Iskolar than what? UP Scholarship as Consumer Brand Name

I wrote this commentary for Philippine Online Chronicles.

Iskolar than what?

This is the usual reaction to the tagline printed on the official shirt for freshmen students released by the UP Diliman University Student Council and the UP Circle of Entrepreneurs last opening of classes.

Available as baseball shirt and the v-neck shirt priced at P280 and P220 respectively, the shirts come with the slogan “Iskolar Than You.”

A wordplay on “Iskolar ng Bayan” and “Cooler Than You,” the catchphrase is marketed by its sellers as a mere expression of pride in belonging to the country’s national university.

Plain Arrogance

But not everyone found the slogan amusing or cool. It smacks of plain arrogance, said Prof. Phoebe Zoe Sanchez of the UP Cebu Social Sciences Department.

“It is devoid of the humble value of iskolars ng bayan as scientists without frontiers or scientists of the people. And yet they are not yet full fledged scientists,” said Sanchez.

Cabring Cabrera said that appropriating the term “Iskolar” for a tagline that exudes “a misguided sense of superiority” disregards the way “Iskolar ng Bayan” means precisely the opposite.

Despite its being founded by American colonizers in 1908 to produce “Little Brown Americans” who will perpetuate their white master’s interests, the University of the Philippines also became a counterpoint to this colonial project.

Most Presidents of the Republic of the Philippines who served the interests of the elite and followed the dictates of foreign powers – from Ferdinand Marcos to Gloria Arroyo – hailed from the university.

But at the same time UP became the focal point of youth unrest and the resurgence of nationalist consciousness in the 1960s which culminated in the First Quarter Storm of 1970 and the Diliman Commune of 1971.

During the dark years of the Marcos dictatorship and beyond, UP would produce some of the country’s finest sons and daughters who would offer their lives for the plight of the Filipino people.

Gauging Critical-Mindedness

No surprise then that Prof. Tomasito Talledo of the UP Visayas Miagao would describe the slogan as shallow and tasteless.

“It reads childish and cheapens the meaning of scholarship. Filipino scholarship is for the good of all, not indulgence and self-centeredness,” he said.

Perhaps instances like this can prove useful in gauging the level of critical-mindedness and social consciousness among the present generation of “Iskolars ng Bayan.”

The Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano once noted how corporate experts transform merchandises by giving them human attributes that combat loneliness: “they caress, accompany, understand, help. Perfume kisses you; a car never lets you down.”

In the same way, commodities can also help make you feel superior over others by serving as symbols of social mobility. “The more exclusive, the better; things lift you out of being the crowd and save you from being nobody,” said Galeano.

Perhaps this is the use value of the UP Diliman USC’s latest freshmen shirts. This is the real signified of the brand name “Iskolar Than You.”

For all the pretension of being cut above the rest that the catchphrase wants to project, it is most of all reflective of the way the university has not been exempted from the hegemonic culture of individualism, conspicuous consumption, and “me-only” mentality engulfing the rest of the country.

Serving the Status Quo

What is amusing is the fact that it is the University Student Council that is sponsoring the dissemination of such unabashed elitism.

Instead of spearheading programs of action that can help raise the political consciousness of the studentry, this student institution that once produced the likes of Lean Alejandro, Malou Mangahas, Amante Jimenez, et al has become a mere servant of an unjust social order.

Perhaps they share Renato Constantino’s description of the education system as a whole: they contribute to the fostering of “strict conformism and adjustment to the status quo and has therefrom become an impediment to change.”

In the end, the catchphrase “Iskolar Than You” is reflective of the way education is regarded as a mere instrument for what Constantino called the acquisition of “higher earning power and hence opportunity to consume more” rather than as a means of deepening a commitment to serve the Filipino people.

Far from signifying difference or superiority, it simply transforms UP scholarship into a consumer brand name. It is a succinct reaffirmation of belonging to a society embedded in the cult of individualism.

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