We Are Mr. Thomas Gradgrind
By J.R. Duclayan
Copyright © 2016 J.R. Duclayan
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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It goes without saying that there is a need for educational reform in the Philippines. There are not enough teachers, there are not enough classrooms, and there are not enough books handy to help in educating the students who come from families who have not enough income to pay for their tuition.
If there are disputes about these facts, which might conceivably come from government representatives eager to prove that the past few years or so of educational reform have in fact been successful, the resulting debate will probably be quite engaging. The government representatives will have their set of statistics, and civil society will have its own set of opposing statistics. After substantial arguments and debates, eventually a kind of settlement will ensue, where terms of the improvement of future educational reforms will be agreed upon – involving such things as additional funding for the construction of x-number of classrooms and the increase of teachers’ salaries and the provision of scholarships for the poor but deserving. But since this is an exercise that that has gone on for so long, the bystanders looking on are cautious in rationing out their optimism. Optimism in the success of any kind of proposed educational reform in the Philippines has been scarce over the years that it has become nearly extinct.
In this way, the Philippines has become a kind of international conundrum. Extolling the virtues of democracy and representative government, a substantial amount of the population are reasonably well-educated, within its borders there exists a plethora of natural resources from which progressive economic development can be built upon, with a not-so-poor quality of international relations with other nations from which international trade relations can be explored, and a general reputation for hardworking and diligent citizens – by all accounts, poverty, lack of education and joblessness should have been eradicated long ago. Yet everybody knows that the Philippines is poor (except maybe for those government representatives with their supporting statistics). Most ordinary citizens have long ago stopped listening to glowing reports trying to convince them that they’re rich when they know perfectly well that they’re not. Perhaps the only ones still intent on listening to those glowing reports are those individuals eager to pounce on the reported statistics and just as eagerly jump up again to call it an outright lie.
Most ordinary citizens have lives that revolve around a certain pattern: their families save enough money to send them to school, and they go to school where they spend a number of years (if they are lucky enough not to be counted as another statistic as a school drop-out). In school, they learn enough basic subjects to enable them to look out at Philippine society from the perspective of one who recognizes that there is a pattern to which they have to conform if they want to achieve the economic self-sufficiency promised to them long ago if only they got a diploma. A cursory reading of a newspaper will reveal to them almost immediately that there is a higher chance of possible employment in their future if they will prepare themselves for jobs that have the highest demands. What these jobs are will vary from time to time and from season to season – nurses going abroad, call center agents on graveyard shifts in business outsourced companies, caregivers being shipped by the dozen to foreign countries to provide health care for the sick and elderly of those who could afford to pay them in higher currency. At any rate, have a care with your English – it will almost certainly guarantee a job placement abroad where the menial job pays a lot higher than a Philippine post where your high social standing will necessarily have to be secured by patronage politicking, and, where applicable – outright bribery and corruption.
These are the facts, as Thomas Gradgrind would say (courtesy of Charles Dickens in Hard Times). He would probably raise his squarish fingertip to his squarish forehead atop his squarish head to emphasize the point – These are the facts, and we should only concern ourselves with the facts as they present themselves to us.
For what, indeed, can we do with fanciful notions or dreams of being a writer or an artist when the facts are clear enough that you will have a high possibility of facing penury? Why should we tease ourselves unmercifully with dreams of being a successful businessman when the statistic are clear that businesses fold up nine times out of ten, most of the income going to pay exorbitant taxes? Why should we even dream about making a difference should we manage to land a government position with respectable pay – government bureaucracy and red tape never really made it easier for you when you were standing in line for days on end to get your papers in order – the most you could probably hope for is to manage to get through the queue before you before the office closes.
Why should you even dream about being an anthropologist, or a famous mathematician, or a respected literary critic, or an ornithologist, or – heaven forbid, an inventor? We know what these words are and we know their definitions (after all, our facility in the English language is near excellent that we’ve been selling this knowledge by creating job positions specifically for English tutors), but these are words we know almost exclusively on paper since there is no possible position for them in Philippine society. What will we do with a mathematician or an anthropologist anyway? That there are fossils to prove the theory of evolution, and that there are mathematical equations beautiful enough to help us arrive at cosmological evolutionary thinking – they are all mostly irrelevant. The fact is that the Philippines is wallowing in poverty and every day we need to hone our survival skills – concerned, as we are, with earning daily wage in jobs we most likely settled for.
