Noah, at 7, getting an education about Rocks at a local museum

Kulelat: to perform badly; to be last in a competition; to do poorly.

According to a recent “reading literacy assessment” conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) the Philippines is kulelat . The test was given (in English) to over 600,000 15 year old students around the world. This test was administered in mostly non-OECD countries and now also includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and other “developing countries”. The Philippines was at the bottom of the list. The Philippines is also kulelat and second to the last in math and science (last is Dominican Republic).

When I heard this news I went online to look for further explanations for these results. Some of what I’ve heard: Classrooms are overcrowded; the shift to K-12 hasn’t yielded intended results; students are distracted by online games, gadgets, and don’t read books; English is no longer the medium of instruction; lack of teachers and learning materials; problems with facilities and learning environments. The Department of Education officials said the country participated in the tests because they wanted to have a baseline on which to base future changes in policy and curriculum to improve the quality of education in the Philippines.

I think these explanations do not say it all. What is captured in short soundbites in the news media often decontextualizes the issues. I can almost hear the gnashing of teeth, the tsk tsk!, the wringing of hands kasi napahiya. Embarrassed. Kulelat. The word stings.

And then there’s the face-saving or perhaps the eternal optimism of Filipinos. The education officials didn’t seem totally dismayed by the test results. They merely said that they know there is room for improvement.

What does “improvement” mean? When the Philippines decided to add two more years to the system (K-12), they thought it would help students “catch up” with their counterparts in other countries (especially the U.S.). It was also mandated that children should start schooling in their vernacular since language acquisition theories do say that pupils learn best using their first/native languages. But then in high school, the medium of instruction is both in Filipino and English. While literacy and literature in languages other than English and Filipino are flourishing, there is still a loud lament about the deterioration of English literacy.

It seems there are two issues that are hiding behind these test scores. One is the paradigm of global competitiveness driven by neoliberal ideologies that follows the logic of capitalism and requires individuals to be competitive, independent, individualistic and self-interested primarily. The idea of common good and public good has been eroding in these societies. This ideological underpinning of modern societies is what created institutions like the World Bank (WB), Internatonal Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) — institutions which gave loans to “developing” countries to, supposedly, help them modernize and catch up with the West.

Today, structural adjustments continue to deepen these countries’ poverty as their local and regional economies are ruined by the terms of global competitiveness. This paradigm assumes that schooling must be responsive to the demands of a global economy. In the documentary, Schooling the World, the filmmakers document the phenomena happening in Ladakh and India where students are leaving the rural areas and their family farms in order to migrate to urban areas, get an education, get employed, earn a salary. Isn’t this the reality of the Philippines as well? The reality is that many students fail their urban education and then end up in the margins of the urban cities. Schooling prepares students to become global and urban consumers. Is that all we are? Is that what being human means?

If the Philippines is to be competitive in the global market, test scores in reading, math and science must be at par or better than Southeast Asian countries. This is the pressure of a global economic system that measures well-being on the basis of income and accumulation of material assets. Education is believed to be the path to this, but most specially an education that is born of originally western/modern notions of “improvement”. “Productivity”, “employability”, “marketability” — all concepts based on economic measures.

Filipino anthropologists write about “the great cultural divide”. On the upper end of this divide are the urban, educated, English-speaking, middle class folks who buy into this position and the values of individualism, competition, assertiveness, material ambitions — all markers of a cosmopolitan and sophisticated/civilized/modern view of the world that is supposed to result/manifest in a simulacra of the “American dream”.

On the other half of the cultural divide — the madlang people, masa — even when they feel the pressure to become educated and modern/urban, also very much retain their sense of belonging to the Land of their ancestors and their families and communities who uphold spiritual and communal values: Everything is Sacred. Everything is connected. Everything is Place-based. Non-human beings have the same right to live by their own terms.

This is what I sense might be behind the kulelat syndrome. It’s not only poverty and government corruption that manifest in the failure of the educational system to meet global standards. Could it also be an unconscious resistance to the pressure of a global education that would only prepare them to be part of a global consumer culture?

I am reminded of Pankaj Mishra’s book, The Age of Anger, where he writes of the rise of global anger against the neoliberal promise of deliverance from poverty and oppression. What is happening now around the world — the climate refugees, the farmer suicides in India, the crisis on the border of the U.S. and Mexico, the displacement of island peoples in the Pacific (Vanuatu) due to global climate change — all of these are connected directly and indirectly to an educational system gone global that requires the extraction of natural resources, that requires the policing and disciplining of dependent economies of the global system. It requires that citizens buy into a belief system that says that natural resources can be exploited and extracted for profit, that individual self-interest is good, that competition and survival of the fittest is good. This is the era of the Anthropocene.

But this Anthropocene era is full of cracks and is now crumbling under the weight of its own destructiveness. When U.S. corporations were given the same rights as persons, they were able to deploy/weaponize capital around the world. As this capital is also tied to racial supremacist notions, a portfolio of strategies and schemes of ‘economic development’ were imposed on the “developing world.” The educational system has been the main vehicle of this ideology.

