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It's All History by Jon Malek

José Rizal and education

for the youth of the Philippines

by Jon Malek

My friend and comrade Levy Abad asked me to give a brief reflection on a poem of José Rizal for a recent event of the Knights of Rizal. The event, called A Night of Poems, Songs and Essays Celebrating “Rizal the Artist,” was held the evening of November 19, 2016, at the Filipino Senior’s Centre in Winnipeg. It was a great evening of ideas and arts in honour of Rizal, one of the most famed heroes of the Philippines. As a historical figure, Rizal presents a number of contradictions. As Renato Constantino pointed out in his essay Veneration without Understanding, “In our case our national hero was not the leader of our Revolution.” Indeed, he openly condemned it. Regardless of these contradictions, though, José Rizal holds a commanding position in the Filipino mind. Regardless of his politics and brand of revolutionary spirit, Rizal has bequeathed a wealth of writing from which his kababayan can learn.

For this event, I decided to reflect upon Rizal’s poem, Education Gives Lustre to Motherland, which he wrote in 1876 as a youth. The poem, which can be read online at, is an eloquent extolment of the  value of education to Philippine youth. I chose this poem because, in my lectures at the University of Manitoba, I had been thinking a lot about the role of education in the era of imperial Asia. Throughout history, the fight for access to education has often been tied to anti-colonial movements. Denying access to education to a colonized people was a tool that colonists used to suppress and maintain control. Even when education was permitted, it was often limited and certainly not of the quality that could be had in Europe or North America. For this reason, many Asian revolutionary intellectuals – such as José Rizal or Sun Yat-Sen in China – did their schooling abroad.

For many of these revolutionaries, education was key to self-determination. For Rizal, education was the means to freedom. Important to Rizal, as expressed in Education Give Lustre to Motherland, education was not just about the classroom; it was more holistic, and importantly, it included having an artistic mind. In his poem, Rizal writes that from the lips of education

the waters crystalline
Gush forth without end, of divine virtue,
And prudent doctrines of her faith
The forces weak of evil subdue,
That break apart like the whitish waves
That lash upon the motionless shoreline:
And to climb the heavenly ways the people
Do learn with her noble example.

In the wretched human beings’ breast
The living flame of good she lights
The hands of criminal fierce she ties,
And fill the faithful hearts with delights,
Which seeks her secrets beneficent
And in the love for the good her breast she incites,
And it’s th’ education noble and pure
Of human life the balsam sure.

Rizal saw education not just as learning facts or practical skills, but also as an enlightenment of human strength and spirit, a realization of our potential:

And like a rock that rises with pride
In the middle of the turbulent waves
When hurricane and fierce Notus roar
She disregards their fury and raves,
That weary of the horror great
So frightened calmly off they stave;
Such is one by wise education steered
He holds the Country’s reins unconquered.

It merits emphasis that Rizal had a special place in his heart for the Philippine youth. Indeed, when he wrote Education Gives Luster to Motherland, Rizal was 15. But what education was he talking about? Certainly, Rizal spoke of education in terms of the sciences and arts; but education was not just a matter of becoming “smart” or of gaining a livelihood. Even at a young age, as a youth himself, Rizal saw that an education was key to creating a class of Filipinos that could lead the country to freedom and self-determination.

Education was thus key to knowing oneself. Shakespeare’s famous adage from Hamlet, “To thyself be true,” rings true. Rizal was part of a larger anti-colonial movement that was beginning to sweep across Asia at the turn of the 20th century as colonized peoples discovered their own selves and histories from the ashes and sediment of imperialism. This was not a re-discovery of a pre-Hispanic past. Rizal felt that there was much that could be learned from the Spanish, and Western education more generally, but also that it must be adopted and adapted by Filipinos. Around the same time, Chinese and Japanese intellectuals were coining phrases such as borrowing “Western tricks to save China from the Westerners,” reflecting the idea of taking Western learning and applying it to Asian struggles. Rizal was part of such a re-interpretation that was occurring in the Philippines about what it meant to be Filipino in the modern world.

This movement is not one that has ended, either. In my research, I have seen the Winnipeg Filipino community work to renegotiate their identity. In newspapers from the 1970s and 1980s, one can see how a Filipino heritage within Canadian society created tensions and negotiations. Were the two at odds? By no means, just as a Filipino identity was not incompatible with a “modern” education, so long as a Filipino foundation was maintained.

What I think is the lesson of Rizal to Filipino youth today, especially migrant youth, is that this education must be holistic: it must go beyond teaching math, science, social sciences, or the arts. What we all – and migrant youth especially – need to be taught is not just facts, but how to be questioning beings. L. S. Stavrianos has argued that every new generation will ask new questions of itself and society, not because the old answers were wrong, but because the new generation has new questions.

So what happens when we fail to train a group of youth to ask their own questions? Worse, what happens when we mis-educate the youth? What happens when our school and university curriculums give little space to explore the historic diversity of Canada? What happens when Filipino youth are not taught that Filipinos have been in Canada since before the 20th century, that they have integrated and contributed exceptionally to broader Canadian society? What happens when attempts to narrate a national history extols the great actions of white settlers, but neglect the other stories? It can be no surprise that youth from such groups might then be disaffected. And I think that Winnipeg’s Filipino youth group, ANAK, understands this. When the Manila to Manitoba museum exhibit was unveiled in 2009, they asked this same question. Their answer: “You ask questions.” If we – and I mean “we” collectively – fail to engrain the value of critical inquiry upon youth, then larger failings in society will go unchecked. Elders may teach and guide from experience, but the best teachers are those who teach others to question, teach one how to ask questions that are critical and relevant. And, moreover, education must mean not simply arriving at an answer: but to go further and understand why the answer is important.

Applying Rizal’s writings on education in a modern context in which migration is a reality for many, education should include a continued and intensified preservation of heritage through an emphasis on education and openness to critical enquiry. Not only will our youth then be aware of their cultural identity, which is important in fitting into larger Canadian society, but they will also be raised as global citizens capable of critical though. Furthermore, beyond knowledge of one’s heritage, this education should include the means to produce and practice one’s heritage. I think this was one of Rizal’s major projects in his writing, to emphasize that education and self-awareness was key to the Philippines’ future self-determination and freedom. And this is what it means to live in a multicultural society like Canada: not just to be encouraged with empty words, but aided in this process of heritage preservation – in this case through meaningful education.

I’d like to end with an excerpt from Rizal’s Hymn to Labour, in a section devoted to the youth of the Philippines:

Teach, us ye the laborious work
To pursue your footsteps we wish,
For tomorrow when country calls us
We may be able your task to finish.
And on seeing us the elders will say:
“Look, they’re worthy of their sires of yore!”
Incense does not honour the dead
As does a son with glory and valour.

Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and is a member of the Migration and Ethnic Relations program.

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