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COMMENCEMENT SPEECH: Conquer Ignorance and Injustice, Defend the Beauty and Dignity of Our Own Language

(John Nery, columnist at the Philippine Daily Inquirer and convenor of the Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation, delivered this address during the graduation rites of the Southern Philippines College in Cagayan de Oro City on April 8, 2019). 

Good afternoon.

I am both happy to be here and honored to be invited. Cagayan de Oro is my hometown, and it is always good to visit. For many of us who have moved elsewhere, or stayed away, or strayed, it is a sure source of joy to know that, yes, you can go home again.

At this commencement ceremony, we can perhaps commence with that thought. You can go home again. Some of you in grade school and in senior high school will be moving to other places of learning; most of you in college or post-graduate study will be leaving the campus, its suddenly empty halls and corridors, its classrooms layered with memories, to create a name and earn a living for yourselves. You will be saying goodbye to some of the most formative influences of your young lives; you will be leaving behind bits and pieces of yourselves.

But the good news is, You can go home again. When you want to renew your sense of purpose, or recharge your spiritual or emotional batteries, or remember what it was like to be you, you can go home to your school again, and it will be there, your memories in its safekeeping.

You have reached this stage in life because you did the hard work, you put in the extra time, you made the necessary sacrifice again and again. And let’s be completely honest; some of you are making this rite of passage because you got lucky. The way I did, many years ago. Good luck came to me in the form of the persevering teacher, the compassionate classmate, the understanding administrator; second chances are good luck by another name.

Perhaps a better name for luck is providence. Somehow, despite our many shortcomings, we ended up here. You did your best—Congratulations! Providence helped too—together, we say Thank you.

For almost 40 years, Southern Philippines College has been dedicated to a singular mission: developing “global professionals through lifelong knowledge, skills, and attitude.”

But we know that knowledge can quickly become obsolete, that skills can be lost from lack of use or relevance, and that attitude is also a matter of mood and temperament. In what sense, then, can knowledge or skills or attitude be described as “lifelong”?

The answers rest on what may be two of the most important gifts of education.

First, being educated means learning how to learn. We know that knowledge is not static; that it accumulates; that it builds on previous understanding, rejects old concepts, proposes new ideas. Those of you who learned to code four years ago may have to learn a new coding language four years from now; those of you who mastered ballistics last year may need to learn about new weapons and the traces they leave behind next year; those of you who studied traditional business models may need to study a completely new one when you join a company next month that conducts its business entirely online. We can multiply the examples, but the common lesson is clear: To be truly educated is not only to master what is called stock knowledge, but to draw the first principles, the best practices, the right processes from that stock knowledge, so you can apply them to new problems, future opportunities, unforeseen situations.

I can guarantee it: In the future, you will find yourself in a situation which you had not studied before, which was still impossible when you were a student, and in that situation, that new and completely original problem will be solved, that new and completely original opportunity will be met, not by what you had studied, but by how you had studied—how you had learned how to learn.

This lifelong habit allows us to meet Rizal’s objective, that of a moral people conquering ignorance.

In his long letter to the women of Malolos, written entirely in Tagalog, Rizal explained why using reason, developing a mind of one’s own, conquering ignorance, was crucial in the struggle to earn our freedom and to keep it.

“Ang kamangmañga’y kaalipinan, sapagka’t kung ano ang isip, ay ganoon ang tao: taong ualang sariling isip, ay taong ualang pagkatao; ang bulag na taga sunod sa isip ñg iba, ay parang hayop na susunodsunod sa tali.”

Let’s translate that. “Ignorance is slavery, because how a man thinks, is who he is. A man without a mind of his own is a man without humanity; the blind who follows the thought of others is like a beast who follows the rope that ties him to the ground.”

Learning how to learn, as a lifelong habit of conquering ignorance, is the first gift of education. Building character is the second gift.

We have all been taught to do our own work; we have all been taught not to cheat; we have all been taught to test ourselves, and to prepare ourselves for tests; we have all been taught not to lie, not to disrespect others, not to think only of ourselves; we have all been taught that a good life is a virtuous life, and that virtue is built on habit.

The vision statement of Southern Philippines College reminds us that the school is committed to three virtues in particular; it seeks to form “global professionals who are rooted in faith, nationalism, and humanitarianism.”

These are virtues of a good citizen. To be a true global professional, it is not enough that we are technically proficient and effective wherever we find ourselves in the world; we must be formed by habits that build in us a sense of a higher power and a greater meaning, a sense of nation, a sense of community.

This lifelong habit of building our character meets Rizal’s ideal of an educated people conquering injustice.

[“Ang tao’y inianak na parisparis, hubad at walang tali. Di linalang ñg Dios upang maalipin, di binigyan ñg isip para pabulag, at di hiniyasan ñg katuiran at ñg maulol ñg iba. Hindi kapalaloan ang di pag samba sa kapua tao, ang pag papaliwanag ñg isip at ang paggamit ñg matuid sa anomang bagay. Ang palalo’y ang napasasamba, ang bumubulag sa iba, at ang ibig papaniigin ang kaniyang ibig sa matuid at katampatan.”]

