Defeating Indifference in Knowledge Work

Defeating Indifference in Knowledge Work

(This page temporarily features articles by Dr. Betsy Joy B. Tan, Vice President for Academic Affairs, who has been designated as Acting President in concurrent capacity, while Dr. Ben S. Malayang III is on official leave. Dr. Malayang will resume his reflections in August.)


Defeating Indifference in Knowledge Work:
The Silliman University Economist’s ISR in the Protection of Nature

By: Dr. Betsy Joy B. Tan
(Note: Message delivered at the pinning ceremony of the graduating Economics majors.)

The copyright of Peter Drucker’s seminal book on management dates back to 1973, thirty-eight years ago today when your birth was not even thought of or planned by your parents.  In his Preface, the American management guru describes this book  as a “most unfashionable book” . . .  because “it does not talk about rights” but . . .  instead on “responsibility”.  It is a book not focused “on doing one’s own thing but on performance”.

Today, it is already fashionable to complain about rights rather than to highlight one’s responsibility and accountability.  I am then reminded of US President John F. Kennedy’s statement that runs,  “Ask not what your country can do for your; ask what you can do for your country!”

In the context of society’s posture of fashion about complaints these days to any change in the structure of a country’s management and governance, Peter Drucker in 1973 was already seeing beyond his time when he called his book “unfashionable” because it does not talk about rights but instead on responsibility; it does not talk about “doing one’s own thing but on performance”.

In the same book, Drucker already had a vision of a fact of life today:  that after the Industrial Revolution, society has become a society of large organizations ranging from “producing economic goods and services to health care, from social security and welfare to education, from the search for new knowledge to the protection of the natural environment . . . making us a society of institutions (who) make a living through knowledge, (who) make a contribution through knowledge, and (who) achieve through knowledge”.

From labor in the Industrial Age, knowledge is now the wealth in this Knowledge Economy. Proof of that is your graduation in a few months from the knowledge you have gained, earned, and achieved in your major area of knowledge, Economics. 

With Silliman University one of today’s institutions of service in this knowledge society, allow me then to read in between the lines of your theme today where you have singled out to identify, ‘Silliman’s Social Responsibility’ – giving the impression that you are someone looking in and not the Sillimanian who has sung a thousand times the Silliman Song, repeating especially these lines:  ‘ . . . the faith and truth she gave us/ Will remain our guiding star. . .”.

Of course I understand that from a business perspective, Silliman’s Social Responsibility refers to CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility. But because Silliman’s “business” is service in knowledge work, with her teaching-learning philosophy steeped in the five Cs of church, classroom, (athletic) court, (cultural) center, community, allow me to disagree with you that Silliman University has a CSR; instead, let me say that all of us here at the University – students, faculty, staff, management, alumni – have an ISR, an Institutional Social Responsibility.     

In the Knowledge Age, any information or data only becomes knowledge when our brain processes that data or information to become useful and functional for us in our personal lives, in our professional lives, in our society.  All of us then – students, faculty, staff, management, alumni – are knowledge workers in this knowledge community called Silliman University.  All of us too, have so much at stake – what Peter Drucker has long determined: not only ‘to make a living through knowledge’ but more so, “to make a contribution through knowledge, to achieve through knowledge”.   

Everytime you sing the line “. . . in our hearts without a peer. . . “ in our Silliman Song, what does it evoke in you? Years from now, what images recalled in tranquility could become vivid in your memory?

To ask about “Slliman’s Social Responsibility” then highlights Drucker’s concern of being fashionable simply by “doing one’s own thing”.  In his own words, that would qualify you to belong to “our modern Luddites – the highly educated young people who are vocal about their complaints”. However, I beg to disagree that a Sillimanian  is one who can afford to be simply a spectator, of someone looking in;  because I believe that having been trained in the tradition of excellence at SIlliman University, a Sillimanian is one who contributes through knowledge, who makes a difference in each of our worlds because of such knowledge! In this  knowledge community then, Silliman University does not operate as a business with entitlement to a CSR,  Corporate Social Responsibility; Silliman University is a service institution,  serving the knowledge needs of society’s human resources.  To focus on her knowledge service mandate does not mean “doing one’s own thing”;  what Silliman University does have therefore is performance – every Sillimanian’s responsibility and accountability, her ISR, her Institutional Social Responsibility.   Our Service Learning Program reinforces that ISR.

To paraphrase US President John F. Kennedy, let us then not ask what Silliman University can do for us; but let us ask what we can do for Silliman University!  My message today then centers on, “Defeating Indifference in Knowledge Work:  The Silliman University  Economist’s ISR in the Protection of Nature”.

