Republic Act No. 1425, known as the Rizal Law, mandates all educational institutions in the Philippines to offer courses about José Rizal. The full name of the law is An Act to Include in the Curricula of All Public and Private Schools, Colleges and Universities Courses On the Life, Works and Writings of Jose Rizal, Particularly His Novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, Authorizing the Printing and Distribution Thereof, and for Other Purposes. The measure was strongly opposed by the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines due to the anti-clerical themes in Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo.
According to Renato Constantino, when the American government conquered the island of the Philippines from the Spanish government in 1896, the American government established a commonwealth government after the Spanish revolutionary government ceased to govern the country. At this time of the Philippine history, Filipinos under the commonwealth government started to frame up Filipino national identities. When the question on who would be the national hero arose, whether Rizal or Bonifacio, the American government “guided” the Filipino people to choose Rizal.
The American rationale was based on Rizal’s peaceful propaganda and diplomatic approaches in attaining Philippine freedom and independence, unlike Bonifacio who chose a bloody revolution.
Whether this assessment is accurate or not, Dr. Rizal has been considered a hero of the Philippines from the outset: a public holiday was declared honouring Dr. Rizal in 1898, whereas that for Bonifacio was not declared until 1921. Dr. Rizal was considered to be his inspiration by Bonifacio himself.
Even without the assistance of US propaganda, Rizal would have been honoured as a hero in the Philippines. Perhaps the effect of the propaganda was less to boost Rizal and more to denigrate Bonifacio.
Much has been said and written about Dr. Jose P. Rizal, the man whose life we are honoring today. He was dubbed as our national hero, rightly so, as his life and even his morose death has inspired and continues to inspire generation after generations of Filipinos. In a time where being born a Filipino in the Philippines was a disadvantage, he lived to prove this wrong and in his works that led to his death, he immortalized the true spirit of the Filipino people – the spirit of resilience, of valor, of greatness. His works and philosophies not only sparked a revolution, they were revolutionary. He was even himself a revolution in every sense of the word. Conrado de Quiros, in one of his columns, best described Rizal’s existence as he wrote and I quote, “Rizal’s greatest act of subversion was not something that he said or did. It was what he was.
They probably would have executed him anyway even if he had not written savage satires of the friars and their brethren in government. His very existence was seditious. He was brilliant. That was the most seditious thing of all.” Jose Rizal lived in a time where those who fronted themselves as leaders and evangelizers led by reducing the ruled to nothingness, making them a horde of lazy, uneducated fools who owed the Spaniards a favor for ruling them; and evangelized by feeding them blind faith as they made the Indios believe that they were a bunch of sheep who would be lost without them. Then, suddenly, Rizal emerges from the institutions of Europe, where he turned himself into an arsenal of knowledge, bettering most of them and brimming with the desire to free his people from the brainwashing and the oppression. By virtue of his erudite and the burning passion for his bereaved motherland, he was despised. During those times, Rizal was not the Rizal we know today.
Rizal was a traitor, Rizal was a filibuster, Rizal was a heathen, Rizal was even a philanderer, a womanizer, and everything that was no good. Worst of all, he was an excommunicado. In 1956, two world wars and decades after Rizal’s death and the dichotomy between state and church has been pronounced by Law, the Third Congress of the young Republic of the Philippines passed into Law Republic Act No. 1425, “An Act to include in the curricula of all public and private schools, colleges and universities courses on the life of Rizal, particularly his novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, authorizing the printing and distribution thereof, and for other purposes.” It was called the Rizal Law and it was crafted so that the youth may know Jose Rizal so as to not forget who he was and what he did for our country and during the process of knowing Rizal in the formative and decisive years of a student in school, that they be re-dedicated to the ideals of freedom and nationalism to which our Rizal and the rest of our heroes fought and died for.
