Thursday, November 24, 2011

Keynote Address @ PLAI Congress 2011

(Full Text of the Keynote Address delivered by Dr. Ricardo A. Pama, President of the University of the Cordilleras, at the PLAI National Congress on "Libraries for Progress" held last November 16-18, 2011 at Hotel Elizabeth, Baguio City).

I was reading through your invitation for me to speak at the opening of this national convention of the Philippine Librarians Association, Inc. (PLAI), and it occurred to me that this event happens as we mark the month of November as the Philippines’ National Reading Month.

The timing of this convention could not have been more auspicious. A national organization of librarians in the Philippines comes together to talk about progress through the use of libraries, at a time when the Department of Education this month brings into focus the problem of a good number of Filipino schoolchildren being at the level of “frustration reading,” which is in fact a euphemism for an existing condition where Filipino schoolchildren simply cannot read.

Before we even begin to tackle the ramifications of what could only be regarded as an alarming situation insofar as national literacy is concerned, this organization has already offered a potent solution to the problem of “frustration reading” among our schoolchildren and that is simply the use of libraries.

Libraries, if we are to be very melodramatic about it, open a portal to the exciting world of learning and discovery from the convenience of a self-contained venue. If the problem that bedevils our schoolchildren today is the “frustration” ensued by their inability to read, then libraries is certainly the best platform to begin a cure for this affliction.

For sure, the Philippines is not the only place in the world where reading is given a national focus. Even a progressive nation like the United States provides a month to devote to reading. The National Educational Association had chosen the month of March as America’s National Reading Month and March 2 as “Read Across America Day.”

To me, the Philippines’ and America’s choice of different months to highlight the national importance of reading is a matter for curiosity. I found out that both choices are in celebration of birthdays. The Philippines national reading day or “Araw ng Pagbasa” is on November 25 which coincides with the week of the birth anniversary of the late Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino on November 27.

What about March 2 in the US? This day happens to be the birthday of a certain “Dr. Seuss.” Dr. Who? The name is really not that vague in the Philippines and certainly does not escape the knowledge of librarians such as you. “Dr. Seuss” whose full name is Theodor Seuss Geisel is an American writer, poet and cartoonist born in 1904 and died in 1991. He is the author of children’s books of such world renown that a good number of Filipino children have, at one time, come across the titles of his books such as Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat in the Hat, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Horton Hatches the Egg, Horton Hears a Who, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Surely the National Educational Association did not pick Seuss’ birthdate to underscore the importance of reading in the United States out of whim. It turns out that in 1954 education officials in the United States have already given emphasis to the problem where “children were not learning to read because the books were boring.” William Ellsworth Spaulding, director of Houghton Mifflin’s education division thought that first graders ought to learn 348 words that the American educational system deemed important enough to be included in the elementary school vocabulary.

Spaulding then sought the assistance of Seuss who was asked to compose a reading material that narrows down these 348 words to 250. Thus was born the “Cat in the Hat” series worded in silly, trite and nonsense rhymes, but to American first graders, certainly not boring, and have spawned volumes of these works beloved by generations of gradeschoolers around the world and earned Seuss the distinction of his birthdate being selected as National Reading Month for the United States.

Ninoy Aquino is certainly not the counterpart of Dr. Seuss in the Philippines by any comparison. If somewhat in a formal sense, the selection of November to mark National Reading Month in the Philippines is a conglomeration of a number of important legislation that promotes literacy in the Philippines. In fact, November 25 marks the 20th year of the passage of Republic Act 7165 which created the National Literacy Coordinating Council of the Philippines, a measure that was signed by former President Corazon C. Aquino.

If we believe the strategy of DepEd, November 25 as Araw ng Pagbasa, timed with the birthdate of Ninoy Aquino, is also significant because DepEd Secretary Armin Luistro wants not only to promote a love of reading among schoolchildren, but also for these schoolchildren to be motivated to learn from the lives and works of eminent Filipinos.

