Philosophy and the University of Santo Tomas

(The following is an excerpt of a paper delivered at a colloquium at the University of Santo Tomas.)

The academia and pursuit of wealth are strange bedfellows and stranger still is the situation where wealth dictates the university agenda. While the university fosters “life of the mind” and shared understanding through research, instruction and symposia,  pursuit of wealth engenders individualism and alienation. There should be then  that space to protect the university against the tendencies to turn it into a “professional school”, that is, as a preparatory institution for feeding the needs of the professions.  Hans-Georg Gadamer explains: “The word, education, signified a distancing from everything profitable and useful.  In its elevated sense, the ‘science, which has not yet been completely discovered’, means, ‘living with ideas.’  This should unify the youth at the university and is intended to disclose through knowledge the horizon for all of reality and thereby also to open the possibility of surpassing this reality.”  In other words, the purpose of the university is not just to create doctors, lawyers and architects but to imbue the same doctors, lawyers and architects with the spirit and the mind that will enable them to take on complex issues, to engage in constructive deliberation of pressing matters, to critique their own positions and be respectful of others’, to make their own prudent judgment.  University education is meant, in other words, to transform the individual in those future doctors, lawyers and architects into members of society who can work well with teachers, engineers, clergy, jeepney drivers, market vendors and other members of the polis for the sake of the common good. The world of practical life is inherently fragmented, a perpetual “state of war” to use the description of Thomas Hobbes. The university therefore cannot concede its “solitude and freedom” to this state of affairs by becoming its mere subsystem.  The university cannot afford to disintegrate into an institution of “many specialties” all in the name of the profitable.

The task of breeding this solidarity, this sense of community, this spirit of universality belongs to philosophy particularly in an age when the former is becoming more and more a rarity. One cannot overemphasize the teaching of philosophy in all levels of formal education.  To begin with, philosophy belongs to our nature as human beings.  Aristotle introduced his monumental work Metaphysics by saying that “all animals except man live by what they perceive and by memories but have little experience; whereas the human race lives also by art and reasoning.” This led Newman to remark that we are all “Aristotelians” by nature. By this Newman means that the very fact of our humanity compels us to think correctly and it is this natural rational inclination that must be enhanced by formal education at the university level. The recent UNESCO publication entitled Philosophy: A School of Freedom, discusses the necessity and significance of teaching philosophy in all levels of education, from basic, to secondary, to the university level.  UNESCO, in the said document, tells us that teaching of philosophy in the university level ought not to be seen as mere “doctrinal training” on any philosophical system. A genuine philosophical education “aims to help individuals understand the complexity of experience.  It also teaches us to critically consider established opinions, whether ours or those of others, and to criticize the motivations and intentions behind them and their effects.  A philosophical education is a fundamental communication mechanism, because it is precisely by virtue of its critical range that we learn to see in another’s world view not the expression of a particular and foreign subjectivity but a partner in a shared human interaction, with whom it is possible to have productive exchanges and dialogue.” Teaching philosophy therefore is not just teaching another discipline; it is teaching rather a discipline of the mind that will enable an individual to navigate his way through the labyrinthine paths of human life simulated in the university.  If life is a game, it can compare probably with a giant connect-the-dots and philosophy is that instrument that helps us trace and see what otherwise are dots in disarray hiding the intricate yet intimate pattern of our human existence.

What does it mean to be a university in the global age? And how can the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas help University of Santo Tomas assert its identity?, I then say that to be a university in the global age is to be that sphere whose members freely engage in their common pursuit for a shared search and understanding of truth.  Thomas himself would say in De Magistro, we are able to “discover” truth only if we allow others to help us. This commonality which the university fosters is an important element for the transformation of its students into responsible global citizens, that is, as individuals who see each other as members of the same human community, aspirants of the same fulfilling end and partakers of the same human experience that characterize our common finitude. The university, therefore, cannot dispense with the humanities in general and philosophy in particular, if it wishes to assert its identity in the global age for these are the very disciplines that will help its students discover what defines them as human persons.  It is through the cultivation of sympathy and the nurturing of philosophical mind that the university can help deter the alienation engendered by unhampered consumerist culture and uncritical utilization of science and technology characteristic of the global age. In its celebration of its fourth centenary, the University of Santo Tomas defines its birthright and destiny in terms of building the church, the nation and family.  This is to say that to be a university means to be a living summa, a place that gathers fellow pilgrims in search of that common fiber woven through the layers of differences in our individual lives.  As a university, UST is our alma mater, the breeding ground from which our sense of humanity acquires its soul.



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