A Lesson from History

THE CLASS IN PHYSICS (Chapter XIII, El Filibusterismo)
The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Reign of Greed, by Jose Rizal

The classroom was a spacious rectangular hall with large grated
windows that admitted an abundance of light and air. Along the two
sides extended three wide tiers of stone covered with wood, filled
with students arranged in alphabetical order. At the end opposite the
entrance, under a print of St. Thomas Aquinas, rose the professor's
chair on an elevated platform with a little stairway on each side. With
the exception of a beautiful blackboard in a narra frame, scarcely
ever used, since there was still written on it the _viva_ that had
appeared on the opening day, no furniture, either useful or useless,
was to be seen. The walls, painted white and covered with glazed tiles
to prevent scratches, were entirely bare, having neither a drawing
nor a picture, nor even an outline of any physical apparatus. The
students had no need of any, no one missed the practical instruction
in an extremely experimental science; for years and years it has been
so taught and the country has not been upset, but continues just as
ever. Now and then some little instrument descended from heaven and
was exhibited to the class from a distance, like the monstrance to
the prostrate worshipers--look, but touch not! From time to time,
when some complacent professor appeared, one day in the year was
set aside for visiting the mysterious laboratory and gazing from
without at the puzzling apparatus arranged in glass cases. No one
could complain, for on that day there were to be seen quantities of
brass and glassware, tubes, disks, wheels, bells, and the like--the
exhibition did not get beyond that, and the country was not upset.

Besides, the students were convinced that those instruments had not
been purchased for them--the friars would be fools! The laboratory
was intended to be shown to the visitors and the high officials who
came from the Peninsula, so that upon seeing it they would nod their
heads with satisfaction, while their guide would smile, as if to say,
"Eh, you thought you were going to find some backward monks! Well,
we're right up with the times--we have a laboratory!"

The visitors and high officials, after being handsomely entertained,
would then write in their _Travels_ or _Memoirs_: "The Royal
and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas of Manila, in charge of
the enlightened Dominican Order, possesses a magnificent physical
laboratory for the instruction of youth. Some two hundred and fifty
students annually study this subject, but whether from apathy,
indolence, the limited capacity of the Indian, or some other
ethnological or incomprehensible reason, up to now there has not
developed a Lavoisier, a Secchi, or a Tyndall, not even in miniature,
in the Malay-Filipino race."

Yet, to be exact, we will say that in this laboratory are held the
classes of thirty or forty _advanced_ students, under the direction of
an instructor who performs his duties well enough, but as the greater
part of these students come from the Ateneo of the Jesuits, where
science is taught practically in the laboratory itself, its utility
does not come to be so great as it would be if it could be utilized by
the two hundred and fifty who pay their matriculation fees, buy their
books, memorize them, and waste a year to know nothing afterwards. As
a result, with the exception of some rare usher or janitor who has
had charge of the museum for years, no one has ever been known to
get any advantage from the lessons memorized with so great effort.

But let us return to the class. The professor was a young Dominican,
who had filled several chairs in San Juan de Letran with zeal and
good repute. He had the reputation of being a great logician as well
as a profound philosopher, and was one of the most promising in his
clique. His elders treated him with consideration, while the younger
men envied him, for there were also cliques among them. This was the
third year of his professorship and, although the first in which he
had taught physics and chemistry, he already passed for a sage, not
only with the complaisant students but also among the other nomadic
professors. Padre Millon did not belong to the common crowd who each
year change their subject in order to acquire scientific knowledge,
students among other students, with the difference only that they
follow a single course, that they quiz instead of being quizzed,
that they have a better knowledge of Castilian, and that they are not
examined at the completion of the course. Padre Millon went deeply
into science, knew the physics of Aristotle and Padre Amat, read
carefully his "Ramos," and sometimes glanced at "Ganot." With all that,
he would often shake his head with an air of doubt, as he smiled and
murmured: "_transeat_." In regard to chemistry, no common knowledge
was attributed to him after he had taken as a premise the statement of
St. Thomas that water is a mixture and proved plainly that the Angelic
Doctor had long forestalled Berzelius, Gay-Lussac, Bunsen, and other
more or less presumptuous materialists. Moreover, in spite of having
been an instructor in geography, he still entertained certain doubts as
to the rotundity of the earth and smiled maliciously when its rotation
and revolution around the sun were mentioned, as he recited the verses

