Academic Freedom and the Right to Share Spiritual Belief and Knowledge

Digital Painting by Tala Roque


By Mila D. Aguilar

Student Forum on “Giving God a Hearing”

Bulwagang Rizal, Faculty Center

University of the Philippines Diliman

August 18, 2003, 2:30-4 pm


You will wonder why I sit here when I have no qualification whatsoever to speak on the subject of academic freedom, in terms of tenure or administrative capability.  Perhaps the only qualification I have is that I grew up in the UP Diliman campus from age four, my father coming here to teach in 1953, when the campus was, like me, only four years old.  He brought the whole family over, of course, so I had a brother and sisters who went to college here while I was that small.  By the time I was in Grade 1 at the UP Elementary School, the sister I followed was already studying at UP High, and the one before her was in college, taking English, with my brother about to graduate from Public Ad and my two eldest sisters finished with their BSEs from the College of Education.  I got a fairly keen view of UP history and culture from these five elder sisters and brother of mine, our dining table having been a regular venue for discussion with my father at the lead, and my favorite sister, all of eleven years older and already a college student, constantly engaging me in both intellectual pursuits and the tsismis of the times.

Today, as I go through the documents and interviews that will go into the book on U.P. history commissioned by President Dodong Nemenzo, I cannot help but recall my childhood and studies in U.P., from my grade school years in 1955 to 1961, to my high school years from 1961 to 1965, to my college years from 1965 to 1969, and to the two years I taught as an assistant instructor after that, in the most crucial years of 1969 to 1971.  Growing up in UP for almost two decades has helped deepen my grasp of what UP stands for.  On the other hand, going through the materials has made me understand certain reactions my much older siblings exhibited while they were going to school here, as well as the forces that molded them, and me, as individuals.

Let me clarify myself:  I am just a part of a team that did the almost 1000 face-to-face and emailed interviews that will go into the book on the history of U.P.  The head of our team is Dr. Helen Lopez, and, as I said, the President of the University himself commissioned the book.  It is a privilege to be a part of this project, for without it I would feel far too unqualified to speak here before you.  I must also confess now, while early, that I left the University for 29 years beginning 1971, to spend thirteen years underground all over the country, one and a half years in prison, two years teaching in another school, and another thirteen years relearning my country.  This absence of 29 years deprived me of my moorings in the University, but at the same time, it afforded me a larger view of the world outside it—the real people of the Philippines, with all their strengths and weaknesses.  Coming back to the University, I could now compare its fine air with the hot, humid atmosphere of the countryside and cities outside of it.  And today, handling a few chapters of the book on its history, I could feel its pulsing rhythm in my veins.

I had to give you this long introduction about myself because what I would like to discuss is academic freedom, and academic freedom as a concept is not only too familiar to you, and therefore subject to vagueness and misunderstanding, but also too academic—and therefore boring.  Let me tell you something I just recently discovered about academic freedom from an article in the UP Gazette of February 28, 1971 written by the late Dean Pacifico or “Pic” Agabin, while he was still an Assistant for Legal Affairs. The roots of academic freedom, “Pic” Agabin says in this article, go back to the medieval universities of Europe.  It was “a shield used by the universities against ecclesiastical and political interference.”  In England, he says further, Oxford and Cambridge achieved their academic freedom only after they had frustrated attempts of King James II to use them as “centers for the propagation of Roman Catholicism.”

This concept of academic freedom was adopted in Latin America, Agabin explains, to ward off State interference, thereby making universities become “sanctuaries of the political opposition.”

In the United States, the seat of classic laissez faire, academic freedom has focused on “the right of the scholar to pursue his investigations wherever it may end or tend.”

What do you notice about these definitions of academic freedom, as it evolved around the world?  Academic freedom evolved as a defensive measure against the tremendous power of both Church and State to curtail the free exercise of thought and the discovery of truth, whatever that truth may be.  Our key words are powers, outside the University, curtailing freedom of thought—whether these powers be Church or State, ecclesiastical or political.