Each of us comes into this world gifted with a brain, our rational mind and our emotional mind.  And nurturing our brain begins at home, continues to be sharpened in school, and grows with cutting edge incisiveness as our knowledge merges with culture and the wider culture of the globe where, from the point of view of mass communication,  entertainment is a more lucrative industry by the attention it receives – as against another service industry like education.  Much new knowledge has cropped up about how technology saps our attention; about how TV makes us passive rather than active thinkers. But because we are more passionate and rather obsessive about our attention to technology, we have bred a culture of indifference  even as knowledge workers tasked with renewing our knowledge, connecting the dots between new knowledge and the old, between new knowledge with another new one.  Such indifference is an attitude, a state of mind and emotions.

I have already said many times in the past that Yale University behavioral economist, Robert Shiller is right when he reminds us about how we use our brains in his 2009 book, Irrational Exuberance, where he writes: The ability to focus attention on important things is one of the defining characteristics of intelligence . . . .  Its failure then is a significant characteristic of human judgment errors”. 

As students about to graduate, who have been groomed in Economics and nurtured in FIRE – Faith in Instruction, Research, and Extension – let me knock into your hearts with these questions about your own performance as Sillimanians:  As you prepare for class each day, do you pay attention to connecting  the important dots between your lessons and your world; between  your specific knowledge base in each of your subjects and what you can do to protect nature, to find out the effects of environmental stress on human performance?  Among your habits, do you pay close attention to an ordinary routine like your own habits of garbage disposal . . . even if it is only a candy wrapper?  Knowing that small bits make up a big whole in clogging our canals and drainage systems that cause flashfloods, do you monitor yourself or your significant others about  proper disposal even of bits of garbage? 

Remember that President John F. Kennedy said, “Ask what you can do for your country –  and not what your country can do for you”.  As our country is always in a state of development, do you help in its development through your brain’s information processing that is consistent in the promotion of durable conservation behavior?  How do you work on motivating your own environmental stewardship that includes your family? Because knowledge is renewable and changing, and weather patterns are abrupt and ever changing, how does your knowledge about yourself  and your habits make you more aware of how you can protect your own slice of nature?  At home, how do you mitigate the effects of climate change when it is already a household routine to burn your garbage, including plastic and rubber?  What has your science class taught you about the chemical processes involved when plastic or rubber is burned?

Because of the abrupt changes in weather patterns today, ice caps melt . . . and the liquid rushing from these once-solid ice-covered mountains and ice formations add to the volume of the ocean. Sea levels rise, decreasing the supply of habitable lands for a growing demand from the world’s exponentially increasing population. And it takes no economist to understand the strings of crises that this could bring . . .  if man  disregards the environment; if man’s utter complacency stays.  To an economist, I am sure that  this scenario conjures threatening livelihood opportunities, production dynamics, food and agricultural sustainability,  health and wellness. On a larger scale, it becomes a political issue as governments would now struggle to find creative means of providing for their constituencies’ needs; and their solutions could compromise regional peace and order.

Adjusting our lenses to the micro level, how does Silliman University view climate change? What is the attitude to climate change on campus of a seasoned Sillimanian like you about to leave her portals? Is it a global phenomenon that we are convinced could wipe out Silliman, along with Dumaguete, decades from now? Are we doing something about it? What initiatives are we rolling out to demystify climate change as it affects our campus by the sea?

Curbing carbon emissions on Silliman campus is easier said than done. Defeating or changing our attitude of indifference on campus about this global phenomenon is much more difficult – if we allow  our old habits in knowledge work to control us. But while we see the road to addressing it outliving our generation, we also know that shedding off our indifference  is something that can be done and one that we are doing something about.

If you do an analysis of the student population of Silliman, you would come to the conclusion that our numbers have increased over the years. And doing a market analysis of our student population against prevailing costs (i.e. tuition, books, dormitory, allowances), one may conclude that we have a growing representative market from the middle to upper-middle class segments.

What do such data tell us?

On campus, it is a fact that the middle and upper-middle class segments in society hold a strong purchasing power. By assumption, these are also segments in society whose preferences – in the context of carbon emissions –  involve easy, more convenient, and sportier transport. Thus, these are people who have motorcycles and cars. And by basic mathematics, more cars equal more fuel consumption, which equal higher carbon emissions. And by logic and simple science, higher carbon emissions equal increased pressure on the atmosphere. And connecting the dots further, this leads us to yet another discussion on greenhouse effect – which is beyond this time this morning.

So what is Silliman doing about it? What is Silliman University’s ISR in this regard? What is at stake for all of us – students, faculty, staff, administration, alumni?

From the perspective of knowledge work, climate change is a problem that takes root in a lack of awareness, a passive activity of the brain.  Enveloped as we are in the comfort zone of technology via entertainment, such absence of awareness speaks of the prevailing attitude of passivity and attention sap that knowledge workers ahead of us have been saying.  And this leads to a vicious cycle which finds apathy and lack of environmental concern nibbling on our social and more fiber. This also blinds us from the scenario where we continue to refuse the fact that, in one way or another, we are both contributors to the problem and recipients of its ill effects, either directly or indirectly.

