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Teaching Philosophy

by Herdy L. Yumul

To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, p. 481

ALL right, my students are bright, as we boast of having one of the finest nursing programs in the country. Their training is rigid, and the selection process very tight. But, at the turn of the semester, I feared that my students would take my subject lightly. I took pains in urging them not to treat Philosophy as a "minor subject," for there must be some reason why it is a curriculum requirement.

After a month, my students submitted their phenomenological reflections. My heart broke when I discovered that many of them wanted to pursue something else, but were forced by their parents, who finance their studies, to take nursing instead. It is sad that our ailing economy kills the dreams of the young. Older people are infected with bitter pragmatism, and few of them are as supportive as the father in the PLDT commercial.

Our class had an engaging discussion on Martin Heidegger, who posits that when man confuses being with having, the origin of moods is located in external possessions: money, gadgets, or whatnot become the source of happiness; deprivations lead to feelings of sadness and frustration. In this case, the human-being has identified himself with its objects of care, and forgotten his own existence.

"At the moment, what essence do you find in your existence?," I asked them. It is not very difficult to figure out: e$$ence. It does not take a sociologist to understand why. Our government is a joke, our economy a disaster, and by the time my students go abroad, in 2007 at the earliest, Fernando Poe, Jr. would have spent three years in MalacaOang, and the peso would have dipped at over eighty to a dollar. No wonder that many professionals are now taking nursing-doctors, dentists, physical therapists, and, yes, lawyers. Some of them are my students, older than I am, and resigned to this nation's dim tomorrow.

Our school's thrust reads: Preparing for life through God-centered education and service. Here we anchored our discussion of Gustavo Gutierrez's Liberation Theology. Gutierrez proposes that what motivates Christians to participate in the liberation of the oppressed "is the conviction of the radical incompatibility of evangelical demands with an unjust and alienating society. They feel keenly that they cannot claim to be Christians without a commitment to liberation." The emphasis here is on praxis—action, for no self-respecting Christian can be a spectator to social unrest.

Many students seem to forget their fundamental mission. The line: "I want to be a nurse because I want to care for the sick and needy" we only hear of now in the question and answer portion of the Search for Little Ms. Philippines. Caring for the sick has been reduced to an incident to the quest for the good life. We do not need more nurses. We need more caring nurses.

My students showed an encouraging response. They pledged to offer their services in marginalized communities where medical practitioners are needed most. This they promised to do for at least a year when they earn their license. The pledge, of course, is not binding, and I cannot ask the foreign embassies to bar their visa applications if they don't comply. Such act, nonetheless, shows us a glimmer of hope.

I know that it is difficult to speak with finality. Ate Hedy, my sister, held the same convictions when she was a young nurse teaching at a university in Laoag City. Aware that many families have been destroyed because of overseas employment, she opted to stay, live a life of moderation, and build a happy family. Now, Ate Hedy is in New Zealand, away from her husband and her four year-old daughter, Kaka, whose future she is fighting for.

I look at nurses who have left, not with judgmental eyes, but with compassion. There's Ate Mona and Weng in California, Auntie Elsie and Uncle Gerry in Hawaii, Ate Joy and Jemy in New Zealand, and other relatives I hold so dear in more parts of the world. The Philippines is always in their minds, and they sent me nice presents last Christmas.

Many people say that I can afford to be idealistic only because I don't have children yet. The moment you raise your own family, they warned, you will abandon your youthful arrogance; philosophy cannot build you a home, it cannot send your children to decent schools.

Am I losing the crusade? I don't know, but when Kit, one of my students, fell in love with Friedrich Nietzsche, the feeling was ecstatic. Discussing the enigmatic German philosopher with his friends, even during night-outs, Kit's collection of Nietzsche's books puts to shame my own. Also, when I organized the Trinity Debate Society, most of those who joined were nursing and medical technology students. I learn a lot from these folks, and I grow with them. My friend Alona, a colleague in the faculty, reminds me to be thankful for having a job that allows us to earn a living while learning with amazing people.

There are a few bad times, though, such when I caught one of my students reviewing for his anatomy class while I was delivering a lecture on Marx. This prompted me to ask: "What good does it do to you when you find the parietal bone, and lose your own self?" And the message got across.

I sure have my own moments of weakness, too. Such when one of my students asked, "Sir, kuntento ka na ba sa ganyan?" (Are you contented with your situation now?) "What do you mean?," I replied. "Yung ganyan, walang sariling bahay, padorm-dorm, walang kotse" (You live in a dormitory, not having your own house, your own car), he clarified.

I am not asking my students to be exactly like Socrates, who loved to go to the marketplace to see the things he is happy without. Neither am I leading them to the footsteps of Diogenes, a cynic, who lived in a barrel, and owned nothing but a cloak, a bread bag, and a stick, reasoning that in having very few possessions, his happiness won't be easily stolen from him. But, I urge my students to be steadfast in their search for meaning so that at the end of the day, they can look back with neither resentment nor regret. The way to meaning, of course, is not without a price. But it is the only way a truly existent man should take.

Now, I should stop evading the question. "Sir, kuntento ka na ba sa ganyan?"

The answer I cannot tell with enough certainty. But one thing I am sure of: I just love to teach philosophy, and I thank my students for the life I live now. I thank them for letting me wake up each morning, with a sweet smile on my face.

It is a business both daunting and rewarding to preach the gospels of Socrates, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Gutierrez, in a world facing the most difficult of times.

© Herdy L. Yumul 2004


Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences
Trinity College
Quezon City