“Sometimes, long after UP, we forget these things and become just like everybody else…”
Get A Life
Jose Dalisay Jr., PhD
Address to the Graduating Class
UP Baguio, 23 April 2005
Former UP President (Francisco) Nemenzo – whom I was privileged to serve – was frankly not too fond of the phrase “iskolar ng bayan” to describe the UP student. We are all, of course, scholars of the people in this university, in the technical sense that our studies are subsidized by the sweat of the poor, whose hopes we bear upon our shoulders.
But the President’s point was that scholarship remains a distinction to be earned not merely by scoring well in an entrance examination, but by adopting a lifelong attitude of critical inquiry and rational judgment. This, sadly, is something that many of us lose upon our entry into the University and our immersion in its life – not only its intellectual and academic life, but also its social and professional life. The curiosity ends, the magic fades, the writing dries up, and we retreat to a cocoon – to a dimly lit room marked “Me & Myself” – there to spend the rest of our career sulking over the next fellow’s promotion and so-and-so’s research grant. “Get a life” has been one of my lifelong mantras. I have always believed that while a formal education is a wonderful thing, what I call an active life – with all its serendipitous detours and little accidents – is even better. It is a clich? by now to say that there are many things we can never learn in school – but for those of us who are in school, it is even more important to remember this.
Some of the best things happen when we step outside of our own lives and begin to be engaged in those of others. Often, the answers to our own problems lie in others, and in their larger predicaments. While involvement in a great cause can also create its own kind of blindness to everything else, I believe that, at least once in our lives, we should embrace a passion larger than ourselves; even the disillusionment that often follows can be very instructive, and will bring us one step closer to wisdom.
One of the best ideas I ever heard came from a friend whom I used to play billiards with until the wee hours of the morning: “Everyone,” he said while cleaning up the balls on the table, “should be entitled to make at least one big mistake.” I would not have been the writer I became if I had chosen the safe path and stayed where I was supposed to be. It took me two years to finish my MFA, and only three to finish my PhD. But before that, it took me 14 years to get my AB.
At 12 – like your chancellor – I entered the Philippine Science High School. As my parents never tired of telling anyone who cared to listen (and even those who didn’t), I was the entrance-exam topnotcher of my batch, No. 1 of about 6,000 examinees. However, what my parents didn’t say was that after my first year in Science High, I was going to be kicked out -with a 1.0 in English and a 5.0 in Math. What happened? Well, you might say that I got a life. From the grade-school nerd who read two books a day in our all-boys Catholic school, I suddenly discovered girls, parties, and fun. What did I do? I used my 1.0 in English to save my 5.0 in Math, by writing a letter of appeal that began with “At the outset, let me say that I bear malice toward none.” I guess it worked, because they put me on probation for a year and I survived PSHS by the skin of my teeth.
At 16, I entered UP as an industrial engineering major – and promptly got a 5.0 in Math 17, for too many absences – the bane of the arrogant Science High graduate, even the perennial flunker like me who thought he already knew more Math than he needed to know.
At 17, still a freshman, I quit college – over the tears of my mother, whose fondest hope was for me to graduate from UP just like she did. I wanted to join the revolution, like many of my comrades; at the same time I was impatient to get a job. At 18, I was working as a newspaper reporter covering hospital fires, US embassy rallies, suicide cases, factory strikes, and typhoon relief operations. I spent most of my 19th year in martial-law prison. At 20, I was a husband and father. At 26, I took my first foreign trip. At 27, I learned how to drive – and went back to school. At 30, I got my AB, and decided that what I wanted to do was to write and teach for the rest of my life, so here I am.
I have been shot at, imprisoned, and worst of all, rejected by more crushes than I care to remember. Aside from my abortive career in journalism, I once worked as a cook-waiter-cashier-busboy-janitor, cutting 40 pounds of pork and chicken every day before turning them into someone’s dinner. Much earlier, I worked as a municipal employee, checking the attendance of Metro Aides at seven in the morning, and then I studied printmaking and sold my etchings cheaply by the dozen in Ermita. Incidentally, it was at that printmaking shop that I met my wife June, who’s here with me today, and for whose patience with my colorful moods I am forever grateful.
Some of these events have found their way to my writing; most of them have not and never will. I believe that creative writing should generate its own excitement, beyond whatever may have happened to the author in his or her own life. But neither can I deny that my outlook has been influenced by what I have seen out there, as bright, as indelible, and as disturbing as fresh blood. If we are to abide by the Phi Kappa Phi motto to “let the love of learning rule humanity,” we should first ourselves be ruled by the love of learning – learning from books, and learning beyond them. On the other side of the equation, let me observe that there is, today, a nascent but disturbing strain of anti-intellectualism in Philippine politics and society. The vulgar _expression of this sentiment has taken the form of the suggestion that we can dispense with brains and education when it comes to our national leadership, because they have done us no good, anyway.
It is easy to see how this perception came about, and how its attractiveness derives from its being at least partially true. Many of our people feel betrayed by their best and brightest – the edukado, as we are called in our barangays – because we are too easily bought out by the powers that be. Marcos and Estrada had probably the best Cabinets in our political history, well-stocked with prestigious PhDs from places like Oxford and Stanford; but in the end, even they could do nothing against their President and his excesses.
For us UP graduates, the seductions of power will always be there. Power and wealth are also very interesting games to play, and few play them better than UP grads – the power side more than the wealth, as I suspect that Ateneans and La Sallites are better at making money than we are.
But even these can put you out of touch. I have friends in Malaca?ang and Makati who seem to have lost all sense of life, thought, and feeling on the street, beyond what their own commissioned surveys tell them. Worse, they seem to have lost touch with their old, honest, self-critical selves. They forgot all about Sophocles and poetry and mystery and music you can’t buy at the record store.
To be a UP student, faculty member, and alumnus is to be burdened but also ennobled by a unique mission – not just the mission of serving the people, which is in itself not unique, and which is also reflected, for example, in the Atenean concept of being a “man for others.” Rather, to my mind, our mission is to lead and to be led by reason – by independent, scientific, and secular reason, rather than by politicians, priests, shamans, bankers, or generals. You are UP because you can think and speak for yourselves, by your own wits and on your own two feet, and you can do so no matter what the rest of the people in the room may be thinking. You are UPbecause no one can tell you to shut up, if you have something sensible and vital to say. You are UP because you dread not the poverty of material comforts but the poverty of the mind. And you are UP because you care about something as abstract and sometimes as treacherous as the idea of “nation”, even if it kills you.
Sometimes, long after UP, we forget these things and become just like everybody else; I certainly have. Even so, I suspect that that forgetfulness is laced with guilt – the guilt of knowing that you were, and could yet become, somebody better. And you cannot even argue that you did not know, because today, I just told you so.