In the Philippines, the first exponent of academic freedom was Rafael Palma, fourth president of the University of the Philippines, after whom the building next door was named.  He had a ten-year term, from 1923 to 1933.  Palma said in his Inaugural Address:  “The atmosphere of freedom in a university conduces to the healthy growth of science and the determined search of the truth in God, man and things.”  Notice that he includes God in the search for truth.  He would, of course, in another writing entitled “The University and the People,” declare that “unlike institutions of religion and politics, the University is open-minded, willing to hear and discuss and improve.”  But his open-mindedness did not seem closed to a discussion of God, notwithstanding the fact that the University was not an institution of religion. [1]

Like all other university visionaries all over the world, in fact, Palma’s main concern was to ward off intrusions into the University by outside powers, in his time political powers.  He was so succinct as to proclaim: “If each professor cannot feel safe to proclaim what he considers the truth, because of fear of persecution or displeasure of the men in power, then truth would not come out from his lips or will be totally disfigured.”[2]

So strong was Palma’s liberalism that the standard of academic freedom he espoused for the University has been carried to this day.  In fact it became an issue in the fifties, and again in the sixties, and this is why I brought in my growing up in the University, because I grew up in it in the fifties and sixties, as well as imbibed that spirit of academic freedom through my siblings.  I could well remember my brother Elmer talking about his professor, Ricardo Pascual.  Pascual was an atheist, and he preached atheism in class.  So strong was his espousal of atheism, as strong as Palma’s espousal of academic freedom, that he converted not a few students—and teachers—to atheism.  He would badger a student in class with his logic until the student succumbed to it.  All this of course was in the spirit of discussion and debate.  But many a freshman or sophomore from the provinces, or convent schools, would be shocked by the badgering and opt out to look for another teacher.  Those who found it challenging would later comment that Pascual was a good teacher, having trained them in the art of thinking.  One student of Pascual in particular, Fe Buenaventura (now Mangahas) by name, recalls that, groping for an answer to Pascual’s incursions into her faith, she finally blurted out, “But if there is really no God, why do we bother to disprove His existence?”  She says that Pascual seemed to have appreciated her question, it being in line with his own idea of logic.

Strangely, no one in that period of the fifties seemed to think that Pascual had violated the academic freedom of students.  Professors in the university, together with the fraternities, were more concerned about going after what they called the “sectarians,” these including such campus personages as J.D. Constantino, Dionisia Rola, Ching Dadufalza, Felixberto Sta. Maria and Cholang Lorenzo.  Looking back, I could surmise that the dread of sectarians may have come from the overwhelming personality of the parish priest of that time—Fr. John Delaney, an American Jesuit who ate all his meals with the Catholic campus residents so that he could strengthen the Catholic community and build the U.P. Church of the Holy Sacrifice the way you see it now, with only P100,000 and the genius of such young UP graduates as DM Consunji, Alfredo Juinio and Leandro Locsin.  Fr. Delaney had a dominant character that shone through his thick eyebrows, hooked nose, deep-set eagle eyes, and tall consumptive frame.  Looking at him, seeing him deliver his homilies with the fire and brimstone of a living saint (it seemed), campus seculars may have imagined the return of the Spanish inquisition if he had not been checked.  And indeed, if he had not been checked by the fraternities that vied for campus power, his campus organization of students, the UPSCA, would have overrun all student positions of note from the Student Council or Union to the Philippine Collegian and Philippinensian editorships.

History, of course, has shown otherwise.  Fr. Delaney died a rather broken man, perhaps driven ill by engagement in too many conflicts, and after him, the UPSCA steadily degenerated into an organization with no great cause.  What arose after the last fairly strong UPSCA in 1961 to capture campus politics by the late sixties were not their rival fraternities, but the radical student organizations: first the SCAUP of Joma Sison and the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation of Dodong Nemenzo, then, in 1964, the Kabataang Makabayan or KM and its later offshoot, the Samahang Demokratikong Kabataan or SDK.  By February 28, 1971, a few weeks after the famed Diliman Commune in which I participated as a young teacher operating DZUP and airing the tape of what sounded like Dovie Beams making love with Ferdinand Marcos, Pacifico Agabin, as Assistant for Legal Affairs of the University, was arguing that “the University should not only tolerate but it should encourage student activism.”[3]

Now, why have I gone into this long history of the development of the University’s concept of academic freedom?  Because we are gathered here today to speak about the freedom to give God a hearing.  Are the two concepts asymmetrical and contradictory?

Some of you may know that after almost twenty years of activism I became a born again Christian according to the Biblical interpretation of it: that is, the Holy Spirit alit upon me, entered my inner being, and never again left.  This does not mean, of course, that I have abandoned my nationalism and patriotism, for now I am more than ever concerned, and more profoundly so, about my people and my nation, they being God’s people and God’s beloved nation.  I have been a born again Christian for more than thirteen years, with experience in a rather broad range of Bible studies and readings, and have read several versions of the Bible end-to-end.  I could therefore say I know whereof I speak.

