What to do? Interest in PH studies declines in the US

Patricio N. Abinales
What to do? Interest in PH studies declines in the US
'But the study of the Philippines remains buoyant in the Philippines and continues to have unwavering interest in Japan, South Korea, Australia, and China'

I’d like, for the moment, to don my academic cap to talk. The University of Hawaii’s Center for Philippine Studies is transitioning directors this year, and I was asked to submit a statement if ever I inherit the post. Sharing with readers now excerpts of this talk on the state of Philippine studies in this place and elsewhere.

First, Philippine Studies in the United States is in a state of decline. In the last decade, no Philippinist has been hired at the junior level. While senior Philippinists still hold on to their perches, they are also dwindling. Aggravating this condition is the fact that associate professors and the assistant professors are appallingly negligible. This decline in the American state’s interest has also gradually precipitated a slow withdrawal of private foundations from the country.

Second, Philippine Studies remains buoyant in the Philippines and continues to have unwavering interest in Japan (127 Philippinists as of last count), South Korea, Australia, and China. With the dearth in funding from the United States, Filipinos have enrolled in graduate programs in Japan, China, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Europe. This is expected to expand further because the Filipino diaspora has the potential to become the new hubs in which research can be conducted and new scholars produced.

This non-American diaspora has one other critical characteristic: it is a polyglot community. Their long years of being away from home have made many an overseas Filipino worker fluent in the languages of her country at work. Multiple language facility is also common in the southern Philippines, where trading communities have to be familiar with more than one argot to ensure that business is flowing very well. Combined with a renewed interest among Philippine scholars on “local history” and “dialects” other than Tagalog, this rich mix of languages has the potential to enrich Philippine Studies as area studies outside the US.

In Hawaii, the Center has contributed immensely to keeping interest in the Philippines, bringing in scholars and public intellectuals from the Philippines to engage in conversation with their Hawaiian counterparts. It has worked together with units in the university which are concerned with promoting the interests of Filipinos in Hawaii.  

The language programs, the College of Education Filipino-oriented courses, and the School of Nursing continue to attract students, while the Philippine collection at Hamilton Library is still one of the richest in the US. Finally, the Center has an enduring presence in the public sphere, contributing opinion pieces in the local Filipino-American rags, host radio programs, are member of the leadership of different Filipino associations, and major contributors to the non-profit sector.

I am not sure, however, if the Center can sustain the Philippine-focus side of its concern. It is going to be increasingly difficult to bring in Filipinos for graduate studies here because of the dearth in financial support. There will even come a time when it will be hard to bring Filipino scholars as visiting fellows. Convincing smart Filipino-Americans to enter Philippine-focused graduate programs will equally be more challenging as there is no job waiting for her once she finishes. Moreover, even if they are able to get scholarships and train as potential Philippinists, there may be less and less faculty who would work with them. Thus, the young smart Filipino-American/Hawaiian-Filipino will see better prospects in pursuing Filipino studies because of a better chance at finding a job.  

But for this Center to remain a viable institution, it has recognize this fundamental change. Thus, at a certain point, it will have to change itself, to form a Center that must address the needs and interests of the Filipino-American communities, support Filipino studies scholars, and help enrich this emergent “tradition.” This is an inevitable structural shift that must be acknowledged.

In the concrete, the scholars here must work for the establishment of a university-wide Center for Filipino Studies (CFS) that would replace the current center which, because it is institutionally linked to the School of Pacific and Asian Studies, is limited in its reach and scope. The committee will explore which colleges, centers, and programs will comprise the core of this new center, how it will be funded, and how to go about moving personnel and other resources from the current CPS to this new center. 

This does not mean that Philippine Studies and Filipino Studies will cease to talk to each other. In fact, this reorganization creates more possibilities for conducting joint research, especially ones that are “trans-Pacific,” local comparisons, organizing workshops on issues and topics Filipino and Philippine Studies are interested in, and then crafting syllabi based on these projects that will be team-taught.

It thus may be time to think outside of the box and accept the reality that Philippine Studies as the study of the Philippines is not anymore taken seriously in the US. Where it is still given its due is at the other side of the Pacific. The Center should start thinking of returning to its Philippine and Asian roots. – Rappler.com

Patricio N. Abinales is professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

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