Lecture by Rowena Tiempo-Torrevillas
11 May 2010, 10AM
Multipurpose Hall, Instructional Media Center
Silliman University


My fellow students of literature: We learn that ideas gain power in the imagination. Watered by the fundamental matrix of language, an idea may remain unseen—a visual image its most concrete manifestation—and remain un-incarnated. And yet its evocative character grows with each storytelling: a basic notion is embellished by every set of lips that it crosses, until it emerges as an entity vastly altered in its particulars, although the motivation that gave it life may remain unchanged, or still dimly recognizable.

We live in a country that is both continually striving to move forward, while remaining rooted in the ways of the past; we are an archipelago of languages and value systems that retain their own particularities despite the homogenizing influence of communications media (and the cellphone).

As such, we are a people who thrive on gossip; we relish the transmission of trivial (or occasionally momentous) information, vitalizing the momentum of a nation that is essentially fragmented into an archipelago of often inchoate and conflicting regional factions or local loyalties. Conversation of a personal nature is the normative mode of transaction in our discourse. We have only to see the ubiquity of the cellphone and text messaging to confirm this phenomenon, at which we Filipinos are at the forefront.

Today I will speak of the ways by which our sense of community has been expanded: from the personal to the global, through the transformative power of certain significant ideas that have crossed borders and altered our history. I am further proposing that the traffic in ideas does not go one way, but that it gains power along the way…and in certain specific instances, returns to the source of origin, transformed, as an agent itself for change.

I will briefly cite five examples of ideas that crossed the world, capturing the imagination of the people who encountered the new idea, such that a new way of doing things was born: a transformation that had impact that contained dimensions that are both personal, and eventually, global. I’ll tell them to you as personal stories, for that is what they are.

The germ of an idea is just that: a germination point (as in the cotyledon of a seed), as well as (oftentimes) a small but toxic impetus—a germ—that propels an individual into action to remedy the situation; this action sometimes expands exponentially, and becomes societal…and can even “go global.”

In order to identify these transformational ideas, we will trace their origin, and also briefly scrutinize the dynamic that caused the transformation, such that a new idea was born that itself became an agent for change.

Let us begin by looking at a couple of ideas that had their germ in the toxic arena of the personal: with hostility that began with the poison of envy, which then created a condition so intolerable it eventually led to momentous change.

What was the single definitive moment that propelled us toward nationhood? The execution of an idealistic young doctor named Jose Rizal.

Most of us here know the familiar story, learned from our earliest schooling in Philippine history, that Jose Rizal was greatly influenced by the mentorship of his first teacher, his mother, Teodora Alonzo. She not only taught her bright young son the basics of literacy, but something happened to her that had a profound influence on Jose Rizal, that eventually propelled him toward his confrontation with destiny.

Her husband (and father of Jose Rizal), Francisco Rizal y Mercado, had been helping compatriots who were victims of the abuses by the Spaniards. The friars and the Spanish authority got irked with his open defiance of the laws being implemented by the government in their province, Laguna. They hatched up a plan to take revenge on him.

The Spaniards targeted Teodora to take, vengeance on Francisco. They forced her to walk from their town in Calamba to the town of Sta. Cruz, many kilometers away. They fabricated charges against Teodora. They put her in jail despite her innocence and even without a trial. They also ordered Francisco out of their land so Teodora bore the burden of taking care of the family.

The strength of Teodora’s character became most evident when the Spaniards were running after Jose. Instead of advising Jose to stop fighting against them, she became Jose’s inspiration to continue his crusade for freedom.

When the Americans freed the Philippines, they thought of paying her back for all her sacrifices. They offered her a lifetime pension that she refused.

Jose Rizal’s mother provided a second, and more immediately urgent, reason impelling him to leave the Philippines and study abroad. Teodora developed cataracts in her eyes, and in order to find a way to save her eyesight, her son went abroad to study medicine—with ophthalmology as his specialization, so he could operate on his mother’s eyes.

