Categorized | Personal, Science, Society

On Pisay and Untarnished Truth

Pretty much every nation likes to believe that they are in favor of science and science education. The success of science is simply undeniable. Even those who are not sympathetic to its value for doubt, evidence, and self-correction pay lip service to science. It is under this backdrop that projects such as Philippine Science High School were created.

Philippine Science High School (called “Pisay” by later students), like the Manila Science High School that predated it, was modeled after the Bronx High School of Science (or “Bronx Science”). Pisay was established under President Diosdado Macapagal and had its first batch of students in 1964. Pisay’s mandate in its charter (RA 3661) is to prepare students for a career in science.

Pisay administers very rigorous admission examinations in order to obtain, from thousands of applicants, the top 240 students to invite to study in the prestigious school’s Main Campus. Through this, Pisay is practically guaranteed to have at least some of the country’s best pupils.

To be sure, Pisay has given invaluable service to the country by providing free science education. I myself owe the school a debt of gratitude for giving me four years of highly specialized education that I probably would not have found anywhere else. And this is why I am motivated by a deep affinity for my alma mater to point out where it has erred and what it can do more for society.

It is important for me to note at this point that my commentary is largely limited by my singular exposure to one Pisay campus, the Main Campus in Metro Manila. Any significant difference between the Main Campus and the regional campuses is bound to be missed by what I write here.


The thin wall of separation

It is a great shame, first of all, that the basic secular underpinnings of science are ignored by the foremost science high school in the country. It is perhaps due to a misguided but well-meaning concern for holistic development that the administration of Pisay (since my days there as a part of Batch 2007 up to now, as far as I’m told) flagrantly incorporates not just religious, but sectarian doctrines in its operations.

Pisay is a public and state-run high school. Despite this, Philippine Science High School walks an increasingly thinning wall of separation between church and state by offloading religious teaching to a program called Optional Religious Instruction (or ORI). This is run by concerned parents, who comprise the (largely Catholic) Parents’ Council for Optional Religious Instruction (or PCORI). Under PCORI, the administration is able to facilitate legally overtly religious activities such as batch recollections and retreats. (To be fair, not every faculty member is willing to give in to such sneaky affronts against secularism.)

A key part of the ORI program is the word, “optional.” No ORI activity is compulsory as it would be illegal for Pisay to officially back a religious activity. However, due to the lobbying strength of the parents of PCORI, non-Christians are ignored as recollections and retreats divide students into Catholic Christians and Evangelical Christians.

Why should non-Christians even bother with voluntary and exclusively Christian activities? Well, here in comes the complicated but very much real coercion of the Catholic majority in Pisay. Students that are not inclined toward such doctrines are left out of a very big student activity. Retreats involve weekends out of town with most of the whole batch. The minority non-Christian kids who opt out of the retreat miss out on the camaraderie their classmates experienced without them. Instead of allowing for an intellectual discussion and intimate sharing of diverse personal, even spiritual, values, PCORI opts to segregate by faith and completely alienate those who are not Christians.

Pisay’s offenses against secularism are not just of the “optional” nature. Freshman and sophomore students have a subject called “Values Education.” Despite what one might expect, this class does not discuss the categorical imperative, utilitarianism, or social contract theory (in detail, if at all). Instead, students are subjected to anti-abortion propaganda (Silent Scream) and taught only natural moral law.

Natural moral law is, unsurprisingly, the preferred Catholic ethical framework, where what is natural is good (since nature is of God’s design). While I do remember my Values Education teachers being very careful to avoid advocating specific Catholic doctrines, they were not shy to appeal to gods for values. It is unfortunate that Pisay has chosen to rubber stamp a Catholic-consistent worldview instead of recognizing that there is genuine philosophical diversity regarding morality. There is so much potential in a Values Education class for real personal growth and self-discovery. Is it not in the spirit of the pursuit of “the untarnished truth” for there to be genuine inquiry into the very values that we hold dear?

In science, there is no sectarianism and all ideas are held under scrutiny and challenged by attempts at disproof. In Philippine Science High, sectarianism reigns and challenges to faith are minimized as far as doublethink allows.

It is of course possible that some in the administration believe that scientific values are important or that its teaching is implicit in the course materials. However, Pisay must change this and be explicit in teaching a value for science. There is simply no cultural context in the Philippines for students to pick up on such subtle cues towards the more philosophical nature of science.

The apex of Pisay’s disregard for secularism is an entire chapel dedicated to Jesus and Catholic iconography. I think this speaks for itself.

At the end of a student’s time in Pisay, the administration holds an ecumenical baccalaureate service. Of course, “ecumenical” just means “all Christians” so the service involves Christian rituals and literature. I can be charitable enough to imagine that they might eschew the Bible readings if there were Muslims in the graduating class. However, there were definitely atheists (not including me, as I was an avowed Christian at the time) in my graduating class and their lack of religion was definitely not recognized as legitimate enough to warrant changes in the service.