    "El mentir de las estrellas
    Es un cómodo mentir." [29]

He also smiled maliciously in the presence of certain physical
theories and considered visionary, if not actually insane, the
Jesuit Secchi, to whom he imputed the making of triangulations on
the host as a result of his astronomical mania, for which reason it
was said that he had been forbidden to celebrate mass. Many persons
also noticed in him some aversion to the sciences that he taught,
but these vagaries were trifles, scholarly and religious prejudices
that were easily explained, not only by the fact that the physical
sciences were eminently practical, of pure observation and deduction,
while his forte was philosophy, purely speculative, of abstraction
and induction, but also because, like any good Dominican, jealous
of the fame of his order, he could hardly feel any affection for a
science in which none of his brethren had excelled--he was the first
who did not accept the chemistry of St. Thomas Aquinas--and in which
so much renown had been acquired by hostile, or rather, let us say,
rival orders.

This was the professor who that morning called the roll and directed
many of the students to recite the lesson from memory, word for
word. The phonographs got into operation, some well, some ill, some
stammering, and received their grades. He who recited without an error
earned a good mark and he who made more than three mistakes a bad mark.

A fat boy with a sleepy face and hair as stiff and hard as the bristles
of a brush yawned until he seemed to be about to dislocate his jaws,
and stretched himself with his arms extended as though he were in
his bed. The professor saw this and wished to startle him.

"Eh, there, sleepy-head! What's this? Lazy, too, so it's sure you
[30] don't know the lesson, ha?"

Padre Millon not only used the depreciative _tu_ with the students,
like a good friar, but he also addressed them in the slang of the
markets, a practise that he had acquired from the professor of
canonical law: whether that reverend gentleman wished to humble the
students or the sacred decrees of the councils is a question not yet
settled, in spite of the great attention that has been given to it.

This question, instead of offending the class, amused them, and many
laughed--it was a daily occurrence. But the sleeper did not laugh;
he arose with a bound, rubbed his eyes, and, as though a steam-engine
were turning the phonograph, began to recite.

"The name of mirror is applied to all polished surfaces intended to
produce by the reflection of light the images of the objects placed
before said surfaces. From the substances that form these surfaces,
they are divided into metallic mirrors and glass mirrors--"

"Stop, stop, stop!" interrupted the professor. "Heavens, what a
rattle! We are at the point where the mirrors are divided into
metallic and glass, eh? Now if I should present to you a block of
wood, a piece of kamagon for instance, well polished and varnished,
or a slab of black marble well burnished, or a square of jet, which
would reflect the images of objects placed before them, how would
you classify those mirrors?"

Whether he did not know what to answer or did not understand
the question, the student tried to get out of the difficulty by
demonstrating that he knew the lesson, so he rushed on like a torrent.

"The first are composed of brass or an alloy of different metals and
the second of a sheet of glass, with its two sides well polished,
one of which has an amalgam of tin adhering to it."

"Tut, tut, tut! That's not it! I say to you '_Dominus vobiscum_,'
and you answer me with '_Requiescat in pace!_' "

The worthy professor then repeated the question in the vernacular of
the markets, interspersed with _cosas_ and _abás_ at every moment.

The poor youth did not know how to get out of the quandary: he doubted
whether to include the kamagon with the metals, or the marble with
glasses, and leave the jet as a neutral substance, until Juanito
Pelaez maliciously prompted him:

"The mirror of kamagon among the wooden mirrors."

The incautious youth repeated this aloud and half the class was
convulsed with laughter.