While he was in Heidelburg, in Germany, the imagination of the young expatriate medical student was stirred and set alight by the ideas of revolution and liberation that were then sweeping the European continent. These currents of social ferment and fervent idealism came to be known as the Age of Romanticism. The torches of Liberty had been lit through the example of the United States’ separation from England a century before, and calls for freedom were sweeping across Europe in the aftermath of that great idea that had set alight in America (and later France). These impulses were given voice by the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a polymath like the Filipino who came to embrace his ideas.

Young Rizal, as we know, traveled across Europe, living in Spain with other exiles from the Philippines, until he determined to return home to take up the cause that was to ultimately lead him to a field known as Bagumbayan (“new nation”). There, early one morning in December, 1896, he stood before the firing squad of the Spanish authorities…whirling around, so we are told, so the rain of bullets hit him so he fell with his face upward to the sky, the bullets killing him frontally, and not from his back like a coward, as his captors had intended.

This beau geste, the extravagant Romantic splendor of his action, was the fire that lit the torches of revolt that had been held aloft by others like Apolinario Mabini, Emilio Aguinaldo, Andres Bonifacio. The power of the written word, Rizal’s two novels, provided the rallying point around which a people rose in revolt, overthrowing the shackles of a colonizing power, shackles that had been in place for nearly 400 years.

The anger and determination fueling the uprising were already there, and had been for more than a century. But it took the travel abroad for one man to put an unborn nation’s thoughts into words.

The European source of Rizal’s articulation is evident in all the statues of our national hero, which adorn the town plazas across our archipelago. The tropical sun beating relentlessly on his head, the statue of Rizal stands—in most cases—dressed in an overcoat, or in rare instances, with the coat slung over his arm.

Jose Rizal: the embodiment of the magnificent idea that crossed an ocean—overcoat and all.

Ninety years later, during three days in February 1986, the Filipinos once again overthrew the oppressive and rapacious rule of a dictator, gathering along Epifanio de los Santos Avenue in Manila to face down the tanks called forth by Ferdinand Marcos.

In an unintended echo of the events nearly a hundred years earlier, the precipitating event (for what came to be known as “People Power” across the world) was also the return of an exile who was gunned down on his way emerging from the airplane that brought him home, killing him even before he could set foot on the ground of his homeland.

The arrogance and brutality that characterized the murder of Ninoy Aquino outraged the rest of the world. But beyond the stark fact of an oppressive family that had run amok with the rapacity of its greed (5000 pairs of shoes owned by the dictator’s wife!), there was a unique, unprecedented quality to the spontaneous popular uprising that captured the imagination of the entire world.

True, the events played out before the camera eye, with its nonstop coverage, of CNN—and the drama in the streets of Manila seemed scripted for the world stage. Showers of confetti; an entire country wearing yellow, in support of the soft-spoken bespectacled widow of the martyr who had come home from exile.   Most amazingly, people smiling in that vast throng, singing songs and flashing the letter “L” with their hands in what had become the rallying emblem of the movement, garlanding with flowers the guns of the tanks that had been pointed into the crowds and never fired.

And most miraculous of all: no blood was shed in the days that culminated in the dictator’s fleeing the country.

I was far away at the time these events took place; across the world, in Iowa, my husband and I were watching as the action on Epifanio de los Santo Avenue and Camp Crame in Manila was relayed to the listening world by television and the New York Times. Outside our window, the snow was falling in a thick heavy white curtain when the word came over CNN that the military had thrown its support behind the protestors supporting Corazon Aquino, and no guns were fired from the tanks that were surrounded by the ocean of determined, singing, laughing people in the street. At the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program where we were working, the writer from Poland came to me and told me how his countrymen were watching the developments in the Philippines “with great interest.”

Since that historically unprecedented event in 1986, following the example set in the Philippines, the idea generate by the bloodless overthrow of tyranny spread across the globe.

It has been 25 years since that time. On the anniversary of that historical populist uprising that captured the world’s attention, the streets of Cairo were flooding with Egyptians clamoring for change. It is a whirlwind that has swept across the deserts of the Middle East: Libya was next to overthrow its strongman, with similar unrest in neighboring countries in the region.