In that same letter to the women of Malolos, we read [my English translation]:

“Man is born equal, naked and without chains. Not created by God to be enslaved, not given a mind to be blinded, not adorned with reason to be fooled by others. It is not boastful to refuse to worship other men, to enlighten the mind and to use reason in all things. What is boastful is to want to be worshipped, to keep others blind, and to force what one wants on reason and justice.”

I can guarantee it: In the future, you will find yourself in a situation which will put your faith, your sense of nation, your fellow-feeling, to a severe test, which will make you question your innermost convictions, your sense of self, and in that situation, you will meet that test through the character you formed, or failed to.

To borrow Churchill’s language, if not his thought: We have all been taught that first we shape our habits, and then our habits shape us.

I am a journalist. I have a habit of asking questions, of being skeptical when met with official pieties. The question I most want to ask you today is: What does it mean to graduate from school at a time like this—in an age of disinformation, in an era where Filipino values are being twisted out of shape, at a time when the culture and language of the Bisaya, our culture and language, are used to justify serious sins and grievous crimes?

Is it painful for you too, as it is for me, to hear Bisaya culture and especially the Bisaya language used to justify foul words, filthy speech, uncivil discourse, illiberal tendencies, murderous thoughts, even blasphemy?

We should not take this abuse of our culture, these assaults on our language, sitting down.

We must fight back against “bakak.” We did not earn our education by being “bakakon.” From our earliest years, we were taught, at home and in school, at prayer time and in the playground and on the playing field, that honesty is the best policy. How would it be possible to master a discipline, to accumulate new knowledge, to transact business, if we cannot trust the people we deal with, and especially those who hold power over us, because they are dishonest, because they lie?

We must demand more than just “pataka.” We did not reach this stage in life through incompetence, through made-up, shoot-from-the-hip rationalizations. We are educated people; we have helped build highways in the Middle East, staff nursing stations in the United States, perform surgery in Singapore, run entire corporations in Asia. We can do better than merely offer “lama-lama.”

We must sound the call on “bugalbugal.” We are a virtuous and heroic people, not a race of braggarts, not a culture of loudmouth know-it-alls who in our braggadocio encourage cruelty, acts of outrage, even violence.

Unfortunately, at this stage in our history, Bisaya is now associated with bakak, pataka, bugalbugal.

“Our languages,” the great Mindanaoan Jesuit Father Miguel Bernad once said, “have a beauty and dignity of their own.” He gave a simple example. He had asked a cousin of his, who was the governor of a low-income province at the time, where he managed to find the money for the province’s many public works projects. The answer was short and sweet and wise, like a proverb.

“Dunay daghang sapi, kung dili usikan.”

“There is plenty of money if you don’t waste it”—It sounds good in English, but not quite as good in Binisaya. “Notice the words, the beauty, the musicality,” Father Bernad said. “Dunay daghang sapi, kung dili usikan.”

The truth is, Binisaya, or Cebuano or Sugbuanon, is as capable of depth and nuance and humor and emotion as any other language; it is not the language of the brusque and the barbaric, the casually cruel and the pathological. It has a beauty and dignity of its own.

The scholarship of Resil Mojares, now a National Artist, includes in its generous scope his studies on Cebuano or Bisayan literature. For instance, his essay on the Cebuano poet Vicente Ranudo teaches us how to read a poem, or “balak,” in Cebuano. A “balak” is both intention (the literal meaning of the word) and the expression of that intention. He quotes Ranudo’s own theorizing: “ang hunahuna nagauna sa buhat ug maoy nagahatag gahum aron ang buhat mahimo. Kong walay hunahuna, walay buhat.”

Mojares’ translation reinforces our sense that Ranudo is a nimble, resourceful thinker in his, in our, native tongue: “thought precedes work and gives the power that makes the deed possible. Without thought there is no work.”

Even Rizal, in his exile in Dapitan, learned to speak, and appreciate, our native language.

In July 1894, two years after he was banished, he wrote his great friend Ferdinand Blumentritt a letter in four languages: German, English, French, and Spanish. The English section, quite rusty because of Rizal’s lack of practice, included this paragraph:

“This Gewalttätigkeit [outrage] exerced [maybe he meant coerced or exerted] upon me gave me a new language, the Bisaya; taught me how to steer a vessel and to manage a canoe; made me better acquainted with my country and presented me with some thousands of dollars! God can send you your fortune amidst the persecutions of your fiends! How do you find my English?”

Other letters spoke of his discoveries about the grammar of Bisaya. He found it a language eminently worthy of study and of greater use. I wonder what Rizal would have made of Ranudo’s subtle thought, expressed in that nuanced phrasing. “Kong walay hunahuna, walay buhat.”

I would like to end where the Southern Philippines College experience begins, with your seal and motto. In it we read: “Service to God and Humanity.”

Today, as you graduate, and commence a new life of greater usefulness and purpose, remind yourself—

To serve God, though others call him stupid.

To serve Humanity, though others think the poor, the wounded, the excluded, are less than fully human.

And to serve God and Humanity by standing up for our culture and our language. There is where we live. It is under attack; to defend it, we must go home again.


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