The Gift of Knowledge

By W. SyCip

First Published in Business World (12/27/ 2011)

It is the day after Christmas and I am sure that you received some presents and likewise gave out gifts to your family and friends. The end of the year is always a good time to show our appreciation for others, as well as to reflect on what needs to be done in the coming year.

Of all the gifts that my father, Don Albino Z. SyCip, gave to us his children, it is the gift of knowledge that has left an indelible mark on my person. My father would have been 124 years old last December 17. While he passed away 33 years ago, his love of learning lives on and one which I have assumed as my personal crusade.

My father sent all his five children to public schools. I graduated from P. Burgos Elementary School and V. Mapa High School – both institutions still exist to this day. My father wanted us to acquire not only a good education but also for us to coexist with children from different economic backgrounds so that we would be exposed to social realities early on.

Unfortunately, by the time my own children were ready for school, I did not have the same confidence as my father’s to send them to public schools. And as the years went by, the state of our country’s public education continued to decline. This is really pitiable but, to me, the situation is not totally despondent.

Education, I believe, is a basic necessity for the development of all human beings. In my retirement, education has become one of my top 3 advocacies (the two others are microfinance and public health). I am very passionate about it. Specifically, I have always believed that education should be available to all because it is the greatest equalizer in society. Not only do educated individuals improve their lives but they also contribute to national development.

Education, however, has to be relevant to the requirements of the times. While public education in the Philippines continues to be free, it has been plagued with administrative and fiscal challenges that have affected the quality of both teaching and learning. The decline has been alarming in the past 50 years and I know this for a fact because, as I have mentioned, I was a product of the public school system. Today, except for public science high schools, I can say with certainty that if parents have the means, they would obviously send their children to private schools.

The Philippine public educational system has been neglected for many years, and this is shameful. I will not go through the factors that have caused this decline but suffice it to say that Government would have to constantly revisit the national budget for education. Compared to our neighbors, the Philippines is spending the least on education, especially in the elementary and secondary levels. Basic education is inadequate while college education is misaligned with the country’s manpower needs.

I still recall a time in the past when the Philippines was next to Japan in economic potential. Our scientists ranked #2 in Asia and students from neighboring countries came to the Philippines to attend our universities to acquire quality education. We then had a highly literate population that was looking forward to a progressive and prosperous future. This was more than 60 years ago.

Sadly, the reality today is that we are still at #2 but this time, second from the bottom among economies in Southeast Asia. And while our economy is thankfully growing and showing positive signs of recovery, I think that education continues to lag behind in the context of a fast-paced, globalized world economy.

At near-bottom, the Philippines ranks so poorly in math and science in Asia. We used to boast that we are the only English-speaking nation in Asia – this is no longer entirely true. The use of English has decreased and the quality of spoken and written English has deteriorated. Meanwhile, countries like China, Thailand and Vietnam have stepped up their efforts to become more proficient in English.

And while the quality of education deteriorates, there is also a parallel concern about the dropout rates in public schools. As of last year, out of 100 Grade 1 students: only 66 will finish Grade 6; only 58 will go on to First Year high school, but only 43 will graduate; then 23 will be able to enroll in college out of which only 14 will graduate with a college degree. This results in high illiteracy levels that deepen poverty.

There are currently more than 5 million illiterate Filipinos; and illiterate individuals are most likely to be poor. The poor try to survive on a little less than P100 each day. Therefore, education is not a priority but an expense. Although public education is free, they still need to scrape money for school uniforms, transportation, school supplies, food and other expenses.

I have been asked frequently how I feel about all this –- that after World War II the future looked so promising; yet, here we are now in what was the future then, still struggling as a nation. We have seen our poorer and less democratic neighbors move forward while we seem to have been unable to move on. Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and now, Vietnam, are riding high and reaping the rewards of their perseverance and hard work.

So am I disappointed? Of course I am. But I am not discouraged. As I have repeatedly said to anyone who would care to listen to me here and specially overseas, the Philippines is not hopeless. We have so many talented men and women across industries. Our OFWs have proven that Filipinos are excellent workers. Again, I will not go into detail on how the Philippines can get its act together, but my faith in the capabilities of the Filipino people remains steadfast.

The appointment of Brother Armin Luistro as Education Secretary had been met with much optimism because there can now be more consistency in implementing policies on education. This is in contrast to the string of education heads in the previous administration. There are also programs that private sector and civil societies have initiated to help improve the state of public education. For example, I have been deeply involved since 2001 with the Synergeia Foundation (under the brilliant leadership of Dr. Nene Guevara) which is transforming basic education in collaboration with local government units, parents and the private sector.

The Philippine Business for Education runs a program for teachers to help improve the quality of teaching and to attract the younger generation to consider teaching as a career option. These initiatives may be small steps but, if more people in business invest their time and resources in such advocacies, then the effect can ripple and multiply a millionfold.

All his life, my father preached and practiced the Golden Rule to help countless people get started in business. I now apply this same philosophy in helping improve education.
As we prepare for 2012, let me share with you this Chinese proverb that says: “If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.”

What any government does now for its country’s education gives an indication of that country’s own future. Education is the greatest gift we can bequeath to our country.

Guest Columnist Washington SyCip is a retired Partner and the Founder of SGV & Co.

This article is for general information only and is not a substitute for professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant. The views and opinion expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of SGV & Co.