The Philippine classroom’s four walls can be swept away literally by typhoons or logistically by the pandemic.

In the West, the deconstructed school walls turn inside out not so much just in the structural or organizational sense.

Throughout its long history, the western school freely crisscrosses the bridge spanning its modernity and structuralism and then its post-modernism and post-structuralism. Its experimental dance traversing the sciences and the humanities offers reflexive criticisms on the systems it had weaved unto its own meta-narratives and wreaked upon the cultures it had conquered.

Education in the western tradition was never an object in stasis. Learning systems arch across epochs, a dynamic revolutionary force quite unlike the uniformed replicas that found their way into the Orient, mimeographic schoolhouses dotting the farthest reaches of the colonized East.

Our story of the modern school originates in 1901 after the Philippine Islands (with Cuba, Guam, and Puerto Rico) are rewarded to the US upon their winning the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The public school system was quickly built, as armies of pale-skinned teachers are sent to the archipelago in rhythmic cadence to Rudyard Kipling’s famously contentious poem “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands.” In Kipling’s lyric, Filipinos are represented by the great British poet as “new-caught, sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child.”

Kipling’s poem served useful in endorsing America’s recent internationalist imperialism, substantiated by the messianic roles envisaged within their Manifest Destiny. The White Man’s Burden lyricizes the West’s great moral responsibilities – the priority of which is to civilize the brown population by sending it to school.

From 1901 onward, every Filipino child at the age of seven is required to register in schools in their town or province.

Twenty-four years later, the Monroe Commission on Philippine Education reviews in 1925 how two-and-a-half decades of American schooling system had fared within the Philippine context.

Based on extensive research comprising 32,000 pupils and 1,077 teachers, the commission established that Filipino students were already at par with their American counterparts in Science and Math, but performed badly in all English-related subjects.

On the latter, Yale professor George Counts assessed the roots of the children’s difficulties – Filipino students are forced to learn unfamiliar concepts in a foreign language, based entirely on the optics of an alien culture, using materials originally designed for pupils in the United States.

The Monroe commission also predicted, only 10 to 15% of the next generation will use english in their government and business occupations (and only 1% will use the language at home) as the rest of the student population make practical use of “industrial education” such as crafts, agriculture, factory work and other skills deemed favorable for employing Filipinos in the colony’s emerging economies.

A century after the Monroe Commission, the Philippines is now one of the largest English-speaking countries on earth with the majority of the population able to speak in varying degrees of fluency, helping us become the world’s voice-outsourcing industry leader.

Yet, paradox pulled no punches when the Philippines joined the Programme for International Student Assessment in 2018 for the very first time. The PISA results were released just months before the COVID-19 lockdown: out of seventy-nine participating nations, our country ranked the lowest in Reading in English.

One DepEd official shared that less than twenty percent of participating Filipino students in PISA reached the minimum levels of proficiency in reading. In Science and Math, the country ranked second last.

The PISA results alongside other measures (such as the English Proficiency Index) reveals our current state of mind, raising more conundrums than insights as to what ails our collective cognitive. In the next months, this Life 1A column ponders on such questions in support of DepEd’s many urgent initiatives.

During the pandemic, old lesson plans chalked onto blackboards are erased and redrawn. Late last year, DepEd had already begun slow preparations to make digital Open Education Resources (OER’s) available to all Filipino students but the department could not have expected the speedy shift from analog to digital negotiated by the coronavirus.

In light of the present, DepEd invites large-scale collaborations when it launched Sulong Edukalidad in late 2019, whose components outline key measures that might ferry Philippine education through today’s highly tempestuous sea change.

In DepEd’s over-all drive for quality, Education Secretary Leonor Briones shares four core components which government, industry and civil society are asked to prioritize: 1.) K to 12 curricula must be reviewed and updated, 2.) the learning environment must be improved, 3.) training must lend to the upskilling and reskilling of teachers and 4.) stakeholders must be engaged for support and collaboration.

In the fourth component, Briones shares: Deped “will need (from stakeholders) more than contributions of physical facilities … LGU’s, the private sector, development partners are ready to contribute to the education of our children. We need to deepen our engagement to consultation, collaborative research and analysis, and high level of advice to strategic policy, planning and programming for quality.”

On the first component, Briones challenges our entire learning community, we need “to produce a new breed of learners – learners who can think critically.”

In looking ahead, we must first make sense of the origin of things. We hearken back to forgotten yesterdays so our vague present can intuitively move towards our unknown integrative futures.

In 1898, in the same year as the Spanish-American war, Ellwood Cubberly, Dean of Stanford University’s School of Education said, “our schools are in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials – children – are to be shaped and fashioned into products.”

The Brown Person’s ultimate schooling begins with decolonizing shackled minds, shaped and fashioned into industrial objects.

We all now must take responsibility – and to be response-able is to have the ability to respond in a complex time. Response-able requires our sense of identity, autonomy, agency, and freedom are readily at-hand, those essential conditions that ensure life-long learning is not just a possibility but an impending dynamic and evolutionary force.