My dear friends, this afternoon, I was given the task of lecturing to this august body how the Rizal Law came to be. Given that this is a historic piece of legislation, I hope its significance to our history will be enough to hold your attention until the end of the lecture. Ladies and gentlemen, please do not fall asleep because that would be very un-nationalistic and unRizal-like. The Rizal Law was principally authored by the Senator Jose P. Laurel and if I may add, not to be boastful but to express how proud I am of his legacy, that my grandfather, the late Senator Lorenzo Tañada, co-authored and defended the Rizal Law in the halls of Senate with Senator Laurel. Senator Laurel was known to have read Rizal’s work extensively and he saw Rizal as our foremost hero and he believed that the only way of knowing him as a national hero was to read his works and to find out what he had done for us all, stating matter-of-factly, that there was simply no other way.
For the senators who first proposed and defended the bill, one of the ways of honoring Rizal was to accord him recognition as the symbol of unity, and of our nationalistic sentiment as a people, as he himself showed us. When the Rizal Law was first drafted on April 3, 1956 as Senate Bill No. 438 entitled, “An act to make the Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo compulsory reading matter in all public and private colleges and universities for other purposes,” Senator Laurel, then the chairman of the Senate Committee on Education did not expect to encounter any opposition to the bill. However, mainly because of the fact that despite the established secularization between church and state, the influence of the Catholic Church casted a dark shadow on the proceedings on the passage of the bill, highlighting four major issues that forced the principal author to make serious amendments on the original bill – (a) the compulsory nature of the bill, (b) religion, (c) the definition of “basic texts” and “required readings,” and lastly, (d) the power of the National Board of Education.
In the original bill drafted, reading of the unexpurgated versions of the Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo was compulsory among students. This was the bone of controversy to some of the Senators, the press, and the Catholic Church. The substitute bill sponsored by Senator Laurel corrected this by ordering that the compulsory aspect of reading the unexpurgated versions be applicable only to those in the collegiate level but the two books must be present in the libraries of all schools.
Senator Laurel maintained throughout the entire debate that there is no compulsion or compulsory reading of the Noli and Fili in their original and unexpurgated form in schools and institutions below college level. Courses on the life, works and writings of Rizal, however, should be included in the curricula for schools, colleges and universities. He strongly believed that students in the tertiary level should be compelled to read the unexpurgated versions, and that Rizal’s two greatest works should not be disfigured or expurgated, because he believed that by disfiguring them, we disfigure Rizal.
The compulsory aspect of the bill was considered scandalous because of one thing, Religion. The Catholic Church has always had its way of making its influence known in matters of legislation. In the mid-1950’s, many Catholic Schools still banned their libraries from having copies of the Noli and Fili because of their subversive nature. Section 4 of the Rizal Law states in part that, “Nothing in this Act shall be construed as amending or repealing Sec. 927 of the Administrative Code, prohibiting the discussion of religious doctrines by public school teachers and other person engaged in any public school.” It is prohibited by law to discuss any problems affecting dogma and religious creed.
In one of the interpellations, the late Senator Roseller T. Lim argued that “the possibility that in some respects we might divide our people, religious doctrines that might be brought up in the Noli Me Tangere or El Filibusterismo may not be touched upon or discussed.” To this statement, Senator Tañada, asked “are teachers both in public and private schools not precluded from explaining even matters of religion contained in these two novels?” Senator Laurel defends the bill by stating, “when you use the novels of Rizal and a question was asked by a pupil and the teacher explains, he is supposed to explain in his own way in accordance to his beliefs, but he is not supposed to engage in religious discussion in favor of any religious sect or domination because there is separation between the Church and the State.” He furthers that, “if there is some question raised to the teachers, the teachers must explain.”
A scenario was raised by another Senator to deepen the discussion, “what if a professor is Catholic in a public school or an Aglipayan in a private school and the chapter where Pilosopong Tasyo and Purgatory comes up and a student asks whether or not purgatory exists?” If you remember in Chapter 14 of Noli, Pilosopong Tasyo, the man who was considered a lunatic for knowing too much from books by the Indios who knew nothing, boldly explains how he did not believe in purgatory and goes on about how it is just an imagined construct for Christians to live a good life. Of course, that chapter was a stab to the church so it was highly controversial during those times, apparently it was seen as controversial even until 1956.
