Thursday, August 5, 2010

Joma Sison's Unforgettable Years as English Major Iskolar ng Bayan

by PROF. JOSE MARIA SISON, Bachelor of Arts, English Major, 1959 

I had wished to take an undergraduate course in journalism as my preparation for going to the UP College of Law. Thus, I enrolled in the journalism and creative writing program of the English Department in June 1956. The following year the name of the program or the program itself seemed to have disappeared. I simply became an English major. When I first arrived in UP Diliman, I was impressed by the Oblation and by the panorama of green framing the awesomely tall structures of concrete. I thought that the campus was conducive to study and poetic flights as well as physical exercise from building to building. I liked the wide spaces of Diliman even as I had to spend much of the time in enclosures, like the classrooms and the basement cafeteria of the College of Liberal Arts or the little green house between the pavilions of the biological and physical sciences.

The Struggle Between the Liberals and the Religio-Sectarians

Young Joma Sison
 UP Diliman was interesting for being refreshingly different from the universities inserted in downtown Manila amidst the dusty cacophony of the motor traffic. It was even more interesting as a battleground of contending ideas. I came to the UP exactly when there was an intense struggle between the liberals and the religio-sectarians. Just before my enrollment as freshman, the pious UP president Dr. Vidal Tan inflamed the struggle by delivering a commencement address harping on Christian heritage as the core of academic responsibility.

The American Jesuit priest Fr. John Delaney, Catholic chaplain of the UP Diliman community had launched a crusade together with the UP Student Catholic Action and the faculty-based Iota Eta Sigma to abolish the fraternities for being incorrigibly violent, to rid the university of atheists and communists, to install a department of religion and to replace Philosophy 1 (Symbolic Logic) with Mathematics 0 (Deductive Reasoning) as a General Education requirement.

On August 26, 1956, 154 professors and four administrators joined up to form the Society for the Advancement of Academic Freedom. They decried the recrudescence of religious intolerance and advocated the liberal principle of the separation of church and state. The logical positivist and agnostic Dr. Ricardo Pascual, head of the Philosophy Department, stood his ground against accusations that his department was promoting atheism and argued the need for inductive reasoning provided by symbolic logic. 

The struggle between the liberals and the religio-sectarians raged in the campus electoral campaigns, in the student council, in the Philippine Collegian and in faculty meetings. The UPSCA was a powerhouse in campus politics as it sought to stigmatize the fraternities for hazing neophytes. In a counteroffensive to the religio-sectarians, the Philippine Collegian under the editorship of Jose Masakayan published a book on academic freedom.

The 1957 enactment of the Anti-Subversion Law, which had been pushed by the American Jesuit priest Arthur Weiss and the US embassy, tended to favor the religio-sectarians who Red-baited the liberals on the campus and who sniped at the Noli-Fili Law and Prof. Teodoro Agoncillo’s Revolt of the Masses. But the Recto nationalist crusade had continued to impact on the most discerning UP faculty members and students since Recto delivered in 1951 his address against the mendicant foreign policy of the Philippine government. For inviting him to speak, Dr. Bienvenido Gonzalez was removed by President Elpidio Quirino and replaced by the Catholic Church recommendee Dr. Vidal Tan.

The liberals in the UP could never forget the interference of Quirino, especially because UP president Dr. Vidal Tan was a church militant ever inspiring to the religio-sectarians on the UP campus. However, he resigned in 1957 after losing support within the Board of Regents. When Dr. Vicente Sinco assumed the presidency in 1958, he suspended the UPSCA-dominated Student Council for acts violative of the separation of church and state and for fomenting religious strife. He appointed progressive professors to become heads of faculty departments. He accorded professorial tenure to progressive lecturers. He launched the Colloqium Series on Nationalism.

When I was a college freshman, I took for granted that the English Department had a large number of faculty members and occupied a large space in front of the lobby of the College of Liberal Arts and that all students of whatever field of study had to take 12 units of English in four semesters. What impressed me most was the long line of nationally well-known writers, both conservative and progressive, who had belonged to the English Department as teachers or students. The writer alumni of the department included Carlos P. Romulo, Salvador Lopez and Jose Lansang.

