NELSON NAVARRO:  THE U.P. THAT I REMEMBER

QUEZON CITY,
June 7, 2004  (MALAYA) By NELSON A. NAVARRO - IT was deemed politically correct and most fashionable in my day to refer to the University of the Philippines as "The Republic of Diliman."

Unlike the great Manuel L. Quezon's love-hate obsession with UP (he was from UST), Ferdinand Marcos' devotion to his alma mater was legend. The would-be dictator styled himself as the President of the Philippines who truly loved the academe, especially our independent republic of excellence and high moral purpose. Flattery always worked with the Diliman crowd.

It was the best of times in the late Sixties. That old UP conceit, nationalism, was on everybody's lips. The siren song of revolution ala Mao Zedong and Che Guevarra was in the air. Student Power was on the march from Berkeley to Paris, and UP's brand of ilustrado activism was political chic.

* * *

We were spoiled brats in the high summer of the Filipino ruling class, before everything turned sour,recalls one critical writer who came of age in those magical years. Marcos and his kind indulged us, anointed us the next generation of the well-educated elite, they who paid lip service to democracy but were feudal lords at heart. We were curious and we kept asking embarrassing questions. We couldn't fathom why this elite could spawn or tolerate so much poverty and corruption in our country.

But how were we to know? We were young, we were having fun, we were playing revolution, and we wanted to have it all.

Having studied and lived in Diliman during the gloriously liberal Carlos Romulo-SP Lopez regimes, I had a grand time and I left with golden memories to last three lifetimes. I entered freshman year crusading against the compulsory teaching of the Spanish language, fought against American intervention in Vietnam, and capped it all by storming the gates of Malacanang and joining the Diliman Commune (The first liberated zone of the Philippines) at the height of the First Quarter Storm in the early 1970s.

* * *

Many times I have written about this unforgettable period of my life by shamelessly quoting Wordsworth's paean to the French Revolution: Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ And to be young was very heaven.

Diliman was a world unto itself, many dimensions removed from the earthly pleasures and miseries of Manila. It lay in splendid isolation at the end of the Quiapo-Balara bus route, when Manila was one of Asia's proud capitals and Quezon City could be called bucolic and pleasant. The sordid squatter colonies hadn't yet infested UP's 500-hectare campus, much of it verdant green and evoking some country club blessed with a golf course.

Both Romulo and Lopez had built distinguished careers in the foreign service, capped by top posts in the United Nations before retiring to assume the UP presidency, one after the other. The former was a closet monarchist who endowed Diliman with a heady sense of power and majesty. Backed up by generous Ford and Rockefeller funding, he set off a building spree that gave Diliman a passable First World look. The lawns were kept eternally green and manicured and the flower beds were forever abloom.

* * *

Every morning at 7 a.m., Romulo's black limousine would arrive at Quezon Hall after a breezy drive from his Forbes Park home. A Philippine Collegian editor in his youth, he kept an open door for wannabes like me who suffered his monologues about New York and Bataan. Seeing him was like being ushered into a ceremonial hall worthy of Mussolini. What seemed a long distance from the door to the great man's desk may have been calculated to reduce lesser mortals into vassals before the imperial presence.

It was during the Romulo era that Prof. Eliseo Pajaro, composer-conductor of the UP Orchestra, premiered a cantata evoking Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The University of the Philippines, thundered the chorus amidst drums and cymbals, is the citadel of truth! The citadel of Truth!

Foreign dignitaries kept dropping by and were honored with military parades by the ROTC Rayadillo Model Company, which Romulo patterned after Aguinaldo's elite guard. Such names as Madame Pandit, Nehru's headstrong sister, Robert Kennedy, President Sukarno, Nobel Laureate Jonas Salk and novelist Han Suyin come to mind.

What was it like to bask in the hallowed groves of Old Diliman?

Designed as the capstone of the public school system that the US set up right after the conquest, UP couldn't help but be frankly elitist. Only valedictorians, salutatorians and honor students were accepted. Those without honors had to pass qualifying examinations. The toughest academic regimen awaited them, beginning with English and mathematics, which required strict discipline enforced by the terrible fear of getting kicked out.