To protect nature, Silliman University’s ISR then considers three strategic points of reference in our service as a knowledge organization: education, advocacy, partnership.

Our academic curricula across disciplines continue to go through a series of reviews where one focus is the integration of an environmental perspective into how we understand our various disciplines. As an educational strategy,  this does not mean a duplication of what the “hard sciences” offer, but instead offer a complementation in subjects in such discussions as environmental economics and environmental journalism, to name just two. At the College of Performing and Visual Arts, there is a conscious environmental twist to music composition and even to abstract interpretation of reality through colors. To us in the University, this is a consistent hammering of the need to develop a sense of environmental stewardship within our students in order to link them to issues such as climate change. The more we position the environment as relevant to a particular subject matter, the more students realize the concepts of interconnectivity and co-existence.   In the history of Silliman pedagogy, such kind of complementation was already on campus when the Honors Program was established in 1969, a first in the Philippines.

An as advocacy, absolute elimination of carbon emission or of plastics – which can also contribute to climate change – may not be possible in these times. But that is without saying that we cannot minimize to help stabilize abrupt atmospheric changes. In the University, we have strictly implemented the “no tarpaulin policy.” This prompts academic units and student groups to utilize friendlier materials such as cloth, which is biodegradable. A Material Recovery Facility (MRF) has also been set up at the Buildings and Grounds Department to ensure proper segmentation and maximization of recyclable items such as plastic bottles and certain construction materials from rehabilitated buildings. Even the process of determining parking slots in the University is a silent yet deliberate attempt at encouraging students to adopt carpooling – for the fewer parking spaces, hitching a ride with friends helps to mitigate climate changes by decreasing fuel emissions. These are but a few of the activities that we are advocating on campus in support of our strong environmental policy.

On partnerships, the issue of climate change is not isolated to us. It is a global phenomenon that cuts across sectors. Cognizant of this, Silliman partners with sectors like international development organizations – the Asian Development Bank and World Bank, local government units and government agencies,  civil society and advocacy groups such as the Friends of the Environment, Flora and Fauna International and the World Wildlife Fund.  We have projects with our partners that target heightened public awareness, the conduct of socio-economic studies that seek to generate baseline data to measure the impact of community-based coastal resource management initiatives on household conditions, and actual policy formulation and implementation. These are projects that spring from a collective advocacy and commitment to environmental protection. And multi-sectoral partnership is an effective way of expanding our relevance and reach, efficiently achieving desired results, and inspiring replication.

And so you might ask, “Why does this matter to me as a Sillimanian, as an economics student or as an economist in the immediate future?”

Customizing it to your distinct set of skills and interests, it matters  because economics, on a larger scale, influences decisions being made by profit-driven industries. And these are profit-driven industries that register the highest in terms of carbon emissions. Your cost-benefit analysis can either take or break the stand of the environment. For example, mechanized operations are preferred over manual labor; an investment on green technology is considered impractical; and support for environmental programs does not always blend well with corporate thrusts. That, of course, holds true in certain companies, although we know that the concept of CSR has prompted more to veer away from that kind of thinking.

As Silliman’s ISR, if economists fail to project and defend the long-term benefits of certain decisions and factor into the equation the concern for the environment in achieving sustainable development and sustainable operations for the company, that makes you an unthinking passive  volunteer to make the world  be eaten up by climate change.

Economics as an influential discipline is a tool that outlines the roadmap to financial viability. As members of the Silliman alumni then,  “greening” that roadmap, makes you the discipline to bring us a way of life – away from the attitude of indifference that our habits have made of us.

As you move closer to wearing that academic cap and moving your tassel from right to left, you will have created the ripples in the knowledge structure that Silliman University has nurtured you for –  that demand in yourself to care for the environment in the mold that you have been groomed to excel . . .  whether in church, in the classroom, in the court, in the community, in the character of the knowledge worker the Silliman way. In that way, you become that very supply that the world needs for it to breathe life to more generations beyond yours.

There are many signs today that many of our youth suffer from emotional deficiencies – teen crimes, the popularity of drugs, babies already having babies, relational issues like the reproductive health bill and divorce.  I then look forward to every unfashionable Sillimanian who values responsibility more than rights, whose concept of service is not on “doing one’s own thing” but on shared performance, who defeats indifference by rallying behind our ISR for the protection of nature!  I also look forward to the unfashionable Silliman economist as the catalyst to make our world a better place for all of us not only to continue our tradition of  excellence but also to prepare our youth whom our hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, calls the hope of our Fatherland.    

Indeed, loving Silliman University as we do, with our loyalty to her truth and ideals forever etched in our hearts . . . indifference cannot take root in the knowledge work that we do – for  our Institutional Social Responsibility, our ISR,  will always be for all of us – students, faculty, staff, administration, alumni – one big TEAM, Together Everyone Achieves More! With unwavering loyalty,  Team Silliman is the spirit behind our every ISR. Three cheers for Silliman University!