I would say that the University’s concept of academic freedom, resting on the three core concepts of “1) the philosophy of intellectual freedom for teachers and scholars; 2) the idea of autonomy for the University as a community of scholars; and 3) the guarantee of free expression in our Constitution” as expounded by Pic Agabin in 1971[4], accords perfectly with the God-given gift to humankind of free will.  When God placed Adam and Eve in Paradise and told them they could eat of the fruit of any of the trees except the Tree of Knowledge, He did not drug them into submission to his command.  Instead, He left them free to either follow Him or disobey Him.  As it happened, they disobeyed Him, and so their history has been one of suffering ever since.  But this God, this Father, also so loved the world that He gave His only Son as a living sacrifice to redeem them from their sins.  Again, when He gave His only Son on the cross, He did not force anyone to believe in this Son.  He only conveyed, through His Son, the truth that whoever believed in Him, the Son, also believed in His Father, and was therefore saved.

Many of us, having only recently found God, would love to pound God into the minds of our fellows.  But experience, and a deeper grounding in the Bible, has shown quite a few of us that this fervent act does not work, especially among intellectuals.  We learn, in the course of time, that belief is an individual decision, even among the masses, that it cannot be legislated, it cannot be enforced, and it surely cannot be rammed through by any kind of authority whatsoever—not even the authority of the Bible.  That is why we would rather study, or teach, in a university like UP, rather than in a sectarian school, where students take as many as 15 units of theology and pray before and after classes, but do not in general end up holier than any of us sinners.

In this wise I am reminded of a story of Dr. Constancio Amen, who once taught philosophy in the department of Ricardo Pascual.  Studying at a Protestant school down south, he had six semesters of the Bible, so excelling in these subjects that he always got an A in them.  But all through his A’s he kept on raising doubts about the existence of God.  He started to believe only six years after graduation from that same Protestant school, when he decided to look for his answers in the Bible.  It took him one year of Bible-reading on his own to accept Christ as his Savior.

Dr. Amen is exceptional among those I know who studied in sectarian schools, whether Protestant or Catholic.  I am acquainted with dozens of former colegialas and colegialos who studied the Bible in high school and/or college, but whose beliefs range from pure atheism to cynical religiosity to vulgar materialism.  The drumming in of belief in their heads has not guaranteed their future.

On the other hand, I know tens of professors and students in UP who walk in deep faith, yet never once tried to talk about their beliefs in the University, for fear of, as Palma once proclaimed, “persecution or displeasure of the men in power.”  Our idea of academic freedom, it seems, does not include freedom of speech and assembly for Christians, powerless though they now are, and long-time University insiders though they have been.  This therefore brings me to raise a few questions about UP’s notion of academic freedom, the first question being: 1) Knowing fully well that belief is an individual decision and respecting the individual beliefs of my students, do I not have a right, as a teacher, to express my own beliefs, as long as I do not divert from the subject of the course assigned to me and I fulfill all of its objectives? 

2) Do Christian student organizations not have a right to hold their meetings, whether these be prayer meetings or discussion meetings, in public places, as Edru Abraham, my friend, had the right to practice his Kontra-Gapi in front of the Dean’s Office until the sounding brass got into somebody’s nerves? 

3) If Pascual was able to debate atheism with his students, if I am able to discuss nationalism, imperialism, and Marxism with my students, in 1969 as well as today, can’t a Christian discuss faith in class? 

4) If there is an Islamic Studies Center, why can’t there be a Christian Studies or Religious Studies or Comparative Religion Program that will scrutinize, among others, the ramifications of Christianity in the Philippines?  Is it not possible to discuss spirituality and belief, very much a part of Filipino society, in a secular university, for academic purposes, to determine their role in Philippine life? 

5) Is the university still subject to the incursions of the Catholic Church, as it was in the American colonial times of 1908-1911, when the American colonial administration saw fit to forbid instructors to “inculcate sectarian tenets into any of the teachings” or “influence students or attendants at the university for or against any particular church or religious sect”[5] because of its fear that revolt against its rule may come from its single most powerful enemy, the Catholic Church? 

6) Now that Delaney is dead and Robert Reyes, who was not a threat to UP, has left the UP parish, is there still a danger that “sectarianism” may rear its pretty head once again within the campus? 

7) Is not the presence of motley ideologies, opinions and ideas in the University enough to assure us that we will still be “secular” even if we entertain beliefs contrary to our own?

In fine, now that no external pressures from any particular church or religious sect are upon us, and academic freedom is already an established University tradition, why do we continue to be afraid of propounding spiritual belief and knowledge?

I lay these questions on the table for debate and discussion.  ***

[1] As quoted in Alfonso, Oscar M., ed. University of the Philippines: First 75 Years (1908-1983). Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1985, p. 197.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Agabin, Pacifico A., “Academic Freedom, the University and the Larger Community,” U.P. Gazette, Vol II No. 2, 28 Feb 1971, p. 34.

[4] Ibid, p. 33.

[5] University Charter, Section 10.

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