If we believe that the selection of America’s Dr. Seuss as a poster person to promote reading in the United States is on target, I feel that the Philippines’ choice of Ninoy Aquino to punctuate the event is not off the mark. If you look at the dorsal portion of the original 500-peso bill, you will find a picture of Ninoy Aquino in a flight suit with pen in his right hand and a twin-lens reflex camera in the other. His portrait has a background of a newspaper article about the Philippines’ participation in the United Nations contingent in the Korean War.

It tells us that during the Korean War of the 1950’s Ninoy Aquino was a correspondent for the Manila Times. What is remarkable in this brief interlude in the life of an “eminent Flipino” according to Secretary Luistro, was that Ninoy Aquino was only 18 years old when he was sent to Korea as a war correspondent. The Manila Times in fact lists Ninoy Aquino as one, if not the youngest of their war correspondents, and arguably one of the youngest Filipino journalists ever to cover a regional conflict such as the Korean War.

Let us set aside for a moment that young as he was, Ninoy Aquino already had the courage to fly to a part of the world where conflict was raging, risking life and limb in the process. Instead, in this discussion, let us look at a youthful Ninoy Aquino and how at 18 he was already trusted enough by a newspaper of record to send stories from the warfront. It shows that at 18, Ninoy Aquino was already versed in words and adept at research. It tells us that in the 1950s, when Spaulding and Dr. Seuss were collaborating to solve the literacy problem in America, the Filipino youth were already literate enough to have a newspaper byline about stories of global significance such as the Korean War.

Fast forward to today. How many of us can identify 18 year-olds who can string together a decent paragraph or even compose a simple sentence? How many Filipino children today will regard “Horton Hears a Who” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” as book titles and not movie titles? I dread to think that your answer to this question relates to the strategies formulated by the DepEd in response to the problem of “frustration reading” among our grade level children. Indeed, how can one write a sentence when the skill of reading has not been acquired to begin with?

Literacy thus points to providing people, especially at grade levels, with the power to gain knowledge from available resources. Thus, we hear the common dictum that basic education concerns itself with providing a person with literacy skills known as the “3Rs” (reading, writing and arithmetic). When one of these components fails, we find ourselves in a situation where compromised individual advancement also results in compromised national advancement.

This, I believe is the reason why nations such as the Philippines and America goes through the trouble of holding a National Reading Month. As I thought about this, I again went back to the reason for the Spaulding-Seuss collaboration in the 1950s. Spaulding said that for gradeschoolers, reading is boring, which prompted a response from Seuss to compose a picture book that was the “Cat in the Hat” series.

Which begs the question: why is reading boring? Immediately what came to my mind, and I claim no expertise in the constitution of writing un-boring books, is that the material falls short of piquing the curiosity of the reader. Certainly books are written not just to satiate curiosity. Depending on the level of the reader, books are written in response to different motivation, intent and purpose. This is the reason why books that make no sense such as “Green Eggs and Ham” were such a hit to gradeschoolers because curiosity had trumped rationality. Sense, in this case did not matter because the author’s motivation is merely to encourage the children to read. Here, it is an advantage that there is no such thing as “green eggs and ham.” The children’s boundless curiosity made them read through it, and as a result can now read words such as green/eggs/and/ham.

However, curiosity transcends age and learning levels. Curiosity is the mother of learning I might say, such that this even became a National Geographic blurb for life-long learning: “live curious.” It is simple curiosity that drove me to find out the difference between the US’ and Philippines’ National Reading Months.

It is simple curiosity that will bring the person to the library’s shelves to seek answers. It is simple curiosity that will drive a gradeschooler or a person who has not learned how to read to approach a teacher and ask, “Please teach me how to read.”

To assume that the information that I have played out so far in this talk was not really obtained from printed sources and instead, culled from a simple search through the oracle of our modern times, Google, is fair. Indeed, why bother going through the library’s shelves when in today’s wired world, information can be readily obtained at the click of a button re-defining the expression “fingertip knowledge.”

I have to concede that the benefit of the internet in terms of real-time information far outweighs its perceived ill effects. But “information” and “knowledge” are two different entities. “Information” is bereft of the authority and empiricism of established sources of “knowledge” that can only be obtained from verified printed material that has passed the scrutiny of publishers or an academic panel, or vouched by recognized scholarly authority.

