by Arnold P. Alamon


AFTER learning about the plight of the striking farm workers of Hacienda Luisita, I asked my students to share their thoughts and there were a few who expressed the expected ambivalence of the disaffected youth.

While they feel for the workers and recognize the peasants’ right to own the land they till and were properly violated by the massacre that ensued, the same students observed that the strike was a pointless exercise that regrettably led to the waste of lives. They further lament that despite the courage and sacrifices of the peasants, they remain landless and oppressed till now.

There is much to be said about the legitimacy of the struggle of the farm workers who have been deprived of their rights, were helplessly gunned down, and yet continue to be oppressed as in the case of the sugarcane plantation workers of Luisita. But I would like to comment instead on this common disposition among both the young and old to maintain positions of ambivalence that smacks of an unhealthy skepticism masquerading as astuteness.

It is always necessary to achieve an understanding of the whys and wherefores of two opposing positions. This includes achieving a comprehensive vista of the history and social position of the various players weighed against other factors that may come into play. Before forming the preliminary contours of an opinion that one may take on, these are important first steps. But the process of learning does not end here as most practitioners and students in the academe are wont to do.

photo by Max Santiago
photo by Max B. Santiago

It is the trap of relativism that I am describing here, a disposition that seems to have afflicted academics and students trained in the ivory tower culture of universities. They master the varying discourses but fail to assess the value of one versus the other thinking that the task of learning ends with a rudimentary understanding of the causes of debate but not to take sides.

I remember a conversation I had with a well-known figure from the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy of UP-Diliman right at the fabled halls of the Palma Hall lobby. The task of the academe, according to her, is supposedly to offer the various available discourses to the student like items of a restaurant menu. It is up to the student to determine what position she would take on, she continued, as if they were just choosing which combo meal to buy.

[quote_center]The arm-chair should be abandoned for field work or in another parlance, to leave the classroom and integrate with the masses.[/quote_center]

But the university should not merely be a marketplace of ideas nor should it be like a fast food joint that caters to easy and palatable intellectual choices. Especially if what we want to achieve for our institutions of higher learning is a capability to impart genuine learning. The time-honoured imperative to go out of the classroom and learn from the reality outside its’ four walls emanates from this frustration. The arm-chair should be abandoned for field work or in another parlance, to leave the classroom and integrate with the masses.

This exhortation is met with accusatory replies of one-sidedness and bias, as if the point of education is to teach us the fine art of intellectual fence-sitting while sipping post-modern flavored milk tea drinks while farm workers and indigenous peoples are being murdered in Mindanao and elsewhere throughout the country.

Issues such as these inevitably boil down to two issues – a glaring lack of proportion and weak intellectual integrity.

For illustration, to speak for and on behalf, of the Cojuangco family and justify their brazenness because it is their right as owners of property misappreciates the barbaric roots of private property ownership as a social practice. More than this, to pit the workers’ predicament and the haciendero’s concern to run his business on the blood and sweat of generations of sakadas as equally important discourses that merit similar weights is hardly an example of the kind of critical thinking that higher education should impart.

But these stances ultimately reflect a failure to pursue the answers to an intellectual question or program that is posed before us. It could be due to pure laziness or a deficit in brain capacity to absorb conflicting ideas and their implications. As one pundit said: “Honesty is never seen sitting astride on a fence.”

And that is the problem with many who assume this ambivalent disposition- those who always prefix their sentences with the phrase “it depends,” or use conjunctions such as “on the other hand.” It is dishonest and sly to deny the injustice in this world just to appear smart.


(Arnold P. Alamon is an Assistant Professor IV, Sociology Department, Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology.)

*Originally published in www.sunstar.com.ph. Reposted in Manila Today with permission from the author.