At a roadside stall where I bought vegetables late Monday night, the teenage vendor looked at the two bundles of native pechay in my hand and told me they cost 10 pesos each.
Then I chose sweet potatoes, which he weighed. The price for four large rooms: P60.
He then said to his fellow salesman who looked a little older and was busy with a cell phone: 20 and 60. The other guy looked up from the phone and said, 80. I put the first seller P100. He stopped looking at me, so I told him to give me P20. He glanced at the other guy, who nodded, and I got my change.
What future awaits a young man who cannot add beyond 10 plus 10, or subtract 80 from 100?
I’ve written about cooks who struggle to adapt recipes to smaller or larger versions because, even at 40, they can’t grasp the concept of fractions.
The problem extends to major government programs. Recently, as President Duterte himself was pushing for greater adoption of the COVID booster program, I found out why several blue collar workers I know took so long to get their primary vaccines, why they resisted national ID registration and why they are delaying getting their boosters: they can barely read, and they are embarrassed to seek help filling out official forms from more literate colleagues.
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This is the challenge facing our education system, which will soon be led by lawyer-turned-politician Sara Duterte-Carpio.
Inday spokeswoman Sara defended her qualifications for the job, even as another strong supporter, Albay representative Joey Salceda, suggested she take the welfare portfolio instead.
But the new vice president clearly likes a challenge. As I wrote, this is a period to give the new administration breathing space to show what its officials intend to do and to get on track. Perhaps a non-educator can think outside the box and bring new ideas to the difficult task of improving the quality of education in the Philippines.
The long line of professional educators before Inday Sara introduced many reforms to the system. Among the most notable were the addition of two additional years in basic education and the obligation of kindergarten, or kindergarten to 12th grade, and the use of the mother tongue as the language of instruction in the first years of primary school.
So far, the new education secretary has said little about her plans for her new office, other than that she wants to instill discipline and patriotism in young people.
No one knows exactly what she means. Emerging from a campaign awash in misinformation and revisionism, there are fears that these will be transferred to child rearing, for institutionalized brainwashing. The Church may have to expand its subsidized basic education program as a counterpoint.
Again, giving a new team the benefit of the doubt, the new VP could very well be thinking about discipline and patriotism in their most benign form, similar to what we see in Japan, Singapore and South Korea.
The need for this kind of patriotism underlies President Duterte’s push for the return of the mandatory Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program.
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Duterte-Carpio’s proposal is compulsory military service for all 18-year-old men and women, similar to those in Israel and South Korea. But Israel is in armed conflict with its neighbors, while South Korea is still technically at war with the north, whose unstable leader might decide to bomb Seoul on a bad day.
In our case, the only threat of invasion may come from China, but the new president has said he will pursue closer ties with Beijing. Moreover, Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana, in addition to pointing out that we are not on a war footing, pointed out that there is no fund for compulsory military training of young people.
What’s more likely under the new administration is the return of mandatory ROTC, and possibly citizen military training for all high school students.
For military reserve officer training, Bongbong Marcos may want to expand membership in the Vanguard Fraternity of the University of the Philippines, which grew out of the ROTC program and counts his father and martial law official Fabian Ver among its members. .
Higher education and ROTC will not fall under Inday Sara and the Ministry of Education; it reports to the Higher Education Commission. Given her influence in the new administration, however, will she also decide CHED?
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The problems plaguing the basic education system are daunting enough; pursuing higher education outside its jurisdiction would be one less headache for Duterte-Carpio. Higher education institutions are traditional hotbeds of activism, both among students and teachers. Protest movements often start in schools, and a politician as education secretary would be a prime target.
Under Ferdinand Marcos 2.0, militant activism is sure to intensify. To foster calm in universities and colleges at the start of the new administration, it might be a good idea to choose someone deemed politically neutral and respected as a professional educator to lead CHED.
The deeply divisive election campaign also appears to have energized young people of all political stripes. Already, there are heated debates among young people over whether instilling discipline and patriotism will mean restricting the free exchange of ideas.
Patriotism is a difficult concept to grasp. This is a major obstacle, especially since international proficiency tests have shown that Filipino students have poor reading comprehension skills.
Maybe Inday Sara can start by making sure, since free universal education is mandated by law, that every Filipino, even before reaching adolescence, knows the sum of 20 plus 60, and how much is 100 minus 80.