My family and I were across the world, in Iowa, while these events were playing out on a world screen. We had seen Marcos on TV the previous October, brashly giving in to the challenge of Sam Donaldson of ABC News, to call “snap elections.”

In my entire life, I had only cast my ballot in one election, held in 1982, before we emigrated to the US. That national election was held largely because of the pressure exerted by the newly elected pope, John Paul. On that election day, as the election returns were being counted in schoolhouses across the nation, that evening my cousins and I went to our neighborhood schoolhouse, Piapi elementary school, to watch the tabulation of election returns as they came in.

The results were slowly, then quickly, beginning to favor the opposition party; Ninoy was running for election from prison, and we held our breaths in the Pyrrhic hope that, for once, a miracle would come to pass: that with the vigilance of the entire population, the results could not be overturned, and would be honored by the man who, for all my adult life, had shown to be nothing but dishonorable.

We could only hope, but none of us in that schoolhouse dared to show that hope. Among the many carefully expressionless faces in that silent crowd keeping vigil in the schoolroom where we were standing, I saw a vaguely familiar face: one of the janitors working at Hibbard Hall. As the tabulator’s voice droned the result written on each ballot, the janitor’s eyes met mine. We did not dare smile. But we nodded at each other, our eyes alight with the triumph of the moment, an acknowledgment we could not openly express.

From Piapi school, my cousins and I drove to other voting- and tabulation precincts. We went as far as the schoolhouse in Bongbong, below Camp Lookout, in Valencia. As we were turning the car around to return home to Dumaguete, through the thick, heavy, cicada-laden darkness, I saw a sight that I’ve carried as an iconic moment in the years ever since then.

Coming down the rugged mountain trail were a line of people, a handful of people, carrying torches (sulo) from coconut fronds they had twisted together, or bottled of kerosene with homemade wicks. A trail of small lights in that heavy darkness: mountain people who had come down simply to watch the counting, to make sure that their one vote would be among those tallied.

That image has been, for me, the emblem of the democratic idea, across the years.

Without grandiosely overstating the significance of the 1986 People Power revolution in the Philippines, I daresay that the people of our country paved the way for the subsequent “velvet revolutions” that took place in eastern Europe, and led to the dismantling of the Soviet Union…and indeed the end of the Cold War. It is what the poet Gémino Abad calls “the Filipinos’ gift to the world.”

It is a fundamental example of an idea that crosses borders to transform the world.

A third example of a transformational idea that germinated in our own ground, here at Silliman University, and later crossed the oceans and continents on a return journey to distant origins, is the concept of a wholistic program of study, designed for college students of exceptional academic promise. The Honors Program was established by my mother at Silliman in the early 1970s, administered under the aegis of the College or Arts and Sciences, with the Department of English and Literature as its administrative home.

We all know the founding story of our school: how Dumaguete was selected to be the site of an institute that was begun by a missionary couple who ventured across the world, part of a wave of American teachers, known as the Thomasites because they arrived in this country aboard the SS Thomas. These teachers were charged with bringing to the Philippines, then a recently acquired territory of the United States in its first and only experiment with colonial expansion, the notions of a bicameral governing structure, public health, free public education. Along with these instruments of the common weal, the Thomasites brought with them the English language. [English, with its useful ability to assimilate, and be adapted to, the various cultural groups that used it]

As all of us here know, Silliman Institute was begun by a redoubtable couple from New York, David Sutherland Hibbard and Laura Crooks Hibbard. Quite fittingly, the building on our campus that now bears their name originally housed the university library and the Department of English and Literature — where many of us began our lifelong careers.

From that building, Hibbard Hall, and later from the Old Mission Hospital (now known as Katipunan Hall), originated a teaching method that was daring and as yet untested in this country. The methodology behind this approach to teaching was to encourage a student to view issues holistically, using the specialized tools of other disciplines, and applying them to the scrutiny of large, humanistic concerns. A core idea, such as freedom, would be discussed and explored from a variety of academic angles: not just political science, but economics, history, linguistics. A student enrolled in the Honors Program would begin by enrolling in one of the core courses in the general education curriculum—for example, Introduction to Psychology; instead of attending the regular classes with its classroom lectures, the student would attend the series of activities designed around the core idea specific to his or her classification (sophomore to senior), meet regularly with the mentor assigned to that group, working out a plan of independent- or small-group research.