"A good sample of wood you are yourself!" exclaimed the professor,
laughing in spite of himself. "Let's see from what you would define a
mirror--from a surface _per se, in quantum est superficies_, or from a
substance that forms the surface, or from the substance upon which the
surface rests, the raw material, modified by the attribute 'surface,'
since it is clear that, surface being an accidental property of bodies,
it cannot exist without substance. Let's see now--what do you say?"

"I? Nothing!" the wretched boy was about to reply, for he did not
understand what it was all about, confused as he was by so many
surfaces and so many accidents that smote cruelly on his ears, but
a sense of shame restrained him. Filled with anguish and breaking
into a cold perspiration, he began to repeat between his teeth:
"The name of mirror is applied to all polished surfaces--"

"_Ergo, per te_, the mirror is the surface," angled the
professor. "Well, then, clear up this difficulty. If the surface is the
mirror, it must be of no consequence to the 'essence' of the mirror
what may be found behind this surface, since what is behind it does
not affect the 'essence' that is before it, _id est_, the surface,
_quae super faciem est, quia vocatur superficies, facies ea quae
supra videtur_. Do you admit that or do you not admit it?"

The poor youth's hair stood up straighter than ever, as though acted
upon by some magnetic force.

"Do you admit it or do you not admit it?"

"Anything! Whatever you wish, Padre," was his thought, but he did
not dare to express it from fear of ridicule. That was a dilemma
indeed, and he had never been in a worse one. He had a vague idea
that the most innocent thing could not be admitted to the friars
but that they, or rather their estates and curacies, would get out
of it all the results and advantages imaginable. So his good angel
prompted him to deny everything with all the energy of his soul and
refractoriness of his hair, and he was about to shout a proud _nego_,
for the reason that he who denies everything does not compromise
himself in anything, as a certain lawyer had once told him; but the
evil habit of disregarding the dictates of one's own conscience,
of having little faith in legal folk, and of seeking aid from others
where one is sufficient unto himself, was his undoing. His companions,
especially Juanito Pelaez, were making signs to him to admit it,
so he let himself be carried away by his evil destiny and exclaimed,
"_Concedo_, Padre," in a voice as faltering as though he were saying,
"_In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum._"

"_Concedo antecedentum_," echoed the professor, smiling
maliciously. "_Ergo_, I can scratch the mercury off a looking-glass,
put in its place a piece of _bibinka_, and we shall still have a
mirror, eh? Now what shall we have?"

The youth gazed at his prompters, but seeing them surprised and
speechless, contracted his features into an expression of bitterest
reproach. "_Deus meus, Deus meus, quare dereliquiste me,_" said his
troubled eyes, while his lips muttered "_Linintikan!_" Vainly he
coughed, fumbled at his shirt-bosom, stood first on one foot and then
on the other, but found no answer.

"Come now, what have we?" urged the professor, enjoying the effect
of his reasoning.

"_Bibinka!_" whispered Juanito Pelaez. "_Bibinka!_"

"Shut up, you fool!" cried the desperate youth, hoping to get out of
the difficulty by turning it into a complaint.

"Let's see, Juanito, if you can answer the question for me," the
professor then said to Pelaez, who was one of his pets.

The latter rose slowly, not without first giving Penitente, who
followed him on the roll, a nudge that meant, "Don't forget to
prompt me."

"_Nego consequentiam_, Padre," he replied resolutely.

"Aha, then _probo consequentiam! Per te_, the polished surface
constitutes the 'essence' of the mirror--"

_"Nego suppositum!"_ interrupted Juanito, as he felt Placido pulling
at his coat.

"How? _Per te_--"


"_Ergo,_ you believe that what is behind affects what is in front?"

_"Nego!"_ the student cried with still more ardor, feeling another
jerk at his coat.

Juanito, or rather Placido, who was prompting him, was unconsciously
adopting Chinese tactics: not to admit the most inoffensive foreigner
in order not to be invaded.

"Then where are we?" asked the professor, somewhat disconcerted,
and looking uneasily at the refractory student. "Does the substance
behind affect, or does it not affect, the surface?"

