Filed under: Philippines
The mannequin woman I met in the Clark Field Museum two weeks ago continues to jolt me with challenges about my goals for the last 43 years ever since I first visited the Philippines in 1964. She came to the Islands as a Thomasite more than a century ago to develop a Philippine educational system, patterned after the American experience. As soon as I saw her I knew I had to have my picture taken with her. So I gently held her hand while the cameras clicked. I found her dress quite attractive, however the long sleeves, high neck and floor length skirt made me worry about her ability to adjust to the heat.
I also couldn’t help but take notice that she must have stood out boldly in the town where she was sent, and I worried that her fancy dress might have been easily soiled or muddied as she moved about in the Filipino towns of a century ago. Deep down I cringed first from her size and dominance over the other museum artifacts; and after I thought about it, how her mission so deeply affected and perhaps distorted the development of this Southeast Asian nation. As I held her cold mannequin hand, I was struck with how much the mission that carried her here was still alive in America today and maybe even in me.
The Thomasites were a group of about five hundred pioneer American teachers from Kansas and the other 40 some states sent by the American government to the Philippines in August, 1901, three years after the defeat of the Spanish in Manila Bay in 1898. Though at the same time, Philippine nationlaists had declared an independent Republic, US President William McKinley, after praying to God for light and guidance said, “… we could not leave them to themselves- they were unfit for self-government – and they would soon have anarchy nd misrule over there. There was nothing left for us to do but to take them and educate the Filipinos and uplift and civilize and Christianize them…”
The Thomasites were part of that vision and their mission was to establish a public school system, to teach basic education and to train Filipino teachers, with English as the medium of instruction. The name “Thomasite” came from the transport vessel, the USS Thomas (formerly Minnewaska), that brought the original Thomasites to the shores of Manila Bay. The independence fighters of that era who clung to a Philippine nationalist vision were all eventually overwhelmed by the firepower of the US forces, in battles that in the eyes of history may not have been a victory for anybody.
In August 26, 2001, 100 years after the first group arrived, the U.S. Embassy Charge d’Affaires Michael E. Malinowski commemorated the Thomasites with words that might have been penned to honor humanitarian workers of our own time instead of 100 years ago.
“Young, idealistic American teachers, known collectively as the Thomasites, were responsible for creating the Philippine public school system. Their goal was to offer education to all strata of society and in the process to create the “educated citizenry” which Thomas Jefferson called the foremost bulwark of democracy.
It was this kind of dedication, this spirit of service, which earned these American teachers the love and respect of Filipinos. They were not here for gold or glory. They were here to work with Filipinos — and they did.
Creation of a public school, system in the Philippines moved ahead dramatically… By 1940, only 97 Americans remained. But throughout the Philippines Filipino schoolchildren were learning their lessons from an army of 43,682 trained Filipino teachers.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is an amazing record. The sacrifices made by these pioneering teachers bore treasured fruit. By the time independence came in 1946, the Philippines had the highest literacy rate in Asia and was Asia’s only democracy. That is an achievement which Americans and Filipinos can celebrate together.”
But not everyone is celebrating. Filipinos paid an enormous price for this system. Thousands were killed during the Filipino resistance that lasted until 1915, or depending upon how you read history, until today. There is also a very frank question of the appropriateness of that foreign educational system which is still being cobbled together to make things work. The language of daily life is the local dialect.
The written language of the class room is usually English but the language of classroom lecture or discussion is local with occasional English phrases. And, the language of government is English which is native to no one and Tagolog which is native to only a small percentage. This kaleidescope of words, grammar and phrases has brought literacy at a horrible price to masses of people who think and feel in a local language, but try to be an official citizen through another language system. You may be confused by this explanation. So are millions of Filipinos.
For as long as I can remember people have been telling me that the road to progress leads through education. Questioning such a proposition is risky. Isn’t it good that almost every town and village has a school and that often one sees stately colleges in remote towns, testimony to the universal belief that education is the way out of the traps of life, poverty, pain, sickness – whatever. It’s hard to imagine that 100 years ago we already had a “no child left behind” thinking. It also makes me a little queasy to think that I have shared in more than half of that history and imbibed great helpings of the values and assumptions that purport to be good for humankind everywhere.
Some years ago I attended a gathering of International Voluntary Services, a non-governmental group I joined in 1963 to volunteer with in Viet Nam. My assignment was to do rural educational work which I did for two years. My time with IVS was formative. At that alumnae meeting I learned for the first time that a man named Nafzinger was the first director of IVS and that he first whetted his appetite for international work as a Thomisite in the Philippines. When he left IVS before I joined, he went over to the Peace Corps where he was a key aide to Sargent Shriver who helped organize a new era of American idealism.
All of this was bouncing around in my brain as I took the Thomasite mannequin hand to be photographed. My Filipino friends laughed embarrassingly as I explained to them that the mannequin and all the pictures and artifacts in the museum represent a time capsule that Filipinos and Americans each in their own way need to dissect and understand. For over a century we have built our lives together on a scaffolding that could not and should not have been permanent. In our minds, in our faith, in our families, even in our memories, our roots are distorted. And this makes it hard to grasp a vision. Yes there is hope but probably it’s that tough kind of hope…, the kind that will force me to look behind that need to educate the world. And for others it might be that need to be educated into someone else’s dream, someone else’s way of thinking.
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