Monday, September 04, 2006

The Filipino College Student’s Mind; is there an Opinion in There?

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that I attend a small local college using my GI Bill. Being at least 30 years the senior of most of the oldest students, and 20 plus years older than many of the teachers has led to some interestingly edgy moments. The difference in our ages isn’t all there is to it; there are wide cultural distinctions between us, mostly as far as the way students and teachers are expected to interface, and me not unusually abiding by those expectations. Then of course, there’s my bluntly adversarial, know-it-all personality that causes me to challenge and question things that no Filipino student would ever think to dispute.

These days, for the most part, I have few problems getting along with my teachers and classmates, but in almost every class I still manage to have my “bad boy” moments where I forget myself. Like most Americans my age, I have strong opinions about nearly everything, and at times I’ll use the classroom as a forum to pontificate on them. This is not a problem as long as the instructor agrees with me, but there are times when that is not the case.

For me, when I come upon moments of disagreement – THAT is when I am most in my element. However, I’ve found that Filipinos in the Philippines, as compared to those living in the U.S., especially the ones I come in contact with here in “the province” as they say, don’t tend to enjoy debating issues. For the most part, people here are very non-confrontational, especially when it comes to debate, and I find that puzzling, this near universal unwillingness to contest and argue. Filipinos who have lived abroad, especially those who have resided in the USA, seem to quickly lose this confrontation avoidance, which is why I make the distinction above.

Yet, there have been moments where a teacher and I have been clearly at odds over a topic. I know this because he or she might make an observation, or forget that I am there and offer an opinion during class. I say, “forget I’m there,” because it seems to me that some teachers don’t tender opinions around me knowing that I might counter their assertions. There’s an American saying, certainly not one shared by most folks in this country, that “opinions are like assholes; everyone has one.” Not so over here – certainly the part about “everyone having an opinion” that is.

Just FINDING someone with an opinion, or rather finding someone willing to SHARE one is rare. So when I find a person daring enough to proffer one, especially a teacher, I try to couch my dissent as tactfully as possible and to make my case in a sentence or two so as not to confound them. Usually though, “the discussion” does not progress past that point, because normally the teacher will simply dismiss me by making a noncommittal remark such as “anyway” or “nonetheless” and continue on as if I don’t exist. Besides shunting away my “challenge,” I will usually receive a chilly look, and for sure then I’ll know that I’ve just annoyed someone. Oops.

By contrast, American students are encouraged, if not cajoled, to participate in classroom discussion, where on the other hand, Filipino students are quite content and are more often than not permitted to say nothing at all in class. I have NEVER run into the problem of not being able to get a word in edgewise in a classroom situation. In truth, If I am not careful I can very easily find myself dominating classroom discussions, so I have learned to keep my comments to myself until I’m sure they are welcomed by my instructors. On that note, many of them DO value my presence knowing that all they have to do is prompt me and I’ll pipe right up with something. Others though, as I mentioned already, are not so welcoming; either because I threaten their ultimate authority, or more likely, because they worry that I deter the other students into reticent silence.

Having said that, I don’t think that my occasional outspokenness is the only reason I threaten some of the teachers and intimidate my classmates. I’m sure that a primary source of this insecurity is the requirement to speak English in the classroom. The teachers speak almost perfect English, but many of the kids do not have absolute fluency. Being aware of this, and due to my understanding of an Asian’s need to sidestep embarrassment, I NEVER correct anyone’s English; besides, that would be extremely bad form. So, perhaps some of their reticence to speak their minds is in large part due to their lack of English speaking skills, but I believe that is only a partial explanation.

And that brings me to what is probably a primary reason for the paucity of public and classroom debate – and that is Filipino aversion to being shown up or proven wrong for all to see. For those involved in Western education, engaging in debate and dialogue is a hallmark of the process, and perhaps this is so in the larger Filipino Universities, but not out here at the grass roots level. Rather than risk looking foolish, I’ve noticed that the kids around me will accept unquestioningly what is put forth by teachers or by me, or more likely, they simply keep their true feelings and any questions they might have to themselves. It’s called ‘avoidance’ and the people over here, especially students, have it down to a science.

Lastly, and I hate to say this, but I think there is a large measure of laziness involved, most certainly on the part of the students, and conversely, on the part of educators who don’t push their pupils to expand their minds. Because to have an opinion, a person must be willing to do “hard” things like reading, listening, researching, and analyzing – all before they can at last formulate their very OWN outlooks on matters in the world. From what I’ve seen, many of the students that sit in my classes just don’t want to extend their intellect. In other words, they don’t want to THINK. I find that extremely unfortunate and sad.


niceheart said...

It must be very interesting to be in your class, Phil. I agree with some of the things you pointed out. When I was still new here in Canada, I seldom participated in conversations with the locals because although I understood and spoke English, I had that thick accent and it took me time to translate the words in my mind before I could speak them out.

As for opinions, I had encountered many opinionated classmates in my school life there. But then again, I studied in Manila, and Cavite too. I'm sure the students there in Pampanga have opinions too but they're just probably shy, or as you have mentioned, intimidated by you especially if you already had a conversation going on with the teacher.