To this precise and categorical question, a kind of ultimatum, Juanito
did not know what to reply and his coat offered no suggestions. In vain
he made signs to Placido, but Placido himself was in doubt. Juanito
then took advantage of a moment in which the professor was staring
at a student who was cautiously and secretly taking off the shoes
that hurt his feet, to step heavily on Placido's toes and whisper,
"Tell me, hurry up, tell me!"

"I distinguish--Get out! What an ass you are!" yelled Placido
unreservedly, as he stared with angry eyes and rubbed his hand over
his patent-leather shoe.

The professor heard the cry, stared at the pair, and guessed what
had happened.

"Listen, you meddler," he addressed Placido, "I wasn't questioning
you, but since you think you can save others, let's see if you can
save yourself, _salva te ipsum,_ and decide this question."

Juanito sat down in content, and as a mark of gratitude stuck out
his tongue at his prompter, who had arisen blushing with shame and
muttering incoherent excuses.

For a moment Padre Millon regarded him as one gloating over a favorite
dish. What a good thing it would be to humiliate and hold up to
ridicule that dudish boy, always smartly dressed, with head erect
and serene look! It would be a deed of charity, so the charitable
professor applied himself to it with all his heart, slowly repeating
the question.

"The book says that the metallic mirrors are made of brass and an
alloy of different metals--is that true or is it not true?"

"So the book says, Padre."

"_Liber dixit, ergo ita est_. Don't pretend that you know more than the
book does. It then adds that the glass mirrors are made of a sheet of
glass whose two surfaces are well polished, one of them having applied
to it an amalgam of tin, _nota bene_, an amalgam of tin! Is that true?"

"If the book says so, Padre."

"Is tin a metal?"

"It seems so, Padre. The book says so."

"It is, it is, and the word amalgam means that it is compounded with
mercury, which is also a metal. _Ergo_, a glass mirror is a metallic
mirror; _ergo_, the terms of the distinction are confused; _ergo_,
the classification is imperfect--how do you explain that, meddler?"

He emphasized the _ergos_ and the familiar "you's" with indescribable
relish, at the same time winking, as though to say, "You're done for."

"It means that, it means that--" stammered Placido.

"It means that you haven't learned the lesson, you petty meddler,
you don't understand it yourself, and yet you prompt your neighbor!"

The class took no offense, but on the contrary many thought the
epithet funny and laughed. Placido bit his lips.

"What's your name?" the professor asked him.

"Placido," was the curt reply.

"Aha! Placido Penitente, although you look more like Placido the
Prompter--or the Prompted. But, _Penitent_, I'm going to impose some
_penance_ on you for your promptings."

Pleased with his play on words, he ordered the youth to recite the
lesson, and the latter, in the state of mind to which he was reduced,
made more than three mistakes. Shaking his head up and down, the
professor slowly opened the register and slowly scanned it while he
called off the names in a low voice.

aha! Placido Penitente, fifteen unexcused absences--"

Placido started up. "Fifteen absences, Padre?"

"Fifteen unexcused absences," continued the professor, "so that you
only lack one to be dropped from the roll."

"Fifteen absences, fifteen absences," repeated Placido in
amazement. "I've never been absent more than four times, and with
today, perhaps five."

"Jesso, jesso, monseer," [31] replied the professor, examining the
youth over his gold eye-glasses. "You confess that you have missed
five times, and God knows if you may have missed oftener. _Atqui_,
as I rarely call the roll, every time I catch any one I put five
marks against him; _ergo_, how many are five times five? Have you
forgotten the multiplication table? Five times five?"


"Correct, correct! Thus you've still got away with ten, because I have
caught you only three times. Huh, if I had caught you every time--Now,
how many are three times five?"


"Fifteen, right you are!" concluded the professor, closing the
register. "If you miss once more--out of doors with you, get out! Ah,
now a mark for the failure in the daily lesson."

He again opened the register, sought out the name, and entered the
mark. "Come, only one mark," he said, "since you hadn't any before."