Carol Black (Schooling the World) asks in another essay, “Occupy Your Brain”:

…who gets to decide what the world’s children will learn? Who decides how and when and where they will learn it? Who controls what’s on the test, or when it will be given, or how its results will be used? And just as important, who decides what children will not learn? The hierarchies of educational authority are theoretically justified by the superior “expertise” of those at the top of the institutional pyramid, which qualifies them to dictate these things to the rest of us. But who gets to choose the experts? And crucially, who profits from it?

So do you think the kulelat in the Philippines do not know how to read these signs? Do you think they do not see behind the curtain of illusion of “improvement”? Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, famously said that to be illiterate (not being able to read and write…in English preferably) doesn’t mean that the illiterate do not know how to read the world they live in. They know philosophy, they see the structures and institutions of oppression, and when they eventually get out from the thumb of these systems, they liberate themselves, fight back and resist, and create a new reality. They join a global movement of resistance and rebellion against oppressive systems (white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, imperialism).

So this OECD test put the Philippines at the bottom of the list. The Department of Education’s mandate is to improve the quality of education. Perhaps it is time to critically reflect on what “quality” means; what “education” means. Take a critical look at the Philippines — its colonial history and ongoing trauma. Do the indigenous peoples’ sense of connection to the sacredness of the Earth, their Ancestors, and their Lands — have something to teach the test-makers and test-takers?

After all, most educated folks now know what the indigenous peoples have always known: That the Earth has a limited carrying capacity; that All is Sacred and Interconnected; that we belong to the Land and we cannot own Land and make profit of it. The literature on climate chaos point to the basic world view that is creating planetary crisis. In Kapwa, the self is in the other. Our Loob or our inner core knows this sacred connection to All and our Pakikiramdam enables us to feel and integrate these values. This integration is what makes us human. It is what makes us Holy. This used to be the role of education. Not anymore.

In a research project conducted by Professors Beth de Castro and Violeta Bautista at the University of the Philippines about the victims of Typhoon Haiyan and their coping strategies, they concluded that many of the victims are able to draw from an inner strength (lakas ng loob) and spiritual conviction (God is in control) as well as a shared commitment to care for one another (urabayan). In their study they cite the emergence of these psychosocial support systems that are more effective than the western-patterned psychological models of helping introduced to them by outside helpers. Professor de Castro also emphasize that these tests are not the only valid measures of achievement…that the concept of “multiple intelligence” points to the other types of intelligence not measured by the OECD tests.

I have also watched documentaries by media folks from the city descending on tribal communities in the Philippines to film their struggles,their poverty, their “lack” …but the filmmakers always positively comment on their sense of wholeness, their attachment to the Land, ancestors, their communities, and their simple and peaceful lives as these are what have been lost to the sophisticated and educated urban folks. And still they comment about the need to bring the indigenous folks into the 21st century by getting them educated and by converting them to Christianity.

There is a global movement of unschooling but it is beyond the scope of this article to name them. There are many forms of unschooling but I point to one example in India — Swaraj University. One of the founders of Swaraj, Manish Jain, has a MA in Education from Harvard and a BA from Brown University. He has since been unlearning this education. He returned to India to begin an “unschooling” university. asks: What might the university look like if it were at the service of our diverse ecologies, cultures, economies, spiritualities and Life within our planetary home?

“There is an emerging knowledge movement that is slowly building all over the world, though it often goes unnoticed by the media and most formal education systems. A part of this movement can be described as a network of ‘eco-versities’ — people, organizations and communities who are reclaiming knowledge systems and a cultural imaginary to restore and re-envision learning processes that are meaningful and relevant to the challenges of our times.

“Although diverse in its origins, these different pedagogical initiatives both critique the existing education systems, and cultivate new practices to regenerate ecological, social and cultural ecosystems, whilst also reflecting on the meanings of ‘home’ as locality and as an ‘economy’: hence the name ‘eco-versities’.”

Bhutan was at the forefront of the movement to shift the indicators of well-being from gross domestic product to gross national happiness. Bhutan made this transition decades ago. Today, the United Nations keeps track of the gross national happiness index of 156 countries. This report poses the questions: If rising income is an indicator of well being, how to account for the epidemic of addiction in the U.S.? the rising rates of depression and suicidal ideation? What is wrong with this picture?

All these rambling meditations take me back to my own colonial (mis)education that I’ve been undoing for many decades now. I do not lament the results of these OECD tests. I question the validity of a test in English given to students whose first language is not English. I question the educational system based on a 19th century world view that doesn’t honor the Earth. Deep in my soul and my heart, I know that Filipinos are not kulelat. We, however, need to decolonize our educational policies and curriculum.

Do not underestimate the Kulelat!

Leny is Kapampangan. Settler on Pomo and Coast Miwok lands. Founder and Elder at the Center for Babaylan Studies.

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