Nurturing Wisdom through the Liberal Arts

| Written by Silvino V. Epistola

A poster from an exhibit during the June 18, 2011 UP College of Liberal Arts Centennial Celebration. Photo by Jun Madrid, UP MPRO.

 

Finally, for many Filipinos, education has become much too old-fashioned to fit in today’s scheme of things. Even those who hold college degrees now say that education has lost its efficacy, but as many would hasten to add, this is so only because now it is not 1950 but 2000. Old-time education is simply no longer attuned to the rapid pace of our technological times.

Since the 1960s, the University of the Philippines, for one, has been changing. The old College of Liberal Arts was split three ways into the University College, which was given the new General Education Program; the College of Arts and Sciences, which would offer the Bachelor Arts and Bachelor of Science degree programs; and the Graduate School, which would run the highly specialized Master of Arts degree programs.

The resulting arrangement was logical. But someone should have taken into account the careerism endemic in the faculty. For instance, it did not look good career-wise for a faculty member not to belong to the Graduate School. Certainly no professor would accept an appointment in the University College, for this could mean standing on the lowest rung of the faculty hierarchy till one’s retirement. To solve the impasse, the UP Regents abolished the University College and the Graduate School and allowed another three-way split, after the usual heated faculty debates.

To this day, the various undergraduate and graduate arts and sciences degree programs are administered each by the College of Arts and Letters, the College of Science and the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy.

Did this mean that the old College of Liberal Arts was restored to life through a different name? Sadly, no! As some realized even then, the operative part of the title, College of Arts and Sciences, was not “College” but “Arts and Sciences” with emphasis on “and.” What waylaid the mind was the idea that the arts and sciences were component subjects of the College of Liberal Arts as well as that of the College of Arts and Sciences. Hence the mistaken notion that the College of Arts and Sciences restored the College of Liberal Arts to life.

We also have forgotten the meaning of “liberal arts.” Actually, all we understood is the separateness of the arts and sciences. For this reason, those working in the sciences regard the arts as so much superfluous baggage, and those working in the arts think that the sciences are an oppressive imposition on their spirit.

 

The poster exhibit at the lobby of Palma Hall showing the history and evolution of the UP College of Liberal Arts during the June 18, 2011 UP College of Liberal Arts Centennial Celebration. Photo by Jun Madrid, UP MPRO.

 

Today, President Francisco Nemenzo, the man who brings back the Liberal Arts to UP, presides over its Commencement Exercises, his first. He will confer the degrees which had been earned by graduates whose minds are still dominated by the notion of the separate cultures of the arts and sciences. His hope is that this will be the last Commencement Exercises in which degrees are conferred a graduating class alienated from the unity of the arts and sciences.

All this, of course, lies in President Nemenzo’s dream of making the UP a university that would have the knowledge to make nuclear bombs and the wisdom not to use them. The important thing, then, is wisdom. As he put it in a speech not too long ago, “Only an authentic university has the appropriate organization, scope of learning and academic freedom to nurture wisdom.”

A university cannot teach students everything about anything, but it can teach them to teach themselves. In its heyday, the UP had a full-blown Liberal Arts Program to do just that. Today, a 40-year-old General Education Program is continuously being revitalized to produce a UP graduate who understands the unity of the arts and sciences well enough to teach himself not only what he wants to learn, but also to learn, as Alvin Toffler puts it, “to make decisions and to relate to other people.”

Prof. Silvino V. Epistola was a professor first at the UP Department of English, before moving on to teach Asian studies and philosophies at the UP Asian Center and UP Department of Philosophy. He was also an award-winning fictionist and essayist.


Condensed from the original article published in the UP Forum May-June 2000 issue

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