There were, of course, refinements to this unique pedagogical approach, which was highly selective, and it proved to be a stunning success. I was one of the earliest products of the Honors Program, and it’s now something of a campus legend that our president Ben Malayang got to know his wife Gladys Rio, while they were enrolled in the Honors Program.

The person who originated the Program, designing the concept and its various components, was Edith Tiempo, the chair of the English Department. In 1978, the United Board for Christian Higher Education named her the first Elisabeth Luce Moore Distingished Asian Professor. During the year that she was fulfilling her professorial obligations at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the UBCHEA sent a professor from the State University of New York in Binghamton, John Maguire, to study this new interdisciplinary teaching approach that had been developed at Silliman. Professor Maguire spent a year here, observing the Honors Program before returning to the US.

Within a year or so, we at Silliman read, in TIME magazine, of a new program in cross-disciplinary teaching that was now being implemented in the entire State University of New York school system. The article described, at some length, the details of this innovative approach to learning and leadership-building…and it was exactly the same program as the Honors Program at Silliman, where the concept had originated, and been brought back by John Maguire to be followed by American students—across the world.

The concept of the Honors Program, and the particulars of its academic design, are not the only example of how an idea that was born right here returned to the land of its linguistic and spiritual roots, and was re-rooted there, to flourish and grow.

One of the most enduringly inspiring instances of the cross-fertilization taking place between countries that are vastly separated by time and space is exemplified by the multitude of Filipino pastors and chaplains—trained in Philippine seminaries like the Silliman University Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary—who are now serving congregations across the world, and particularly in the United States.

These clergy often serve multiple congregations, usually in smaller towns or rural areas where there are not enough trained ministers to lead Sunday services and carry out the other leadership duties for churches across the Midwest. Typically, these ministers preach at two or sometimes three different churches on a given Sunday, driving down the country lanes where Presbyterian, Methodist, or Congregational churches stand amid the yellowing fields of corn and soybean: baptizing infants, officiating at marriages, laying to rest the members of families that have tilled those acres of land for generations.

We know these servants of God by name, because they are our brothers and sisters, who began their calling a few feet away from where we stand today. Jonathan Pia, brother-in-law of our president Ben; Rosemarie Calderon-Khan, daughter of our late president and statesman Cicero Calderon; Alexius Lopez, translator of the first Cebuano Bible: on a Sunday morning one would find them, transplanted from our shores to the snowy fields of places named Ottumwa and Keokuk.

They are the progeny of distant figures — tall bespectacled men and women—who heeded the call of an idea, to bring the Word across the world to those who would listen. And now the children of those to whom they brought those first seeds of faith, of language, of assured conviction, are returning to the places where those seeds originated, bearing their own harvests, to share with others.

There is one final instance of this unheralded transaction, where the distinction between giver and receiver has become blurred, because the gift has changed hands so often.

By this time, you are all familiar with the story of a young man who, seventy years ago, traversed the Cuernos de Negros collecting data for the American Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), bringing the information he gathered—of troop movements, of the massacres of mountain villages by the Japanese occupation—to the American submarines that surfaced in the starlight off the coast of Bayawan.

When the war was over, that young man was sent to the United States to study. Asked what area of study he wanted to pursue, he said: “I have many stories I need to tell, and I would like to go where I can find out how to tell those stories effectively and well.”

He was told: “Then there is only one place where you can go for what you need. Iowa. There is a man named Paul Engle, who can show you all you need to know about writing, at the University of Iowa…:

And that is how my father found himself walking, early one morning, across the Pentacrest to the Old Armory Building and the temporary quonset huts where the classrooms of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were housed.

Paul Engle did not found the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, although he was instrumental in shaping it. His first non-American born students to graduate from the creative writing program were my father and mother.

