On the relevance of humanist studies

This speech was delivered during the College of Arts and Letters graduate recognition rites on April 22, 2010, in the University of the Philippines Diliman Theater.

Friends and family, faculty, fellow graduates, lend me your ears. I will try to keep this short—especially for those of us of the ADD generation. I would love to make you all laugh this morning. Unfortunately, I’m not particularly gifted in the humor department. So, I guess, the best thing I can do is to say something relevant, to touch you in some way.

It’s funny how I set up relevance as an objective when what we have been studying in this college for the past four (or more) years seldom comes across to other people as relevant. While our high school batchmates went off to study engineering or accountancy or nursing, we sauntered off to the College of Arts and Letters and took up the likes of Malikhaing Pagsulat, Speech Communication, and Art Studies—to the general puzzlement of our peers and the protestations of our parents. How many times have we heard comments like “What the hell is that?” or “But what will you do after graduation, Anak? Maghihirap ka!” It’s all well and good if you took up English Studies as a pre-law course, or European Languages to become some bigshot diplomat, or if you’re counting on a call center job waiting in the wings. But what about those of us who dreamed of becoming museum curators or performance artists or poets? What does the big, bad, materialistic world have in store for us?

I find it sad that in a world that judges people by the number of cars they own or the gadgets they flaunt, the sort of work we do is often considered a waste of time, a waste of brains. And in a country where not everybody can afford to read books or watch plays, or even go to college, our studies seem removed from reality—mere pastimes indulged in by the relatively privileged. Yet the things we’ve learned in this college have opened our eyes, more than anything, to our condition as a Third World country, to the systems of social inequity and oppression, to the idea that Lady Gaga can be a symbol of so many things—of postfeminism, of the American surplus economy, of how creative “plagiarism” and borrowing can produce and redefine art and originality, and what have you. My point is that our studies in this college have stimulated us to do away with our ideological blinders, to raise our social consciousness, to think. It made us more aware of the vast world out there and all the concerns surrounding it, and how we must learn to live for something greater than ourselves.

Some people may not look too highly on what we do because our work doesn’t always translate to tangible and lucrative products. These people—they fail to realize the transformative nature of art. Artistic creation is not a passive act. Cultural products should not be considered mere artifacts—dead and displayed on a fancy shelf. Art has the potency to drive us towards social emancipation and renewal. In a demoralized country where the highest artistic honors are given to a hack moviemaker who made billions out of sensationalist films, where people are distracted by shows like Wowowee from the abuses and the alarming political machinations of those in power, we, with our words and our stages and our critiques, we remain significant.

So I want to thank our families, who continued to support us in our chosen paths despite initial misgivings. I want to thank our professors, who taught us that what’s more important is not the number of figures in one’s paycheck but the sense that what we do has meaning, that what we do has worth beyond any monetary standard. And I want to thank our friends for all the discussions, the arguments, the trials that we went through together that opened our minds and broadened our horizons.

Some of us may go on to become lawyers, bankers, the next big star. After all, as we are often told, we can be anything. Some of us may go on to become teachers, journalists, translators, struggling artists. But wherever we may go from here, let us not leave behind the lessons we’ve learned in this college. Let it never be said that culture and the arts are irrelevant. And let us not render meaningless what the novelist Chaim Potok said when his mother urged him to become a brain surgeon to save lives and earn loads of cash instead of becoming a writer. I quote him, “Mama, I don’t want to keep people from dying; I want to show them how to live!”

Thank you.


I was supposed to quote Nicanor Perlas, but they had me take that part out because apparently even mentioning a political candidate’s name in commencement ceremonies is against some COMELEC directive or something. I didn’t want to make a mockery of Sir Nick’s position on upholding electoral laws so I decided to just edit the speech.

Anyway, this quote was supposed to have been included in the 4th paragraph, before the sentence that starts with “In a demoralized country…”:

Culture has the power to transform. Many of the problems in the country are basically problems of mindsets rooted in the past, rooted in habits, rooted in drives. Culture and arts … are … essential in the renewal of Philippine society.

Acknowledgments! :3

Thanks to Chingbee Cruz, Adam David, Mykel Andrada, and the people who shared their thoughts in “Writing the Wrongs: a forum on writing for society.” That ACLE inspired me to write this.

Thanks to Dr. Judy Ick, for everything I’ve learned in our English 191 discussions and her interview with Anna Oposa is the biggest reason why this speech turned out the way it is. You, Ma’am, are an inspiration.

Thanks to my buddeh, Dana Lee Delgado, who forwarded the Chaim Potok quote more than a year ago. It has since been one of my mantras.

Thanks to Bo Jimenez for proofreading the speech! Aside from the people in charge of the grad ceremony, she was the only one who got to read the text before I delivered it. Haha!

Thanks to my batchmates for the moral support and for laughing at the right moments though I did not bribe them to. :)) Congrats and good luck to us! :))

EDIT: Video of the speech here.

One thought on “On the relevance of humanist studies

  1. Pingback: Meaning and morality in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations | tenant on the top floor

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