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Monday, November 09, 2009

the good, the bad, and the ambiguous: americanization and the thomasites-sponsored philippine education

Before the turn of the twentieth century, shortly right after the military loss of Spain to the United States of America over the colony known before as the Philippine Islands, the U.S. Army established the first public school in the historic Corregidor Island off Bataan Peninsula. Without formal training in teaching, the soldiers nonetheless could be credited for having laid the bricks of the Philippine public school system via teaching English to the natives less than one month after their designation in the archipelago. The first batch of real teachers arrived—all 48 of them—aboard the “Sheridan” to teach not only English but also basic education to the Filipinos.
These were the precursors of the teachers called “Thomasites,” who were in turn the forerunners of the present-day U.S. Peace Corps. What these American mentors and those that followed them became known for was the vessel that transported them to the Western end of the Pacific—it was a former cattle ship called USS “Thomas.” Numbering 530 of whom 365 were male and 165 were female, the Thomasites docked at Manila Bay on August 21, 1901 and after two days of quarantine, were permitted to disembark the ship. They were subsequently deployed in provinces as far off as Cagayan, Zambales, Batangas, Masbate, Negros, Cebu and Sulu. Thus began the education that reached beyond the privileged classes in post-Hispanic Philippines.
Establishing public schools that attracted the Filipino masses, the Thomasites taught basic education using English as the medium of instruction. The attraction factor was mainly due to the opportunity seen by the underprivileged to become part of the elite once educated. Centuries before, the Spanish priests taught the natives no more than religious prayers and rituals and, rather belatedly, the Spanish language in mid-19th century. The teaching of English was a revolution away from the Spanish-sponsored teaching which was primarily done in the indigenous languages. With the American-sponsored public education, the average Filipino was now capable of attending school and had an equal academic footing with the elite. Effective education of the masses, however, did not come as easily since the pupils tended to attend classes at random and be absent during, say, town and other such festivities. The elementary schools were followed by vocational schools which the American teachers deemed as preparatory institutions for Filipinos pursuing their respective careers. The founding of the country’s only national university, the University of the Philippines, opened to Filipinos further American-sponsored primary courses in the tertiary level.
Aside from the more pronounced basic education on English, grammar, reading, mathematics, geography, practical arts and athletics, the American teachers also taught their culture, values and their homegrown style of democracy to the natives. The pioneering batch of the Thomasites was succeeded by other Thomasite missionaries that educated the Filipino people. Those taught by the Thomasites with brilliant academic showing were further honed by being sent to the mainland US as pensionado students. These predecessors of the Fulbright scholars studied in the mother country and then returned to the Philippines to apply what they learned there.
The American-sponsored education in the colonial Philippines is an amalgamation of the good, the bad, and the ambiguous. It is good in that the Filipinos were given the chance to study, a fact that was denied to the natives by the Spaniards. It is an accepted truth that education liberates people by the acquisition of empowering knowledge, and with the teaching of the Thomasites, the masses’ dream of upward mobility was closer in reality. Hence, this explains why most Filipinos treat education as a significant element in their lives. Furthermore, the establishment of the public school system in the Philippines was also good since education was not any longer limited to the wealthy or elite classes; rather, it catered to the masses which case advanced the literacy movement in the Philippines. In this light, the American sponsors of this institution brought social change in the Philippine landscape.
This very alteration in the Philippine society spawned the bad side of the colonial education under the Americans. The manner in which the Americans taught their homegrown education was such that it planted seeds of Americanization in the minds of the Filipinos. By imbuing American values and culture to the locals, the Thomasites displaced Filipinization that the youth needed to identify themselves with their motherland and, worse, made any other culture as inferior compared to the Americans. This accounts for the lingering “Stateside” mentality among Filipinos whether they actually set foot in the US or they were further corrupted by the imperializing powers of Hollywoodization, McDonaldization and other such neocolonialisms.
The ambiguous comes in the form of the Philippines being the third largest English-speaking nation in the whole planet as a result of the American-sponsored education. On the one hand, the proficiency in English comes handy in landing professional positions here and abroad, especially in consideration of the increasingly globalizing world. With English as the dominant language of business and information, how can an Anglophilic Filipino lose? On the other hand, it is this love for the English language that contaminates the Filipinos’ sense of identity, for in the process of placing status symbol in English, the Filipino language languishes in its derision as a mother tongue associated with the bakya or the jologs. This ambiguity places the American-sponsored education in the middle of a tightrope wherein the question of the boon or the bane of this colonial legacy remains a debate among the colonialists and the nativists.

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