Senator Laurel answered that, “if you give freedom to the other teacher denying purgatory or defending purgatory, whatever may be his opinion, you have to grant that to the rest of the teachers. We cannot prohibit in one case what we grant in other cases.” The point of it was that if a student asks, the teacher must explain. The Catholic Church even issued a statement backed by the Archbishop then saying that the reading of the unexpurgated versions of the two novels would be contrary to the precepts of the religion of the church. The problem the senators had to face was the fact that students would be placed in a situation where on the one hand, he or she would like to follow the civil authorities to read the two novels, while on the other hand, he or she has the statement from his church that to read these books would be against the tenets of Catholicism.
To these arguments, the senators behind the Rizal Law made it clear that those pronouncements which are lofty, patriotic, nationalistic, instructive, and of great educational value are the principles that should be disseminated and propagated and taught to the Filipino youth. Senator Laurel, being well-versed on the works of Rizal defends the hero by arguing that it was not Rizal’s intention to directly attack the church, but only those individuals who have prostituted and oppressed the Filipinos in the name of the Catholic religion. It was never Rizal’s purpose to impair and destroy the sacred institution of the Roman Catholic Church, he simply wanted to expose the rascals, the criminals, the oppressive elements of the religious institutions then in vogue. At the end of the discussion, Senator Laurel boldly states that the students had to make the decision of whether or not to read the two novels for themselves.
Another issue was based on the technical aspects of the substitute bill. Section 1 of the Rizal Law states in part that, “in the collegiate courses, the original or unexpurgated editions of the Noli Me Tangere and the El Filibusterismo or their English translation shall be used as basic texts.” Some of the senators found difficulty in understanding the broadness of the term, “basic text,” so a good number of time was spent on this issue. Senator Laurel, being the principal author of the bill and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Education, was asked for a technical definition but was adamant about giving one arguing that this task should be relegated to the Board of National Education, which was composed of technical experts on the field of education. Senator Tañada’s thoughts enlightened everyone on the matter arguing that basic text means something that is required because that is the plain meaning.
When a text is basic, it is so considered because of its importance. If there is a basic subject that is required for the obtaining of a degree or the finishing of a course, that means that you cannot graduate unless you have successfully passed the subject because that subject is a requirement, and, therefore, a basic subject which if a student has not finished will not permit him to terminate his course or to graduate. Because of the difficulties the senators faced in the compulsory aspect of the bill, the concept of “required reading materials” was presented as an alternative. Some senators suggested that instead of being used as basic texts, why not just include the Noli and Fili in the list of required readings along with other books containing the same ideals of patriotism and nationalism so that students would have the choice of reading other required books if they find the Noli and Fili offensive to their respective religions. Senator Laurel would later yield to this suggestion as a compromise to the detractions of the Catholic Church and the senators belonging to her.
In order to settle some of the contentious issues found in the bill, the senators agreed to one solution – to authorize the Board of National Education to carry out the responsibilities of (a) writing and printing appropriate primers, readers and textbooks for the lower years, (b) promulgate rules and regulations, including those of a disciplinary nature, to carry out and enforce the provisions of the bill, and (c) promulgate rules and regulations for the exemption of students for reasons of religious beliefs. This authorization was given based on logic that the Board of National Education, which was composed of technical experts on the field of education, will carry out the said responsibilities in the manner that will best insure the objectives of the law and in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.
This would also save the senators from the detractors on and against the side of the Catholic Church, the BNE would be the target of these hecklers later on. The final Rizal Law underwent several changes, but the 23 senators who voted Yes to the compromise bill on that faithful day of May 17, 1956, considered it as a step forward because of how it reasserted the power of the State to control and regulate the education of the people, while at the same time, it also conserved and preserved the liberty of conscience by leaving the option to the parties concerned that is, to the students themselves. Despite of the compromise that was drawn wherein students were no longer compelled to read the unexpurgated versions of the Noli and Fili, the fact that the courses on the life, works and writings of Jose Rizal were to be included in the curricula of all schools, colleges and universities, private or public, remained. And this has been in effect since then.