In today’s academic environment, no theses or dissertations will pass without pages of bibliography that tells us the source of the researcher’s claims or standpoint. It is true that electronic sources are permitted in today’s writing of scholarly works but electronic sources alone will not support a thesis or dissertation, and I believe will not be so, for succeeding generations of learners, researchers and scholars.

Of course the internet today is a rich resource of materials that even scholarly works can be easily “downloaded” into ones Kindle, iPad or any such multi-media gadgets that make life convenient today. The Philippines has such a sound internet backbone that any person with marginal computer knowledge would be able to obtain quality reading by harnessing the power of the internet.

This, however, assumes that each of the 93 million Filipinos existing today has basic access to a computer with internet capability. If we think that not all of us have this capacity then libraries, the kind which has shelves and card catalogues, is still the way to “progress” if we follow the theme of this convention.

From November 4 to 7 this month, the University of the Cordilleras (UC) Community Extension and Services Office (CESO) harnessed its network of partners to mount what so far, is considered an ambitious project by the university, and that is to bring 17,000 volumes of books - the bound and printed kind - to the City of Tabuk in the Province of Kalinga.

To do this, we first obtained book grants from the Children’s International Philippines Incorporated (CIPI) whose solicitation of books from the United States was then shipped to UC through container transport. Our community staff coordinated with the Kalinga schools division to determine school districts that require book augmentation, and the response was overwhelmingly in the affirmative.

Next was how to figure out the logistical nightmare of transporting truckloads of books to Kalinga which takes all of 10 hours to navigate from Baguio on a lucky day and 15 on a really slow day. Fortunately the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) responded positively to our request for transportation of books and personnel, and for good measure even spared the services of their graduating class of cadets, non-commissioned and commissioned officers to assist in the distribution of books to the different school districts in Kalinga.

To say that the activity was a success is an understatement. The inter-agency and inter-university collaboration in projects such as this is a testament to a commitment by these entities to the upliftment of human conditions. The experience is simply indescribable, and you can believe that for the people of Kalinga at least, the value of these books is worth its weight in gold.

As the different schools withdrew their allocation of books, we have observed that some in the nearby municipalities simply loaded their share in tricycles while others like the municipality of Tinglayan will likely have the books carried - perhaps half a day - through a foot trail until it reaches the designated school. In conditions such as this, technology takes a back seat, but it shows that learning can still take place without it. We believe strongly that opportunity at learning should not be limited only to children with access to technology. A child from Tinglayan has as much right to personal progress -- and to have an opportunity later in life to contribute to national progress -- as a child from any urban area in this country.

Therefore, if we follow your postulation that libraries contribute to progress whether personal or collective, then through our university’s “Mobile Library and Reading” program, we and our partners have effectively allowed a remote Cordillera municipality such as Tinglayan in Kalinga a shot in progress by providing them with library materials.

In instances such as this, I feel that I can still be comfortable in my own skin without the use of a Kindle or an iPad because I still take pleasure in the tactile process of flipping through pages of printed books. Today’s younger set describes traditionalists such as me as “old school.”

If I am, as they say, “old school” then our young UC students certainly goes to a university that is, by all indications, an “old” “school” but with a library devoted to all colleges with updated books and references. One of the oldest institutions of higher learning in Baguio at 65 this year, UC has certainly pioneered the delivery of comprehensive higher education north of Luzon because of our founder Atty. Benjamin Romero Salvosa’s stubborn adherence to the principle that “education is a birthright,” -- a statement that purports to the egalitarian standpoint that “education for freedom” or for “progress” should be available to all regardless of social or economic status.

Technology exists today because pioneering educators such as Atty. Salvosa had the foresight to harness the power of knowledge for progress. Thus, technology is there only as a spawn of old knowledge. But libraries, as a repository of knowledge old and new, will never be displaced by any perceived substitute. This is because the thirst for knowledge is timeless, and so are the implements that respond to it.

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