RESPONSE ON BEHALF OF THE PHI KAPPA PHI HONOREES
Joint Scholars’ Convocation
18 March 2016
Institute of Biology, National Science Complex
University of the Philippines, Diliman
Quezon City 1101
Valedictory address of Mr. Miguel Ricardo Leung
Mr. Leung is the graduating valedictorian, summa cum laude, for this year’s batch in the UP System
Good afternoon, everyone.
When I was asked to give this speech, I was given the topic “academic excellence in future service”. As a science major, I have not been asked to write or speak about anything remotely related to this in recent memory. I proceeded to do what any scientist (and any UP student for that matter) would do when faced with something unfamiliar – I googled it. To my dismay, many of the search results instead talked about how academic excellence does not determine one’s future.
This idea – that academic excellence does not in any way predict one’s future success – is one I have heard echoed by students and faculty throughout the University, as well as by professionals outside its confines. They say that grades don’t matter. They say that the students who will really succeed in the real world are not those who spent their free Friday nights poring over their favorite textbook.
Such ideas may come about from falsely associating academic excellence with something it is not. Academic excellence is not about getting high grades. To me, academic excellence describes the pursuit of knowledge – the desire to understand. It is the unrelenting drive to discover and to learn, to devote oneself to unraveling the intricately woven threads of existing human knowledge. What makes such scholarly pursuits worthwhile is that by taking stock of what we know, we one day arrive at the realization that there is much more that we do not know. Academic excellence, therefore, is the process, not the product – it is the race, not the medal.
To me, academic excellence means being an active learner. It is not enough to accept the information that is provided to us by our mentors, our peers, or the media. This, to me, is where academic excellence and simple grade consciousness diverge. It is highly possible to get excellent grades by simply accepting information, determining what is important, regurgitating it on an exam, and then forgetting about it afterwards to make room for the next subject.
But this is not how academic excellence works. It is those who look at the information, take a step back, and dissect it – pull it apart, turn it on its head, beat it, batter it, torture it – who will truly gain an understanding of the material. It is in the process of doubting, questioning, and rebutting ideas that we begin to understand where they fit in the context of other ideas. Academic excellence is not the mere acceptance of information, but the screening and distilling of ideas to understand what is truly fundamental. Academic excellence is not being afraid to stop and think.
These are the attitudes developed in students who are academically excellent. But how do these scholarly attributes help individuals contribute not just as academics, but as citizens? I would like to illustrate this with an example that hits close to home.
In December of last year, the Supreme Court decided to permanently stop government field tests of genetically modified Bttalong. In the said ruling, the SC also temporarily stopped the government from accepting new applications for field testing or propagating GMOs. The SC cited evidence from Greenpeace that there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs, and one of the major studies cited was from a Greenpeace-funded study that was retracted from the journal that initially published it because of questionable and unsound methods and analyses.
A thorough evaluation of the prevailing scientific literature on GMOs shows that there is a clear scientific consensus that they are safe, and that they do provide benefits of increased yield and decreased dependence on chemical pesticides. If the attitudes of academic excellence and scholarly passion were applied to this case, then perhaps we would have had a different outcome. Agriculture is one field where the Philippines had a real, fighting chance of becoming regionally if not globally competitive. Instead, agricultural biotechnology has been set back – we may ultimately have to depend on other countries to feed our population.
I believe this situation exemplifies the role of academic excellence in service to the country. As soon-to-be UP graduates, we will become professionals, and many of us will go on to become mid- or even high-level decision-makers. It is my sincerest hope that we will carry with us the attitudes of academic excellence when we get there – the attitudes of critically evaluating evidence, thinking logically and rationally, and synthesizing information to understand the driving forces behind events.
We must remember, however, that our academic pursuits – whether in the natural sciences, the social sciences, or the humanities – can never be separated from the societal contexts in which they operate. Remember that what sets a UP student apart is not academic excellence, but the desire to use this excellence in the service of the country and of the people. Kaya nga UP – utak at puso.