Collegian, in its editorial of April 14, 1962, said about outgoing President Vicente Sinco—a man whom future President Francisco Nemenzo Jr. and the Collegian itself had earlier scored for his high-handed manner, but who was also a visionary who fathered what came to be known as the General Education or GE program and who fought to maintain UP’s secular character:

“Dr. Sinco is one of the most liberal of UP presidents. He has stood for intellectual freedom, for the autonomy of the mind. During his term the university has witnessed one of the happy creative years of its existence as an institution of learning not merely among the faculty but among the students…. This particular achievement of Dr. Sinco in liberalism and protecting the freedom of intelligence from the infringements of lies, orthodoxy, and mediocrity is a challenge to anyone in the future who will occupy the office.”

May our beloved University be so guided in the years to come, and thank you all.