The Manila Times : BBB reset should be education-centric

27 March 2022

By Marlen Ronquillo | The Manila Times

THE mediocre state of Philippine education is our greatest humanitarian crisis. Yet, it does not get the draconian and urgent policy responses the sector deserves. Assessment after every awful assessment of the reading, comprehension and computing skills of our young have validated the slide of Philippine education from its decent to good rating in the middle of the last century to the epic fail and cellar-dwelling status that it is today. The World Bank's finding on the "learning poverty" of our young is an unequivocal indictment of education's epic fail. The global ranking of universities has routinely documented the slide of our once-prestigious universities to so-so status. (Remember the time that the University of the Philippines was on the Top 25 list of great Asian universities?) It is only now that the "why" behind the anemic responses have seen the light of day.

The simple explanation? Our educational mediocrity serves the forever purposes of the economic and political elite. The political component of that is explained by the current campaign for the presidency ahead of the May 2022 elections.

The dominant lead of Marcos Jr. in surveys is based on the supposed Golden Age status of the Philippines during the long presidency of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. With an elementary discernment and understanding of events, the truth is the opposite of that Golden Age claim. Right before Marcos Sr. was deposed, the Philippines was either called "Sick Man of Asia" or a "basket case." We had to pay imports in hard currency because no nation honored our letters of credit. It was the Golden Age of kleptocracy.

"Saturday Night Live" on the profligacy of Marcos rule — there are still clips on these — showed a once-ascendant society descending into total caricature. Satire as naked truth.

The long and costly effort to erase that horrific past, which is reflected in the popular support for the young Marcos today, took place in a favorable environment. What has been fed to the voters who have not suffered from the brutality and rapacity of the rule of Marcos Sr. falls exactly into the diet of lies Vladimir Putin has been feeding his people to justify his body bags-filled aggression of the Ukrainians — lies, myths, pseudo-history. But because our rotten educational system extinguished every flickering ember of civic virtue and discernment, we cannot even distinguish fact from Marcos-fed fiction. Social media has been an abettor-enabler of brainwashed minds, but the root is the epic fail of our educational system.

Now, we go to the economic component of the deliberate neglect.

The economic elite needs construction workers, slave workers for its malls, supermarket baggers and cashiers for their sprawling retail empires and fast-food operations, and generic, faceless blue-collar workers. Simply put, an uber efficient feeder system for the employment needs of the wealthy. An educational system that serves as a thriving, spawning ground for data scientists, quantum physicists, molecular biologists and AI and machine learning specialists and financial quants would fail to provide the endless and bottomless slave workers that our economic elite needs. An excellent educational system would end the feudal orientation of the dominant employment opportunities, a tragedy for the economic elite that requires slave wage, barely educated workers for their needs.

If our young have the option to move from the hamlets of rural poverty into the same paths taken by Johnny von Neuman, Edward Teller and the like after leaving Hungary (Albert Einstein was supposed to be the least gifted of this group), would our young still stick to dreary, killing fast-food serving jobs? No. They would always take the best option. (This is my unchanging spiel to the young. Dream big. Be the next Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai or Parag Agarwal. At the very least, the next Dado Banatao. Being a fast-food server or supermarket bagger should never be your summum bonum.)

An excellent education system even poses a challenge to the high, unchallenged, unquestioned perches of the politically powerful and wealthy. Social and economic mobility of the prole depends on good education and can upend the political and economic dominance of the established order. Like what we have seen in old democracies where tech pioneers from average families (Bezos is a Cuban surname) grab the wealthiest rankings from the old banking, retail and energy families. Or, an upstart and Black but Harvard-trained lawyer Barack Obama beating the McCains and Romneys in races to the White House. Or, the son of a divorced mother from a struggling part of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, upsetting George H.W. Bush, scion of political royalty, in a contest for the US presidency. You can never fathom the depth of ambition that grows in the minds of brilliant kids from average backgrounds once provided with excellent education. And that sense of driving ambition on the part of the proles unsettles the old rich and traditionally powerful.

Our country's rich and politically powerful have never been bothered by the mediocre state of our educational system. Because their kids can go to international high schools here that feed the Ivy League schools, Stanford, MIT, University of Chicago, Cambridge and Oxford. These kids of the rich and powerful are so primed for the best universities of the world that an acceptance from Notre Dame or Fordham is sometimes a source of embarrassment.

The next president — this is imperative — should carry out dramatic and urgent corrective steps to prevent the slide of Philippine education into the permanent global laggard. First step, Build, Build, Build (BBB) should, using a 21st century word, shape shift, to aggressively move education from a state of mediocrity to a state of excellence. BBB should be, first and foremost, education-centric.

Second, education funding should not just be 6 percent of GDP, the Unesco benchmark for education spending, but 10 percent to really vest the basic educational system and the public research universities with substantial funding. Once allocated more-than-adequate funding, these research universities can venture into pioneering research and development initiatives, from epidemiology to developing a rice variety that grows on very little irrigation — the breakthroughs the nation needs. With both adequate funding and institutional support, our 10-year-olds and 15-year-olds will evolve from the most mediocre to the most competitive.

Put simply, the educational system should be the heart and soul of our policy and spending universe.