To my fellow parents: On the Meaning of an Ateneo Education
by Dr. Agustin Rodriguez
When my daughter had the chance to finish high school in New York, we agonized about it: I more than her. Her agony centered around the need to moderate her desire to embark on this adventure because she knew it would break my heart. My agony had two thorns. Firstly, I didn’t want her to go because in all our lives, we had never spent more than 2 days apart from each other. Secondly, there was the irony of her studying in the United States. As a nationalist academic and development worker, I always believed that one’s spirit had to be formed with one’s people—among their my ths and their sufferings— in order to understand who one is, what one’s responsibilities are and to whom one’s heart belongs.
I know to the sophisticated global citizen I would sound archaic and provincial, but I still believe that before our spirit can embrace the world it must be rooted in a home we love. But I knew that the idea of giving up this opportunity was breaking her up inside because, as she said, she might spend the rest of her life wondering what if. So I let her go. She left with the promise that she would come back for college because I still believe that the university years are formative. But we all know how those promises go. Two years in the glitter of a new world could weaken the bindings of promises made in times of great emotions.
It has been a year and we are now completely at peace with her decision to leave. All that I have said is a prelude to why I am writing this piece. I am writing this to explain why I believe her formation in the Ateneo would still be the best for my daughter. I want to clarify to everyone else who raise their eyebrows at me, what I mean when I say that I believe an education here is superior to any ivy league education. Many of my colleagues who know that my daughter has a chance to study in an American university cannot understand why I would prefer that she study here. One of them even exclaimed: “You would prefer that she study here even if she had a chance to study in Harvard!” with a you-are-so-ridiculous tone. And to me the answer was “Yes, of course, you’re so ridiculous.” And the reason is simply this: she may get a superior technical education in some top ranking university abroad but only in the Philippines will she have a superior education in being a Filipino for Filipinos.
My daughter wants to be a writer and recently she has had a chance to attend a prestigious workshop in an American university best known as a center for writing. And I was witness to how because of that opportunity, her writing skills have advanced light years from when she left. I have no doubt that if she studied creative writing in one of the US universities known for it, her skills would be strengthened even more. But what would she write about? A great writer is as much about her skill as it is about her great insight. If you have the skill but not the immersion in the profound realities that have formed your soul, what is there to write about? And who would she write for? A truly great writer is one whose passion is fueled by the need to speak for her people, especially the mute. And to even begin to want to speak for them, you have to be grounded in their misery. One’s people are never generic: they take concrete form in the faces that resonate in your heart. I think an education in her own country would prepare her to face the faces that resonate in her heart and perhaps an Ateneo education could awaken the passion to respond to those faces.
I know that many complain that Ateneans lead a very sheltered life in this campus. In an infinite number of ways that is ridiculously true. In the end, the Ateneo is the Ateneo: a separate world from the world of the margins. But what most people don’t understand about the Ateneo, is that the Ateneo is not just about the majors or the specific programs. It is about a spirit that pervades among its best people.
When I was young, I was ready to quit the Church because I was convinced that there were no intelligent and just Catholics. And then I came to the Ateneo where I met Catholics who strove to serve the margins because of their love of God. And because they loved God’s people, they strove for excellence. That realization astounded me and kept me in the Church and in Ateneo. If any thing, Filipino Jesuit education just means to teach people that the love of God means nothing but to love the people who suffer forgotten in the margins, and that we strive for excellence in what we do to serve them best: otherwise excellence and the love of God is empty.
What else does faith mean? What else grounds excellence? What else measures the good of a life but that? And if you take Ateneo education seriously enough, and if you are open to its opportunities enough, it will lead you to that realization and it will lead you to your first opening to the faces that you will have to serve. At its core, Ateneo education is an apprenticeship in the work of being a Filipino for others.This is only a slogan so long as one misses out on the living examples of alumni, scholars, administrators, maintenance and staff who show us the way to realizing the truth of an Ateneo education. Open your eyes to those who ser ve radically and they will radically educate your heart. And if one is open enough one can see that such people dwell in this school because there is a spirit in this school that cradles them and support s their vocation. It is intangible, but it is a spirit that guides the best of us.
Some people feel that we are an elite school that cultivates an elite rationality. Radioactive Sago’s brilliant third album is entitled “… Ang Daming Nagugutom Sa Mundo Fashionista Ka Pa Rin.” In one gig, Lord de Vera was plugging their album and he said “Bilhin ninyo ang aming album ‘… Ang Daming Nagugutom Sa Mundo Atenista Ka Pa Rin.’” I could understand his sentiments exactly. Just listen to conversations in the pocket garden where people complain about the heat, their slow laptops and their old school phones and anyone who knows anything about the hardships in our country will easily agree with Lord. But then, if you think about it, although some of our graduates are oblivious to the suffering around them and even if some of them do reinforce structures that exploit the suffering, there is that core of Ateneans touched by the spirit of this school who choose to genuinely build communities founded on justice, to found enterprises that serve true needs, to be a lawyer for the oppressed, and a doctor for the poor. Many innovations of justice building in our country arise because of their apprenticeships in the magis of our service. We just don’t hear about these things because they don’t find their way into our tarpaulins. But the spirit is there and it is the spirit that defines us more than basketball championships or the number of CEOs we produce. Somehow, because of our formation, Ateneans still tend to be idealistic about ser vice. And so I say “Dahil ang daming nagugutom sa mundo kailangan mong seryosohin ang pagka- Atenista.” This is why, my dear fellow parents, I think an Ateneo education is more valuable for my daughter than a Cornell or Harvard or Princeton education: because here, we learn to be excellent for something important—our people and our Filipino humanity.
Dr. Gus Rodriguez is currently the Chair of the Philosophy Department of the Loyola Schools. His daughter, Leal, is an AB Humanities senior.