The role of public intellectuals in transforming society: postscripts from Roland Simbulan’s ‘A Liberating Education for Filipinos’

Citing UP as the country’s premier university, Simbulan notes the praxis of theory and practice as a critical element. After all, UP’s symbol, the oblation signifies offering oneself for the people.


In these critical times, our ideals as one nation are put to test. The current regime pits people against each other, divides the country over which values are acceptable or not; which are truth and which have become truth from spawned lies; which are “legal”, and which are just and fair.

To gain grasp on social issues, we turn to academics and scholars. Having spent years studying theory, teaching in universities, conducting research and translating them into writings, intellectuals are crucial in shaping public opinion.

In a thanksgiving (retirement) lecture and book launch, Professor Roland Simbulan resonated the call for public intellectuals to strive for a liberating education. An academic for the people for almost four decades, Simbulan underscored the social responsibility of public intellectuals, “Yes, we try best to be objective but we are biased for majority of the marginalized Filipinos, we do not want to serve oppressors and exploiters of the country, nor do we want to support destroyers of the ecosystem. We oppose unjust and inequitable economic structures and we believe in the capacity of the people to change society and importance of organized movements to bring about better future for all.”

Professor Roland Simbulan: educator, activist and public intellectual

As an educator, Simbulan holds the highest academic rank as professor of Development Studies, and Public Management in University of the Philippines. He was instrumental in creating the Development Studies program in UP Manila during the 1982. The program specializes in political economy of the Philippines as well as “counter-culture, counter-institution” alternative development paradigms in Third World. Quacquarelli Symmonds (QS) has named UP as one of the world’s top 100 universities for development studies Development Studies March this year.

As a scholar, his works to advance national sovereignty is reflected in his expertise in Philippine foreign policy, Philippine – US relations, and US intervention. Through the years, he has authored a number of publications on the subject. Among these is his first book in 1983 tackling the presence of US bases in the country, critically acclaimed “The Bases of our Insecurity,” his postgraduate thesis greatly contributed to the landmark Senate rejection of the US military base treaty in 1991.

Prior to becoming an educator, Simbulan became one of the youngest political prisoners of martial law dictatorship during the Marcos regime. In 1974, he was detained with activist students and co-writers of the UP student paper Philippine Collegian.

His latest writing, “A Liberating Education: Critical Notes of An Insurgent Scholar” gives context to the vital role of social science scholars in society. For Simbulan, a liberating education that is instrumental in transforming society is anchored on the praxis of theory and social conditions. He explains that the academic, through immersing with the people and their struggle, explaining to them socio-economic and political issues, helps social movements become effective catalysts for genuine democracy and people’s development.

As a prolific author, Simbulan states that he does not write strictly for academic work but to empower grassroots sector and organizations for social change, and raise the level of social consciousness of the greatest number of Filipinos.

The role of the intellectual

In this day and age, the knowledge-based economy has produced a number of Filipino scholars who were privileged to study and gain expertise abroad. Advances in technology such as social media have enabled many of them to share their insights with just few taps and clicks. But here lies the danger of intellectuals miseducating the public.

While impartiality is an esteemed value for academics, deepening crises in society may compel them to take sides. Consciousness of the oppressed people’s struggle in a deepening social crisis separates the observers, apostate intellectuals from public intellectuals, scholars for the people.

In studying society, the former use the observer lens, writes strictly for academic purposes, distancing themselves. While this is the accepted approach, such standpoint alienates the intellectual from the people. The latter, meanwhile involve themselves through participatory research, immersing with the masses and their struggle.

Simbulan, together with economist, fellow activist and public intellectual Dr. Edberto Villegas, crafted the Development Studies (DevStud) practicum program which requires junior students to immerse with marginalized sectors, particularly the toiling masses (farmers, workers, fisherfolks) for a month. Deviating from traditional university practicum programs that place students in the comfort of office spaces, students learn the conditions of the masses by living their lives and witnessing their struggles in the farmlands, fishing communities, urban poor areas. Simbulan aptly calls the practicum program “Paaralang Bayan.”

An educator unionist and one of the founding members of ACT Teachers Partylist, Simbulan urges intellectuals to strive for a liberating education, one that is “makabayan, makamasa, at siyentipiko” (nationalist, mass based, scientific), instead of being mere observers of the society. Having been a university administrator for a number of years (Department Chair, Vice Chancellor for Planning and Development, and Faculty Regent), Simbulan notes the role of the academe, the educational system as counter-institutions cannot be over emphasized in this objective. Citing UP as the country’s premier university, Simbulan notes the praxis of theory and practice as a critical element. After all, UP’s symbol, the oblation signifies offering oneself for the people.

In summarizing the role of education in changing society, Simbulan writes “education will be a vital tool for our people’s national development if it has a transformative framework that arms both teachers and students with social awareness and commitment to genuinely contribute to national development, especially for the poor and disadvantaged in our society. Transformative education is the outcome of critical thought, reflection and interaction, engaging in continuous debate on historical, theoretical, and empirical evidence inside and outside the four walls of the classroom.”

Simbulan’s discourse on the social responsibility of public intellectuals and liberating education is greatly influenced by American anti-imperialist intellectual Noam Chomsky. In his essay on the Vietnam war, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” Chomsky writes that intellectuals have deeper responsibility. According to Chomsky, “it is the responsibility of the people to speak the truth and expose lies,” having power that comes from access to information, academic freedom and political liberty. Intellectuals are thus in the position to expose lies of governments, analyze actions according to their causes and motives behind hidden intentions, and free itself from subservience to power. Along this line of academics resisting subservience, Simbulan prefers to call himself an “insurgent scholar.”

At the end of the day, intellectuals must be able to answer the question “What have I done” in determining their place in history. When tumultuous times bring suffering to the people, they must not watch with a blind eye, tolerating injustices and asquiescing to authority. For after all, silence implies consent.

Various intellectuals have and will continue to seek different interpretations of the society, but the point however, according to philosopher Karl Marx is to change it. Simbulan believes that the hope for a liberating education greatly lies in educators with their clarion call, “Ang guro ng bayan, ngayon ay lumalaban.”

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