Religious views are very personal and private. Even if the administration would adjust depending on the graduating class’ demographic, some people change religions multiple times in the span of one year. It is impossible to adapt to the fleeting whims of 240 confused teenagers. Certainly, the public and legally secular Pisay can find a way to reflect on the four years of hard work of the students without favoring one specific, albeit very large, subset.

The punctuation mark after four years of scientific education for all non-Christians (theists and atheists alike) is for their labors to be credited to a god they don’t even believe in.


Does Pisay value science?

Pisay’s romance with sectarianism and religious values is a symptom of its short-sightedness. It does not see the conflict between faith-based initiatives and science because it is not striving for the longer-term goal of a more manifest scientific culture in the Philippines.

Pisay has existed for over 40 years. In that span of time, there have been several prominent alumni to come out of the school. But, I think, that is to be expected just statistically, especially given its selection process. The real question is, has Pisay been a major force for the understanding of science in the Philippines? I think that is up for debate.

One of the simplest metrics for seeing Pisay’s impact on Philippine scientific culture is to assess the scientific literacy of its alumni. This would be a direct measurement of how effective Pisay has been in science education. It’s all well and good for Pisay to have scientist alumni (even accomplished scientists), it is a whole other thing for its graduates to value science.

This seems contradictory, but consider that a person can be in the profession of science but completely misunderstand fundamental science concepts. That is, they can be perfectly competent cogs in the science-industrial complex without having an appreciation for the greater body of knowledge and values of science.

In my undergraduate studies in molecular biology, there were several students who were creationists. This boggles the mind. Evolution, after all, is the unifying concept of biology. As the theistic evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky puts it, nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution. How could a molecular biologist possibly not understand evolution (it’s another thing to reject it on sound scientific basis, which would certainly merit a Nobel prize)? It seems the only way is for a molecular biologist to not care about intellectual honesty and logical consistency.

Despite the rigorous scientific knowledge training in Pisay, there is still certainly a significant enough proportion of creationists, even just in my batch. That it is quite worrying. Creationism is simply not going to be a belief held by a scientifically literate person. But, creationism, along with sectarianism, is just another symptom.

The overall disease of Pisay, as an institution, is that it does not value science. It values science careers and public achievement. Pisay has consistently failed to inculcate scientific values to its students. Here, we come full circle. That Pisay (with all the well-meaning in the world) views Values Education as a subterfuge for religion class is another clear sign of this negligence.


Coercion into science courses

The tragedy of this failure is further compounded by the fact that Pisay coerces students to take science majors in college. Children come into one of the first major contracts they will sign in their lives and they sign away their right to freely choose their college major. They must take a science course, else they must pay back all the money Pisay invested in them.

On the face of it, this seems fair. Pisay spends hundreds of thousands of pesos on each scholar and it is only making sure that the people of the Philippines get a return in their investment. However, this coercive practice only serves to punish the very students that Pisay has failed. For, if Pisay had been able to provide a science education that showed the value of scientific and critical thinking, students would freely choose a science course without the need for compulsion. And the few who would still choose majors outside of science, will still come away from the school ennobled by a scientific worldview that is priceless. Removing the coercive practice will serve as an incentive for the school to do its job well.

If all Pisay wants to do is to equip future employees with scientific training, then, good job. They’ve done that extremely well. But that, to me, completely misses the point of science. Such a goal is shallow, trivial, and not worthy of the pride alumni of Pisay tend to have of their alma mater. It is no wonder, then, that some Pisay graduates are science illiterate.

According to its vision, Philippine Science High School aims to train scholars with “a scientific mind,” “a passion for excellence,” and “committed to the pursuit of truth.” This implies that not only should Pisay scholars be scientifically competent, they should hold a worldview informed and shaped by science. Pisay scholars ought not to shy away from the what the pursuit of truth might lead to, no matter how controversial or uncomfortable these truths might be. This vision is not consistent with the practices of Pisay that I have laid out here.


A plea from a hopeful alumnus

Philippine Science High School has the potential to be our developing nation’s intellectual equivalent of the moon landing. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever have the ability to have a project such as the Apollo missions, which captivated the world and inspired the next generation of scientists to probe deeper into the mysteries of the universe. But, Pisay has an even more direct access to the brightest minds in the country. It is a pity that this opportunity is wasted on rote instruction for the unremarkable goal of employment.

Once students get to college and beyond, it’s very hard to shake off indifference, even antagonism, to scientific values. Pisay could be the country’s stellar nursery of intellectual pursuit and critical scholarship, molding minds in the formative years of high school. As it stands, Pisay’s impact on scientific understanding begins and ends with the scholar. Pisay is in a key position to change this and set forth a massive restructuring of the intellectual landscape of the Philippines. All it has to do is start being honest to its vision of the search for untarnished truth.


Update: A response to criticisms of this piece can be read here.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions in this post do not necessarily represent the position of the Filipino Freethinkers.