If you dreamed of being a schoolteacher, why should you expect that the fulfillment of teaching young minds will ever surpass the financial difficulties faced by the school you work for? Since your having a roof over your head and having three square meals a day ranks higher on your list of priorities than the pleasure of imparting knowledge to students, it’s not really that much of a choice when an opportunity to go abroad to earn dollars, even if it meant working as a domestic helper, as opposed to staying in your classroom with the leaking roof, with your students, most of whom cut their classes twice a week anyway.
Why should one even dream of becoming a political figure if one wanted to be of service to the country – the words “political figure” and “public service” have not been used harmoniously in the same sentence for a very long time.
If one becomes an active civil society member and joins groups with advocacies or causes, why should they even dream that any kind of progressive change will happen in the issues they have adopted as their own? There has been no change at all in the long years since the cause has become a valid social concern, and according to the facts and considering all the obstacles that will have to be overcome, it is not likely that there will be any radical change – not to mention it will likely make one redundant.
These are indeed the facts, and we do not even need statistics to convince us that these are the facts. After all, we’ve been educated sufficiently to allow us this perceptive look at the futility of social reform. That is, in one sense, what the goal of our education has been – not to give us the latitude to dream big dreams, but to provide us with the necessary skill set to get by in our corrupt, socially-ill, and poverty-stricken country.
So the ordinary citizen sticks to this time-tested pattern – and then eventually, should he or she decide to marry, they have children and they save up for their children’s education. And if they were responsible parents, they would be solid assistants to our educational institutions by imparting their knowledge of the world to their children in order that their children will also manage to “get by.” This knowledge of the world consists of, what else, but the time-tested factual society into which we are born.
The cycle repeats itself, needless to say. And maybe if we are unable to find a way out, it might not really be our fault. As young Thomas Gradgrind told his father, having been on the run after committing a robbery in a position where he was trusted. “So many people are employed in situations of trust; so many people, out of so many, will be dishonest. I have heard you talk, a hundred times, of its being a law. How can I help laws?” Indeed, if we turn out to fulfill our own worst assessments of ourselves, how can we help it? If the yearly graduates turn out to follow the same patterns as their predecessors have done before them, how can they help it? These are the facts – these are the problems from which our country suffers in reality. Short of putting these facts up on a pedestal and worshipping them for being reality (as Thomas Gradgrind himself might do, and might encourage his students and his children to do – on those blasted days when those little ones still try to insist on papering walls with horses when it is a plain fact that those graminivorous quadripeds in point of fact are never seen to walk up and down walls!), it is only because our factual circumstances compel us to do so. No seriously well-educated Filipino will claim that we are a rich country when we are obviously poor – there is graft and corruption, there are not enough jobs for all, and there are too many jobs that don’t allow for personal growth and development. Taxes are so high they often leave the wage earner hardly enough to pay for everything else. How can we help it if the process repeats itself? It is reality; it is indisputable fact so much that it is almost a law.
Now, this is undoubtedly an unpopular view, seeing as how it avoids statistics and specific suggestions for reform. But then again, we have had those so-called “action programs” for years without hardly making a dent in the problems they are supposed to address. Common sense would likely suggest that in order to solve a problem, you follow a specific pattern – you define the problem and then you lay out a goal, and then you begin to lay down alternative solutions. You pick the best possible solution and then you flesh out a plan for reform by expounding on those three elements – the problem, the proposed solution, and the goal. We’ve been defining our problems for years we’ve almost become an expert on them. We know our deficiencies in our educational system; we know how this translates into unemployment and mal-employment. We know that a lot of the funds that should be getting into educational reforms are being diverted into politicians’ pockets, and we know all too well that we are not happy about any of it. We know all of these things, we know them very well, and we all know it (even the little ones), despite glowing government statistics which we all recognize as works of fiction.
What more can be done? Should we even bother trying again when the statistics show that educational reform would be an exercise in futility?