The best known creative writers who were then in the department were the novelist N. V. M. Gonzalez, short story writers Francisco Arcellana and Rony V. Diaz, the poets Ricaredo Demetillo, Virginia Moreno and Alfonso Santos and the playwright Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero. The best known essayists who were either scholars or literary critics included Leopoldo Yabes, S. V. Epistola, Elmer Ordonez and students Epifanio San Juan, Petronilo Bn. Daroy and Benito Lim. The best known journalists who were professorial lecturers were the columnist I. P. Soliongco and editors Armando J. Malay and Hernando Abaya.

I had excellent teachers. I would consider as best those who, irrespective of their philosophical or political viewpoints, had effective teaching skills. They had a mastery of their subject. They were systematic in presentation and articulate. They encouraged critical thinking and discussion between mentor and students. They included Maria Santos my teacher in English grammar and composition and my teachers in higher English Dr. Alfredo Morales, Dolores Stephens Feria, Leopoldo Yabes, Concepcion Dadufalza, J. D. Constantino. Armando Malay, Alejandro Casambre, Nilda Joven, Ricaredo Demetillo and Francisco Arcellana. 
The English Department was a base of the Iota Eta Sigma, the conservative Catholic faculty group. But there were also the teachers and students who belonged to the progressive liberal current. The department was a hotbed of controversies. I came to know about the contending groups of faculty members in the struggle between the liberals and the religio-sectarians. I also observed how the student Epifanio San Juan, who was well known for his exegesis of Jean Paul Sartre, got into trouble with the moral or prudish majority in the department, represented by J. D. Constantino, when he used a supposedly forbidden word in a poem.

My Share of the Controversies
I had my share of controversies. The first one arose when, as president of the UP Journalism Club, I invited Fr, Hilario Lim in early 1959 to speak on the issue of Filipinizing the foreign-controlled religious orders and academic institutions. He had just been expelled by the Jesuit order for his advocacy of Filipinization. The club adviser Prof. Amando Malay and I thought that it would be informative, enlightening and beneficial for the UP academic community to listen to Fr Lim. 

We were disappointed that upon the advice of Prof. Ricardo Pascual the Sinco administration refused to allow Fr. Lim to speak in the UP on the ground that he was a priest and that allowing him to speak would infringe on the principle of the separation of the church and state. I criticized and protested the ban in the campus and national media. Fr. Lim himself picketed Quezon Hall for several weeks. After he left the priesthood, Prof. Teodoro A. Agoncillo took him as a faculty member in the Department of History.

It was in 1958 that I matured as a progressive liberal, differentiated myself from the conservative and pro-imperialist kind of liberal and began to study Marxism systematically. I gained access to Marxist books in the cellar of the UP Main library and in the private libraries of some professors. From my readings and observation of social reality, I came eventually to the conclusion that the unfinished Philippine revolution could be resumed under the leadership of the working class and on the basis of the worker-peasant-intelligentsia alliance in order to achieve national liberation and democracy against US imperialism and the local exploiting classes of big compradors and landlords.

I finished in three years the four-year program for Bachelor of Arts in English by taking extra loads during regular terms and two summers. I was in a hurry to proceed to the College of Law until Julie de Lima and I decided to get married in 1959. In order to have a source of income to augment her salary as a librarian, I had to apply to the English Department for the NEC-AID scholarship grant and teaching fellowship, which required me to teach English and take the masteral course in English and Comparative Literature from 1959 to 1961.

Together with other graduate students as well as with undergraduate students in various colleges and departments, I formed the Student Cultural Association of the UP (SCAUP) and became its chairman in 1959. Our purpose was to confront the UP Student Catholic Action at the level of struggle between the liberal and the religio-sectarians, to have an alliance with the progressive liberals and to raise the level of struggle to one between the Left and the Right on a comprehensive range of social, economic, political and cultural issues, going beyond the issue of academic freedom and civil liberties.