"But, Padre," exclaimed Placido, restraining himself, "if your
Reverence puts a mark against me for failing in the lesson, your
Reverence owes it to me to erase the one for absence that you have
put against me for today."

His Reverence made no answer. First he slowly entered the mark,
then contemplated it with his head on one side,--the mark must be
artistic,--closed the register, and asked with great sarcasm, "_Abá_,
and why so, sir?"

"Because I can't conceive, Padre, how one can be absent from the
class and at the same time recite the lesson in it. Your Reverence
is saying that to be is not to be."

"_Nakú_, a metaphysician, but a rather premature one! So you can't
conceive of it, eh? _Sed patet experientia_ and _contra experientiam
negantem, fusilibus est arguendum_, do you understand? And can't
you conceive, with your philosophical head, that one can be absent
from the class and not know the lesson at the same time? Is it a fact
that absence necessarily implies knowledge? What do you say to that,

This last epithet was the drop of water that made the full cup
overflow. Placido enjoyed among his friends the reputation of being
a philosopher, so he lost his patience, threw down his book, arose,
and faced the professor.

"Enough, Padre, enough! Your Reverence can put all the marks against me
that you wish, but you haven't the right to insult me. Your Reverence
may stay with the class, I can't stand any more." Without further
farewell, he stalked away.

The class was astounded; such an assumption of dignity had scarcely
ever been seen, and who would have thought it of Placido Penitente? The
surprised professor bit his lips and shook his head threateningly as he
watched him depart. Then in a trembling voice he began his preachment
on the same old theme, delivered however with more energy and more
eloquence. It dealt with the growing arrogance, the innate ingratitude,
the presumption, the lack of respect for superiors, the pride that
the spirit of darkness infused in the young, the lack of manners,
the absence of courtesy, and so on. From this he passed to coarse
jests and sarcasm over the presumption which some good-for-nothing
"prompters" had of teaching their teachers by establishing an academy
for instruction in Castilian.

"Aha, aha!" he moralized, "those who the day before yesterday scarcely
knew how to say, 'Yes, Padre,' 'No, Padre,' now want to know more
than those who have grown gray teaching them. He who wishes to learn,
will learn, academies or no academies! Undoubtedly that fellow who
has just gone out is one of those in the project. Castilian is in good
hands with such guardians! When are you going to get the time to attend
the academy if you have scarcely enough to fulfill your duties in the
regular classes? We wish that you may all know Spanish and that you
pronounce it well, so that you won't split our ear-drums with your
twist of expression and your 'p's'; [32] but first business and then
pleasure: finish your studies first, and afterwards learn Castilian,
and all become clerks, if you so wish."

So he went on with his harangue until the bell rang and the class was
over. The two hundred and thirty-four students, after reciting their
prayers, went out as ignorant as when they went in, but breathing more
freely, as if a great weight had been lifted from them. Each youth had
lost another hour of his life and with it a portion of his dignity and
self-respect, and in exchange there was an increase of discontent,
of aversion to study, of resentment in their hearts. After all this
ask for knowledge, dignity, gratitude!

_De nobis, post haec, tristis sententia fertur_!

Just as the two hundred and thirty-four spent their class hours,
so the thousands of students who preceded them have spent theirs,
and, if matters do not mend, so will those yet to come spend theirs,
and be brutalized, while wounded dignity and youthful enthusiasm
will be converted into hatred and sloth, like the waves that become
polluted along one part of the shore and roll on one after another,
each in succession depositing a larger sediment of filth. But yet He
who from eternity watches the consequences of a deed develop like a
thread through the loom of the centuries, He who weighs the value
of a second and has ordained for His creatures as an elemental
law progress and development, He, if He is just, will demand a
strict accounting from those who must render it, of the millions of
intelligences darkened and blinded, of human dignity trampled upon
in millions of His creatures, and of the incalculable time lost and
effort wasted! And if the teachings of the Gospel are based on truth,
so also will these have to answer--the millions and millions who do
not know how to preserve the light of their intelligences and their
dignity of mind, as the master demanded an accounting from the cowardly
servant for the talent that he let be taken from him.