Look to Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, for he has a lot to teach us. Dickens excelled in creating caricatures of his characters, and it is certainly hardly complementary for my country for me to liken Philippine society to a caricature. But what I am after is a shift in focus – a change in perspective, if you will, and a literary caricature is as good as any to teach us what the facts will most likely conceal. Any reasonably good-hearted citizen desires progress, and effective reforms, and national advancement and development. But Thomas Gradgrind had good intentions, too. And yet in his factual zeal and tightly controlled framework of reality, he managed to produce, almost single-handedly, a goodly number of social ills.
Mr. Thomas Gradgrind meant to do right; in fact, he meant to do great things. But that is his only defense in the face of the consequences of his “system.” He took it upon himself to be a social force for good, and was very socially active in advocating this factual system of education – squelching “fancy” and “dreams” in the little children early on and as firmly as he could, because they do not conform to the all-important “facts.” In effect, fancy, and dreams, and matters of the heart have been so effectively and efficiently “squelched” that they disappeared from the lives of a great number of his students, and especially in the lives of his own two children. Mr. Thomas Gradgrind was eventually called to account by his children, at a time when the effects of his “system” have been so effective they were almost irreversible, and Mr. Thomas Gradgrind could only helplessly claim that he meant well. Even then, despite its uselessness, he recognized the fact that the only thing he can do was to raise his good intent as an excuse for a wrong he perceived too late.
Why then Mr. Thomas Gradgrind and an attack on the system of facts? Because Mr. Thomas Gradgrind is, first and foremost, an educator, and it is his systemic education of facts that has ranked non-quantifiable matters as unimportant and therefore negligible in the formation of young characters. Happiness, courage, idealism, hope, fancy, dreams, imagination, and all their various cousins and relatives by the score – they do not matter in the system of education which operates on a purely utilitarian basis of equipping student with survival skills to enable them to land a job and earn a regular salary. Should one even dream of instituting reform, a whole curriculum of social ills has been learned in enough school years and enough semesters to discourage the most innovative mind. Should one still devote one’s life to giving back to the country, and making a career out of an adopted advocacy, the goals are all formulated with a large grain of salt – somehow, we know all too well that lasting change is improbable; we have a deep-seated conviction that things will never change. Endless years of futility have taught us to rein in our powers of social change because according to the facts, social change will never really take place. In an ironic sort of way, we have educated ourselves too well – we know our problems so well that they have almost become a friend. We have educated ourselves about our problems so well that there really isn’t room for anything else.
The educational reform needed by the Philippines is one that can probably never be fully understood by one who does not recognize the nuances of the Filipino mind as it has been formed over the years. More than just statistics on budgetary allotments for educational reform, what we need is a change of heart. We need to be able to believe that things will get better. We need to have a government that we can be proud of and be able to trust. We need to have the assurance that it is not a waste to learn about classic literature or to build a career in medicine or in education without the worry that we will starve ourselves after we leave the portals of the educational system. We need to be able to enjoy education and learning purely for the love of learning, and in the process allow ourselves to mold our characters out of more timeless and universal values than purely utilitarian ones. We need the assurance that it is okay for us to think for ourselves and come to our own decisions, without the threat of social and economic isolation should we refuse to follow the unforgiving patterns of social disunity and discord. We need the assurance that meritorious values will be rewarded and that unmeritorious values will not be tolerated. Moreover, we need to believe that these things are, if not already factual, actually possible.
Any kind of reform, it has been said, which involves human beings must necessarily take into account the peculiar nuances of the human beings involved. To base proposed changes purely on facts and figures without figuring into it the psychology of the persons or the society involved will likely create surface changes only. If one is to truly understand the problem being addressed, one must approach it from a psychological point of view. Problems directly involving human beings begin, first and foremost, inside their minds and hearts. We need to realize that what we are dealing with are more than mere institutions, but human beings who have never had much incentive to allow themselves to dream big, or even to hope for much other than a steady job with regular pay. If one were really serious about educational reform and improving career opportunities, this is where the road towards lasting change must begin.
About the Author
J.R. Duclayan writes speculative fiction/love stories which seek to capture the spirit and essence of her home country, the Philippines.
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Do we stick to facts in teaching young people? Or is there also room for fancy? Here is a brief essay on Philippine educational reform from the perspective of Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times”