Jaime B. Achacoso

This article was originally published in Business World in 1994. Having been an alumnus and a junior faculty of the University of the Philippines, the author commented on the often misunderstood concept of freedom in the premier state university. It provides concrete examples on how academic freedom is abused which may apply to other educational institutions.


A communications professor requires her freshmen students to watch “Belle Epoque,” to the consternation and scandal of the more modest- chaste!- among them. A mass communications professor allows the viewing of a pornographic film in class as part of a group report on the topic. After many years of toleration by authorities, a notorious student molester is finally investigated, thanks to the attention of the mass media.

Meanwhile, school authorities turn a blind eye to the indecent exposure of fraternity neophytes who run stark naked through the first floor corridor of the College of Arts and Sciences in the notorious Oblation run (one was announced for Friday morning, Dec. 16). In contrast, a memorandum was issued by the school administration prohibiting any public exercise of religion (not even small group prayer meetings or Bible studies) on campus outside the premises of the respective chapels (Catholic and Protestant) in the name of non-confessionalism.

All these are manifestations of a malaise which has been festering in the State University since my First Quarter Storm college days: a poorly understood academic freedom. I have been resisting the urge to write this article for some time, given the pile of other matters on my desk and out of deference to my alma mater. But the recent murder of yet another student– Dennis Venturina- in the context of yet another fraternity rumble was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back: It provided the motive that transferred this projected essay from the important but not urgent category to the important and urgent one.


Understanding Freedom


Perhaps the greatest misfortune of modern man since the French Revolution is the absolutization of human freedom. Put bluntly, the error consists in considering freedom as the capacity to do what I damn please. In its more usual form, it is expressed by a misunderstood freedom of choice: the right to choose freely, regardless of the morality of the choice. This is behind the thinking that- to cite a blatant case- a woman may be wrong in choosing to abort her baby, but society must respect her freedom to make the choice. The same error is at the foundation of the cafeteria approach to family planning means doggedly pursued by the DoH: Regardless of their ethical dimension, all medically safe means should be offered to the citizens, so they can freely choose.


The error lies in the failure to realize that human freedom does not lie in a vacuum. Rather, it is the capacity to ordain oneself to the good perceived free of any coercion, whether external (violence) or internal (vices). The greatness of spiritual creatures (man and angels) lies precisely in their capacity to direct themselves to their end- that which perfects their nature- not by blind forces (physical laws, biological laws and instinctive behavioral laws), but through a deliberate act of the will, based on their intellectual perception of what behavior is in keeping with their nature and the nature of things around them. Non-spiritual beings are directed to their end by the Creator through the immutable laws of nature. Man and the angels direct themselves freely to that end, based on their understanding of the Creator’s immutable laws.


Such freedom, therefore is not absolute- creator of its own object- but is rather relative to an absolute moral norm or standard.To do evil is not a sign of freedom, but of its imperfection (just as to err is not a sign of the perfection of the intellect, but precisely of its imperfection). One is free to the extent that he is able to elect the right path that leads to the good; he is a slave to the extent that he is constrained in his choices (away from the good), either by internal forces (e.g., disorderly passions) or external ones (e.g., wrong social values).


Do not confuse freedom with contingency!


I still remember my Moral Theology professor hammer that affirmation in a becoming English accent. In effect, the absolutization of human freedom has degraded it to absolute contingency- i.e., absolute indeterminism, the human will floating in a sea of possibilities, like the flotsam on the River Pasig.


In effect, when a typical adolescent first claims his newly discovered freedom in defiance of moral standards, he is not really acting freely: He is acting licentiously according to his whims. The very term “adolescent” comes from the Latin adolescerewhich means “to lack,” alluding to the lack of knowledge of standards and- even more important – the act of self- domination necessary to direct himself to the true end, which is the mark of this period of transition from irresponsible childhood to responsible maturity.