I'm not saying that you should stop doing that. I think you could even inspire some of the students to speak out.

And I hope that your last paragraph is not true. I hope it's not laziness.

PhilippinesPhil said...

A lot of what is going on here, or not going on, is the age of the students. They start college much too young at 16. They seem immature to me in large part because they are not yet well developed mentally or intellectually. Let me tell you Nice, young folks in college here, or at least in my college, do not connect themselves to the rest of the world, and It's not just the language thing, or being intimidated by me either. In informal situations, I try to gently pry out remarks, comments, knowledge, banter, opinion, anything from students concerning modern day and historical issues. To tell you the truth, there is not a whole lot going on "in there"...I'm afraid that cell phones and computer games have squashed much personal interest in the world, unless it involves popular culture. And virtually NO ONE reads here. If they happen to catch the news on the tube, that's how most folks learn of world events, or perhaps from short blurbs on the internet. I don't know if its laziness or what Niceheart, but it certainly involves priorities... a lack of them. Of course, there are a few students that have some depth to them, so all is not lost. I get discouraged because there seems to be so few.

Amadeo said...


Incisive observations, very detailed and down to a personal level. Suggest you circulate this blog entry among your classmates. Most times all it takes is for Filipinos to know where the "foreigner" is coming from. Many recognize the typical Filipino mentality, especially in the provinces, that automatically defers to the "foreigner" as superior and to be respected. And that “foreigner” could simply be another Filipino from the big cities.

I, of course, had the reverse experiences, teaching 12-14 year old kids in our parish for religious instruction (called CCD here). Respect for authority and discipline were the two prevailing issues.

PhilippinesPhil said...

To be fair, a lot of American students are similar in their mentality of not trying to learn about the world UNLESS it involves their favorite TV show or music or cinema star. I just wish teachers here would force their students to do otherwise. I really don't see much of that going on.

I love the inherent respect that is conferred to "elders," which is what I get, not so much because I'm a foreigner; plus they know my background, which is heavy on travel and world experiences and they DO defer to that. I have to fight to get them to call me by my first name, and even when they do, they call me "Sir Phil." I just give up after awhile.

I know what you mean about the opposite being true among young Fil-Ams in the US. I've run across a few of these "return visitors," especially the ones from California, and their disrespectful, in-your-face attitude towards everyone is stunning. That side of American culture is just plain ugly and I hope it stays over there with you. It certainly doesn't make them any smarter or willing to learn, only obnoxious.

I won't quit on trying to make my classmates develop insight and opinion. I never do this by trying to shame them, instead I try to draw them into conversations about history and current political situations with the goal of just getting them to voice any kind of feelings at all. Once I get them to take a side on an issue, THEN I can start to draw out as to WHY they feel that way. In other words, I'm making them THINK.

Oh and Amadeo, I have 12 years of CCD under my belt!

Amadeo said...


Just to clarify. Indeed, the CCD students I taught were from immigrant families both Asians and Hispanic, and a smattering of Caucasians who also went to public schools.

Sadly, problems I encountered were not with the Caucasians or Filipinos. The Filipinos knew enough from their Philippine experience to defer to their instructors. But with the Hispanics, many of whom may have been already born here or at the very least, raised here. I had surmised that a good portion of the problem may have stemmed from their parents, who probably did not know any better how to raise kids in their new environment.

PhilippinesPhil said...

I hear you Amadeo... and the "problem children" you refer to are probably being raised by each other, "gang style" instead of being influenced much at all by their parents. I suspect that since the kids you were teaching were even in CCD at all that they are probably even better behaved than most of the others out in the community, and that is REALLY scary.

Ed Abbey said...

Funny, I think many adults around my work area are the same way. When I get in a political debate with them, they can merely repeat the catch phrase of the day and when questioned, can't even give you any details on what they just said. It's sad and takes the wind out of my sails having nobody to debate with. I guess that I why I like debating with you even though we don't always agree.

Anonymous said...

If you are studying in one of Manila's universities, you will find fellow students who are open in expressing their opinions and teachers who facilitate discussions.

I was a former student of University of the Philippines(who dropped out and joined the USN) and I can tell you that my classmates were not mute but rather subversives in classroom discussions.


PhilippinesPhil said...

Hey Ed, I hope we can get together someday when you visit the Phils again. I'll have some of my other opinionated buds over, some who even think as you do on those few issues upon which we diverge, and we'll have a grand 'ol time!

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hi Mel, yeah, I mentioned in the post that students in the large unviersities are probably more likely to engage in debate and discussion, and that is interesting if that is so. It causes me to wonder what percentage of the student body in those "higher" institutions come from the public school system? I'm sure its very small. Most of my classmates in my little inexpensive college are products of public schools.

I do know this, my classmates feel unempowered and have little hope that the state of the state will ever improve. Mel, you say most of your mates were "subversives" and well, that is what may be needed to shake this place out of its complacency and willingness to accept corruption as the way of things, for corruption is THE primary reason this country is so stagnant. I sort of understand why people here are not willing to feel strongly about issues when all it does is cause despair and heartache. Better to not worry and be happy?