The University of Iowa was the first university in the world to grant the Master of Fine Arts to students in the arts; instead of a body of research for the graduate thesis, the candidate fir the degree would present a body of created work: a symphony or choral work; the performance of a dance choreographed entirely at the school; a collection of poems.

The concept of regarding the creative and performing arts on an equal footing with academic scholarliness, originated with—as I have heard it recounted—with an influential lecture that had been delivered at Iowa by the theologian Josiah Royce, as the 19th century turned toward the twentieth. Josiah Royce (1855-1916) was the leading American proponent of absolute idealism, the metaphysical view (also maintained by G. W. F. Hegel and F. H. Bradley) that all aspects of reality, including those we experience as disconnected or contradictory, are ultimately unified in the thought of a single all-encompassing consciousness.

His ideas stirred the imagination of a professor of audiology, Carl Seashore. Under the leadership of Carl Seashore in 1922, Iowa became the first university in the United States to accept creative projects as theses for advanced degrees.

As stated in the historical records of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: The Program in Creative Writing, known worldwide as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was founded in 1936 with the gathering together of writers from the poetry and fiction workshops. It was the first creative writing program in the country, and it became the prototype for more than 300 writing programs, many of which were founded by Workshop alumni. The Workshop remains the most prestigious creative writing program in the country and one of the most selective graduate programs of any kind, typically admitting fewer than five percent of its applicants.

Since its establishment, the Workshop has been the cornerstone of the writing community at the University of Iowa.  In its early years, the program enjoyed a series of distinguished visitors, such as Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell. Workshop students met with early success in publishing their work; thus began what Workshop director Frank Conroy would describe as the Workshop’s “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Talented writers teach and study there; this compels more to come and do the same.

Other pioneering programs in writing and the creative and performing arts then followed at Iowa, including the Playwrights’ Workshop, the Center for Intermedia and Video Art, the Nonfiction Writing Program, the Iowa Center for the Book. The Patient Voice Project, created in 2005 by students at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Arts Share, offers creative writing classes to chronically ill hospital patients.

Iowa’s tradition of writing has been guided by the principle that, though writing is a solitary practice, it’s one significantly enriched by the presence of other writers. As Paul Engle wrote, “Our plan gives the writer a place where he can be himself, confronting the hazards and hopes of his own talent, and at the same time he can measure his capacity against a variety of others.”

Through the years, some of the best writers in the world have come here to deepen their understanding of the craft of writing. Since 1939, 40 individuals with ties to the University of Iowa have been awarded Pulitzer Prizes; four recent U.S. Poet Laureates have been either students or faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 2006, Orhan Pamuk, a 1985 fellow of the International Writing Program, won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In 1962, almost 50 years to this day, Paul Engle visited the Summer Writers’ Workshop at Silliman that had been established by his students, Ed and Edith Tiempo. They had taught creative writing from the time they returned to the Philippines from their studies in Iowa in the early 1950s, the first academic program in Asia where the art and practice of creative writing was taught. The first Summer Writers’ Workshop was held in 1961. For three weeks that summer, and every summer since then, writers from across the country and from neighboring nations in Southeast Asia, on fellowships that were provided by funding agencies such as The Asian Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Geneva-based Agency for Christian Literature Development.

It is that first harvest, from the seed that had been brought from Iowa, that brings us together today.

But the story does not end there: while Paul Engle was here in Dumaguete, visiting the Writers’ Workshop founded by the writing couple from the Philippines, Paul Engle met two writers whose work he was particularly interested in. Their names were Ko Won, a poet from Korea, and Wilfrido Nolledo.

He invited these writers from the Silliman Writers’ Workshop to the University of Iowa, where they formed the nucleus for what was to become, in 1967, the International Writing Program. Since then, writers from all over the world, Argentina to Zimbabwe, have come each year to Iowa to form a community of practitioners of the otherwise lonely and singular act of setting words to paper.

Truly, the world comes to Iowa, even as Iowa goes out into the world, carrying the seeds of that brave, creative idea. Sometimes those seeds, taken from a wondrous new crop grown far away, return, to be replanted in the land that first brought them forth.

This is the golden harvest we now celebrate.