Saturday, October 09, 2004

The meaning of 'mere'

The meaning of 'mere'

Updated 00:53am (Mla time) Oct 09, 2004
By Isagani Cruz
Inquirer News Service



Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the October 9, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer


A READER who did not choose to identify himself wrote me recently with a mild reproof. He says that for "one who is a stickler for words," -- his own phrase -- I should not have made the mistake of describing Senator Bong Revilla in my article on "The three misfits" (June 13, 2004) as "a mere high school graduate." He particularly regrets my use of the word "mere" because he believes it was derogatory not only to the senator but to all other persons who, like him, have not reached college level.

As the criticism is unfair, I will plead innocent right away. It was never my intention to belittle high school graduates per se for not having entered college. There are various reasons for this decision and lack of intelligence is only one of them (although being a college student does not automatically make one intelligent). Among the other reasons are insufficient funds, loss of interest in pursuing more studies, marriage and the demands of other activities, poor health, and even boredom. Many persons feel that graduation from high school should complete their education and it is time to make a living.

In fact, a college education is not necessary to complete a person's formal studies. A person may graduate from college without learning anything; on the other hand, a person who has never studied in college may be more learned from his own self studies or even because only of his native intelligence and talents.

My best example of the accomplished individual is one who never even finished high school but so distinguished himself as a writer -- essayist and storyteller and poet -- and justly deserved the title of National Artist and the admiration of the literary world. This man was the multi-awarded dropout from high school: the late Nick Joaquin. I would never have described him as a mere high school graduate (as he was not even that in fact) nor could anyone else with a string of academic degrees look down on him for his meager formal studies.

And since we are speaking of the mere non-graduates, let us not forget the erudite Blas F. Ople, who entered law school but never finished the course because of other callings. He spoke better English than college professors and knew more of Philippine history and politics, international affairs, and philosophy and letters than many of his colleagues and contemporaries. In the Senate where he sat with be -- degreed alumni from post-graduate courses abroad, not a single one of them could claim to be more intellectual than Ople.

In my recent article on the American presidents (Sept. 11, 2004) I mentioned nine of them, including Washington and Lincoln -- and Truman too in the last century -- who received little or no formal schooling. Yet some of them acquitted themselves favorably in office and could not be considered "mere" students because they had no college degrees. By contrast, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago has described the chamber to which she belongs a "Senate of idiots" although all its members have what she calls "reasonable resum├ęs" and can recite scripted speeches ghost-written for them by others.

I had a classmate in the Legarda Elementary School many decades ago who was brighter than many of us. He enrolled with us at the Mapa High School when we finished grade school but had to stop during his first year because he had to help his mother earn a living for the family when his father died. He was working in a printing shop the last time I saw him, and I am hoping that he eventually got to own the business, given his native abilities. I would never have described him as a mere high school student inferior to other persons who got to study in college and even managed to graduate at last after a lot of flunking grades.

So my dear anonymous friend who would chide me for calling Bong Revilla a mere high school graduate, please understand that I did not mean to underrate him as such. I do not consider high school students inferior because they are lower than college students. They are lower in rank, but not necessarily in intelligence. The fact is that I used the word "mere" only in a comparative sense to distinguish high school students from students on the collegiate level. That is all. It is like saying that one is a mere freshman compared to the other students who are sophomores and juniors and seniors.

Let me take this occasion to comment on the modesty of my colleagues on the Supreme Court when we were there who had taken post-graduate studies in foreign schools and had earned impressive-sounding academic degrees. I never had their opportunities but not a single one of them flaunted his distinctions before me like a pretentious and patronizing pedant. I truly appreciate that none of these humble peers considered me a "mere" justice because I was land-locked, so to speak, and had not studied abroad like them.

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