* * *

There was blind, if masochistic worship of scholarship and honors. Once a year, there would be a special convocation to honor scholars. One I attended culminated with some dean mentioning somebody's name and bellowing, university scholar, 14 consecutive semesters!That nerd in medical school did nothing but study for 7 years. The audience erupted in wild applause.

The common view before the FQS, I think, was that by being in UP, you were already serving the nation. You were bright and you studied very hard, therefore you were entitled to a privileged place under the Philippine sun.

Lip service was paid to dissent and to serving the people, but only as a lark and part of growing up. There was the absolute horror of being tagged a subversive, but also the reverse snobbery of radical causes like the Kabataang Makabayan (KM). Diliman was crawling with bohemian types.

Most students were, however, into books and ambition, and were oblivious of the nation's deepening poverty and underdevelopment. Coeds came to class dolled up like Sandra Dee. Guys passed for Bobby Darin in polo shirts and slacks. Hay rides, lantern parades, fraternity and sorority rivalries, and politics aping the big time made them the envy of students across the land.

* * *

This dream world ended abruptly in 1972. I was on a student trip to New York when martial law was declared and there I was marooned for the next 17 years. In those pre-internet days, news from home came in trickles.

By the time I resettled in Manila, it was clear that the old Camelot days were gone forever. I made some visits down memory lane and saw how low UP had gone in the world. Vinzons Hall seemed a pigsty. Students dressed like slobs. They worried about parking and frat rumbles, not the betrayal of Edsa democracy. Diliman had morphed into some grim corner of Calcutta.

It was the worse of times. UP had lost its sparkle and especially its status as pre-eminent academic institution in Asia. From high respectability in the 1960s, it had plummeted to something like No.38 in the rankings. And to think we once had classmates from Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia who regarded U.P. with reverence and as close to Harvard as they could get.

Add to that the shift of the student base coming from public to private high schools and we have a university that has become even more elitist as its academic standing has sank into the ground. Because the public schools, from elementary to high school, have fallen apart in terms of standards, more and more U.P. students are now drawn from elite schools in Metro-Manila and Luzon. U.P's redeeming role as primary vehicle of upward mobility for bright boys and girls from the provinces no longer holds true.

* * *

Think of Carlos Romulo, SP Lopez, Ferdinand Marcos, Manuel Roxas, Elpidio Quirino, Jorge Bocobo and many other notables of humble provincial backgrounds seeking to enter U.P. under present conditions and, yes, weep bitter tears. It's goodbye to equal opportunity and all that.

One of the few unblemished names in high office today tells me of a rather unsettling encounter with a group of women lawyers who wanted some feisty character to grace their reunion "We now have as many bar topnotchers as the men," boasted a top practitioner. "The majority of today's law students are women, "said another. "There are more and more women judges, even in the Supreme Court, "added another excited lady.

A respected scholar and bar topnotcher when it still mattered, the official felt obliged to jump into the raging orgy of UP pride and self-congratulation. "It's not a matter of beating the men, "she said. "It's not just a matter of being excellent. Excellence for what? What about justice, ethics and social responsibility? Dead silence descended upon the room.

* * *

"This institution, the guest speaker said of their beloved law school, "is perhaps the single most culpable for the decline of this country and why we have sank so low in the world. The bright minds who invented the coconut levy came from here. So did the wise guys who wrote those decrees and lent their brains and prestige to Marcos. Where do you think the biggest crooks come from? Why do they always go scot free? And where is the remorse?"

Looking back, the official wry concedes it was another exercise in futility. The thunderbolts amounted to no more than a little tempest in a teapot, blithely ignored by those who have everything to gain and nothing to lose under the wonderful status quo. Let's face it, some glory in entitlements and really believe all's well with Philippine democracy. Others beg to disagree and pay the price, some falling in the night. The silent majority are just tired of the charade and pretend they live somewhere else. Such is life.

(Journalist Nelson Navarro was former Philippine Collegian Editor in 1968.)


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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