We criticized and repudiated the official ideology of the state and the UP, which is the conservative and pro-imperialist type of liberalism that runs counter to the progressive liberalism and anti-colonialism of the old national democratic revolution of 1896. We were critical of the overwhelming influence of US cultural imperialism over Philippine society and the university. We appreciated Teodoro Agoncillo’s writing of Philippine history from the viewpoint of the Filipino people and the scholarly works rediscovering and promoting the national democratic revolution. We heeded the call of Recto for a Second Propaganda Movement. We aimed to nurture the embryo of the revolutionary university within the counterrevolutionary university and to get rid of the cultural hegemony of US imperialism and the local reactionary classes.

We intended to raise the level of intellectual and political struggle within the UP by propagating among the students, faculty members and non-academic employees the line of national democratic revolution under the leadership of the working class and by undertaking group discussions in Marxism which had to be clandestine because of the Anti-Subversion Law. We gave priority to the recruitment of three distinct types of students: those who were leading other campus organizations, those who could write for the Philippine Collegian and those who had good marks and were thus qualified to run in campus elections. 

The SCAUP went into action, arousing and mobilizing the students for mass protest in March 1961, when the congressional Committee on Anti-Filipino Activities (CAFA) subpoenaed UP professors for investigation regarding articles in UP publications which the CAFA considered communist and in violation of the Anti-Subversion Law. The articles were the “Peasant War in the Philippines: A study of the causes of social unrest in the Philippines—an analysis of the Philippine political economy” in the Philippine Social Science and Humanities Review in 1958, the editorial “The Tower of Babel” in the 1960 Philippinensian and my feature article “Requiem for Lumumba” (under the pen name Andres Gregorio) in the March 1, 1961 issue of the Philippine Collegian.

The SCAUP cooperated with the Inter-Fraternity and Sorority Conference (IFSC), headed by the SCAUP member and English major Ferdinand Tinio, in convening the meeting of UP student leaders to discuss, decide and plan the protest rally against the CAFA anti-communist witch hunt and the Anti-Subversion Law. The student leaders signed the manifesto proposed by the SCAUP. The main slogan was the defense of academic freedom and civil liberties. The content of the articles at issue was anti-imperialist and anti-feudal. The Philippine Collegian supported the protest rally. It was held on March 14, 1961, with the participation of 5000 students. Hundreds of them succeeded in entering the Congress hall and literally scuttled the CAFA hearings.

Outraged by the anti-communist witch hunt and inspired by the success of the anti-CAFA rally, the Philippine Collegian published editorials, columns and feature articles that did not only defend academic freedom and civil liberties but also propagated the ideas of the national democratic movement against imperialism and feudalism. The consecu-tive editorships of Reynato Puno, Leonardo Quisumbing, Luis V. Teodoro, Jr., Ferdinand Tinio and Rene Navarro in the early 1960s promoted the national democratic line. Teodoro and Tinio were from the English Department.

The editors were either members or friends of the SCAUP and welcomed the contributions from progressive writers, including those from SCAUP. The Philippine Collegian became a highly important medium for expressing the ideas of the national democratic movement not only in the UP but also beyond. Petronilo Bn. Daroy and I initiated and edited a series of little magazines to spread patriotic and progressive views on major issues. The magazines included Fugitive Review, Cogent and Diliman Observer in 1960 and 1961. Each was short-lived for lack of funds to pay for printing. It would only be in 1963 that the Progressive Review could come out as a relatively stable publication, lasting up to 1968. 

In one more controversy, I engaged the the English Department head Dr. Dionisia Rola in a debate on the pages of the Philippine Collegian regarding the content of the English subject called Great Thoughts. I criticized the fact that the study materials were predominantly texts of Catholic thinkers, like Cardinal Newman, G. K. Chesterton, Jacques Maritain, Hilaire Belloc and Etienne Gilson. I demanded that progressive writings, including those of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao and other Marxist thinkers and revolutionaries, should also be included in the syllabus for the subject.