The Rizal Law is the reason why we all know and remember Jose Rizal, who he was and what he stood for. It is why we know Crisostomo Ibarra, Elias, Maria Clara, Padre Damaso, and Pilosopong Tasyo. It is why we know Simoun, Isagani, Basilio, Kabesang Tales, Tandang Selo, Ben-zayb and Placido Penitente. My dear friends, as I threw out all those names, I was hoping for only one thing…that you can still recall who and what those names stood for. That you can still remember, and as you reminisce, that your memory of those characters awaken the emotions – the hurt, the anguish, the sense of betrayal from the oppressors, and the sense of patriotism, of wanting to fight for those who were oppressed, the love for our countrymen, and the love for our country – all these emotions that Rizal awakened within us when we were just students learning of Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.
If you are feeling these emotions right now, then I can truly say that Rizal’s legacy and the legacy of the Rizal Law lives on with us today. If not, I beg of you to read the Noli and Fili once again for they have much to tell us and for they have much more to teach us. You may be surprised that the characters in Noli and Fili are very much alive and have taken different names in present day Philippine society. Ladies and gentlemen, the stories of the Noli and Fili, including Rizal’s struggle to publish them, tells us of resilience – that even the worst of times may not be a hurdle in the quest for excellence. Clearly, the late senators had their fair share of resilience in fighting for the passage of the Rizal Law despite the unpopular image it gave them. Not to drive a nail on the wall, but I think the enactment of the Rizal Bill into law was their way of exercising their patriotism.
It was a testament of their living up to Rizal’s ideals and they have been quite successful in teaching Rizal to every Filipino. It was the same sense of nationalism and patriotism from Rizal’s teachings, I believe, that encouraged the 12 Senators 35 years later on September 16, 1991, to reject the continued presence of US Military Bases in our country. But most of all, my dear friends, the Noli and Fili tells us of heroism and nationalism. As Conrado de Quiros once again puts it, “striving becomes all the more luminous when done in the service of one’s own people, one’s own country.” Rizal believed that Filipinos are capable of far greater things and he and others like him were living proof of this, which is why he immortalized the true spirit of the Filipino people in his two great novels. Jose Rizal may remain unrivaled in his brilliance but he never meant to intimidate, he served to show us, to remind us, of who and what we are and of who and what we can become. In Rizal’s writings, our culture of resistance to oppressors was perpetuated. This is why we are a nation that resists when we are subjected to the brink.
We are not afraid to dissent, to oppose, to fight. From the legacy that Rizal and our great heroes left us, let us ask ourselves, “What have we done to live up to this?” Today, we have been unfortunate to have lost the best and the brightest to other countries, our fields are being devoured by floods, our waters continue to be polluted by oil spills and our fishing grounds are running empty, our public schools are festering with termites while teachers sell longganiza to the students to augment their delayed salaries, businesses find no mercy in terminating long-time employees to save money, churches find it better to be chauvinistic than to address the poverty that overpopulation has progenized, where factories see neighborhoods as waste disposal areas, and most of all, where those in power find it routine to squander the money of the people. We know what the cancer of our society is, it is still the same cancer that plagued Rizal’s time. The only difference is that ours has spread.
The question now remains, have we, in any way, contributed to the cure? Or are we part of those who let the tumors fester? In Rizal’s work, The Indolence of the Filipinos, Rizal himself said: “Peoples and governments are correlated and complementary; a fatuous government would be an anomaly among a righteous people, just as a corrupt people cannot exist under just rulers and wise laws.” In other words, progress and prosperity can only be achieved only by a responsible citizenry. No number of measures for reforms and betterment would be enough if the people themselves tolerate abuses, are indifferent to rising issues, and are timid and apathetic to the ills besetting our country.
When we are fully conscious of our duties and obligations to our people and country, when nationalism becomes a way of life, triumphant and influencing our daily life, then we can truly say that we have followed the teachings and examples of Rizal. Only then, can we hold our heads high, knowing that we have re-oriented our ways to the dreams and goals that Rizal had envisioned for us. Nationalism today places before us a grand challenge, a great responsibility. More than ever, in our national existence, we need Rizal to enlighten us, to be a symbol of our onward struggle for the realization of our ambition as a nation, unfettered not only politically, but culturally and economically. With nationalism — as demonstrated by Rizal — as our weapon and means, we will triumph.