[29] "To lie about the stars is a safe kind of lying."--Tr.

[30] Throughout this chapter the professor uses the familiar _tu_
in addressing the students, thus giving his remarks a contemptuous

[31] The professor speaks these words in vulgar dialect.

[32] To confuse the letters _p_ and _f_ in speaking Spanish was a
common error among uneducated Filipinos.--Tr.


  1. Have you watched the film "3 idiots"? Most of our colleges/universities here are like the school in the film. Sadly, most of the PRC exams are aligned with how the students were taught in these institutions. Example, instead of asking stoich questions for General Chemistry, most of the questions are of this type: "What is the common name of ...." or "Who discovered ...." What the heck?

  2. No, I have not seen that movie.

    Anyway, I had a colleague who has actually memorized the periodic table, knowing the average atomic mass of each element to two decimal places. And there is another one who knows sine values for every degree (0 to 45 degrees). And I had a classmate in high school who knew pi for about 100 decimal places. Memorization is part of learning. Thinking aloud and reading aloud are proven techniques. Knowledge requires short term memory and practice helps in converting these to long term memory. Multiplication tables are examples. And these stay with you for a lifetime so that when you do punch the wrong keys on a calculator - you would have a clue that you did something wrong. I try to impress my students sometimes by reciting
    Sc Ti V Cr Mn Fe Co Ni Cu Zn.... When I was a gradute student in Chicago - we were never provided a periodic table during exams. This was in 1989. Learning is not just about skills, it also involves content and memorization is important.

  3. Well, it is very true that learning also involves memorization. However, we are living in a modern world. Students nowadays don't see the need to memorize things (this is just my observation). Why do they have to memorize pi for 100 decimal places when they can use Google to find not just the first 100 but the first 1000 or 10000 digits of pi? Josh Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein calls this phenomenon as the "externalization of memory". I think this is a very interesting topic that you can discuss (in another blog perhaps that is not devoted to K-12?). I really want to hear your thoughts about this as an established scientist/educator. :) Thanks.

  4. Thank you for your comments. Since you are in the Philippines, your thoughts are probably providing me some insights on what the current thinking is with regard to education. Basic education could behave like fashion, there are trends, latest craze, etc. Some come and fade like bell-bottom jeans. But quite recently, skepticism has entered, with greater attention to statistical analysis and evidence-based studies. There have been advances in cognitive psychology. One is the realization that most experts do have a lot of things that they could do automatically and unfortunately, some of these are taken for granted and during teaching, these experts are unable to communicate these to the students. It is then required that experts pay greater attention to how their minds really work to have a more effective teaching.

    Critical thinking can not come without knowledge first. It is like a computer with CPU but no memory. Learning should be enjoyable but it does not mean that it should not involve work. Learning becomes enjoyable when work becomes a source of fulfillment. In one of the links provided in this blog, http://philbasiceducation.blogspot.com/2012/04/wisdom-behind-short-school-hours.html, (the link is http://www.timeandlearning.org/files/TimeWellSpent.pdf) there are several slogans: "There is no substitute for hard work; there are 90000 minutes this year, make the most out of every minute; No shortcuts, no excuses; Welcome to out school, the home of the most hardworking students in the state." Yet, there is one common theme: Learning is work.

    Memorization and drills are important, these are exercises of the mind and should not be weighed simply by what is being memorized. The exercise itself is important. And there are things that need to be committed to memory. Arithmetic and reading begin with memory. We learn addition, subtraction, multiplication and division by remembering them first - we increase our vocabulary by remembering words. And only after having some of these can we begin to process them and learn to think critically. If we could skip this step then as you pointed out, all we need is "Google". But I am afraid that may not be the way a human mind develops. Skipping this step may not work, otherwise, with Google and access to internet, everyone could become a critical thinker at an instant.


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