But some adults seem never to have outgrown such adolescence. Thus, we have the sad phenomenon of men who cannot dominate their emotions- lust really- so as to resist extra-marital relationships; women who cannot dominate their emotion- lust really- so as to resist extramarital relationships; women who cannot dominate their moods so as to fulfill their duties as mother and wife; yuppies who do not want to settle down for fear of committing themselves. Freedom precisely is the capacity to commit oneself without coercion; if freedom is not committed, it is absolutely useless, remaining in potency to what it is meant for. It is like having lots of money, but not wanting to spend it; it is like having a BMW, but not wanting to use lest it wears out. Worse still is taking freedom to mean doing whatever. That would be like burning money, just because it is time to burn; like driving my BMW crazily just because it is mine. The first would be indeterminism or absolute contingency; the second is license.


When a Freudian columnist of a national daily belabors the point that lust is natural and unavoidable (and must not be repressed), he does nothing but betray his own lack of virtue and, thus, of freedom. He acknowledges that he is not free to control his sexual appetite- just like the lower animals who go through life directed by physiologically driven behavioral laws. Why do some people generalize their miseries to all mankind? The problem is when such an unfortunate personal condition is foisted on the general public as the normal thing, which brings us to the meat of this article.


What’s academic in academic freedom?


If freedom is the genus, what is the specific difference that defines academic freedom? Obviously the qualifier academic does not refer to the mere location of the exercise of academic freedom- i.e., freedom exercised in campus or in the academe. It should rather refer to the essence of the academe- i.e., what makes the academic as such. And what is the academe?


What essentially characterizes the academe is the pursuit of knowledge – i.e., the truth. Thus, the non- academic personnel and the UP-Ikot drivers are not really involved in academic activity, despite their being in the campus. Academic freedom, therefore, must be understood as that capacity to pursue knowledge- i.e., the truth- without coercion: The freedom to pursue the truth.


With this understood, one easily understands why claims of academic freedom– to justify such activities as watching pornographic movies in campus and allowing gays to flaunt their abnormality and even to teach it in the guise of gay literature (another recent manifestation of the malaise at the UP Diliman campus)– are nothing just but a prostitution of the concept.


How can the Oblation run really help the pursuit of knowledge? For that matter, what is the relevance of watching “Belle Epoque” to the teaching of communications skills to freshmen? Meanwhile, the University is churning out graduates who cannot even write a decent paragraph- much less speak it- in straight English, or straight Filipino (so much for the comm class); yuppies who do not know the essence of being male and being female (thanks to the gay literature class); and potential plunderers and opportunists who seem to have forgotten that they were iskolar ng bayan, who owe it to their countryman to serve them disinterestedly for having heavily subsidized their university education (so much for the fraternity). That the most violent fraternities – those with most rumbles and deaths to their discredit- seem to be precisely those based in the College of Law of the State University is again alarming potent of things to come: What kind of lawyers- for not to say jurists- can come out of such a barbaric medium?


What has happened is a prostitution of the concept of academic freedom into academic license. Under this guise, a UP professor is free to do with his class what he damn pleases: He is free to deform young minds (that’s what the gay literature and some Freudian professors do), waste the students’ (and the people’s) time and money on irrelevant theories (that’s what the former philo-Marxist and pseudo-national professor did teaching “his story” instead of history). And all these are done, more often than not, in lieu of real scholarship.


Come to think of it, “academic license” is too noble a term to apply to what is happening in some classrooms at UP, because no matter how licentious, honest scholarship would still be academic in a sense. But to cover up for true scholarship by foisting such trash as “Belle Epoque” (instead of teaching grammar and literature) is nothing but campus frivolity. It is neither academic nor freedom.


Fortunately, this is far from being a generalized syndrome. UP still counts with many dedicated men and women who are giving their lives for the formation of the youth. I cannot but smile when I remember my dear professors- in botany, in history, in English, in Math and, of course, in my own Chemistry department- who instilled academic excellence despite the material odds. But I also grimace at the recollection of my professor in Western Thought (he taught nothing but Marxism and the muddled theories of a motley crew of immanentist modern philosophers), and the Rizal course (who pretended to teach Rizal’s thought without a clear knowledge of the European historical context in which such thought was formed). It is out of respect for the former that I write this piece- to dramatize the need to protect what they have given their lives for to achieve. And out of abhorrence for the latter- there should be no room for mediocrity in the State University- that I express the urgent need to ferret out the misfits who are undermining the oblation of the true UP Academicians…before it’s too late.



Reprinted by permission from Business World, Quezon City, Philippines. 


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