As a result of the anti-CAFA rally, the English Department did not renew my teaching fellowship. The loss of my teaching fellowship at the English Department was a blessing in disguise for the national democratic movement. I gained time to do political work among students on the UP campus and on other campuses. Aroused by the anti-CAFA rally, students in other universities in downtown Manila became interested in the student movement in the UP. I iinitiated study circles among students in the Philippine College of Commerce, the University of the East, the Manuel L. Quezon University and the Lyceum University in 1961 and 1962. The SCAUP members and their fellow progressives in other universities joined the Kabataang Makabayan, which would play a key role in the nationwide spread of the new democratic movement.

Debt of Gratitude to the English Department and the UP
In my intellectual development, I owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to my teachers in the English Department. They emphasized to me the importance of scientific outlook, scholarship, critical thinking and creativity. They encouraged me to read and study a wide range of creative works and literary criticism and to appreciate the writing style of various authors. I was comfortable with and inspired by teachers whose views were agreeable to me. But even in the case of teachers with whom I did not agree, I was challenged by their views and learned from the way they communicated these in writing and speech.

I had many teachers who assiduously followed the course outline and prodded the students to read beyond the textbook or even beyond the syllabus. I was always free to choose the topic for the research paper required in a subject. I experienced a wide range of teaching styles: polished and learned, dramatic and persuasive, outline-conscious but anecdotal and funny or simple and humdrum in the classroom but demanding in the assignment of homework or library work. I prefer not to mention the teachers concerned because I might be accused of stereotyping them. They had more complex characters and were not reducible to my impressions. Nevertheless, I was fortunate not to have any authoritarian teacher (the so-called terror type) because I avoided this like the plague.

Whatever I learned in terms of content and style from my teachers in the English Department served me well when I myself became a teacher and when I plunged further into activism for the national democratic movement. In both preoccupations, I found most useful and effective the research, writing and speaking skills that I developed as an English major. From so many term papers and speaking exercises, I learned to compose my thoughts, introducing, building up and letting them march to the conclusion. And, of course, the best that I learned from the poetry reading assignments was to hone my own skill at writing poetry.

As a teaching fellow in the English Department from 1959 to 1961, my first assignment was to teach English grammar and composition and intensive English which involved putting students with deficiencies in English through drills in grammar and pronunciation. I certainly learned to be diligent, patient and adept at using time because teaching intensive English was grueling and time consuming. This involved daily classroom exercises and frequent correction of written tests. 

It took a lot of energy from me to the prejudice of my reading obligations in my masteral course, my extracurricular political and literary activities, and family responsibilities. To aggravate my situation, the UP vice president gave me speech writing assignments. Fortunately before I could rebel against my excessive work load, the head of the English department wrote a strongly worded memorandum to the UP vice president to advise him to stop giving me additional work load. I learned quite early to work my way through the academic bureaucracy.

As regards my political activism, especially its critical and revolutionary content, I had drawn positive and negative lessons from my personal experience, social observations and education since childhood. But of course, it was while I was an undergraduate English major that I matured as a patriotic and progressive liberal and advanced further to being a Marxist revolutionary, due to extracurricular readings and activities and interactions with teachers and students in the English Department and other departments. All these were available to me within the latitude of what the English Department and the entire university proclaimed as liberal education.

I am always proud of having been an English major for the reasons that I have already presented. English has been a medium for my philosophical, political, artistic and emotional development. By force of circumstances, it is still the main official medium of university education and professional and bureaucrat transactions. 

I find English as a medium of great service to the people on the domestic and international scale even as the national democratic movement, including me, has long demanded the adoption of the national language as the main medium and I have learned how to use it in writing and speech. 

Everyone understands that the English language, even as it was imposed by US imperialism, can be used by the national democratic movement in the same way that Jose Rizal and others in the Second Propaganda Movement as well as the leaders of the old democratic revolution used Spanish against Spanish colonialism and US imperialism. 

The author has two books of poetry Brothers and Other Poems, 1961, and Prison and Beyond, 1984, besides Struggle for National Democracy, 1967, and Philippine Revolution and Society, 1971, under the pseudonym Amado Guerrero. He received the SEA Write Award, 1986.

(Reprinted with permission from Mr. Jose Maria Sison) 



Sison, Jose Mari. Unforgettable years as English major. The Manila 1 August 2010.

Photo credit:

Joma Sison @ Facebook

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