By: William Christian P. Dela Cruz
Father Saturnino Urios University
I come from a city in Mindanao called Butuan – an ancient kingdom in the past that predated the Philippines as a nation-state. As the saying goes: “Long ago, there was no Philippines, but there was Butuan.” In this kingdom, people enjoyed rich, abundant, prosperous, and peaceful lives free from any external interference. Today, Butuan City, although considered a highly urbanized city, is one of the many cities in the country where there exists a glaring gap between the haves and have-nots. Worse, it has become a place for stories of conflict.
But in this city, there exists a struggling local government – a benevolent entity giving its all to address the problems of poverty, scarcity of resources, conflict, and development through a mechanism called education. I am very proud to be part of this benevolent entity. For more than two years now, I have been working as a legal researcher and project coordinator under a contract of service at the Committee on Education of the Sangguniang Panlungsod of Butuan. And it is from my experience with those on the margins that I wish to write about the concepts of liberty and prosperity. I wish to write from the perspective of an average, reasonable person – the ordinary Filipino from the Southern Philippines.
To us in the local government and to the people of Butuan City, liberty and prosperity are the cornerstones of local development under the rule of law, and they can only be achieved through education. And by education, we mean quality, inclusive, relevant, and liberating education. Performing both legislative and executive functions, that is, crafting local ordinances and implementing education programs, projects, and activities, I have seen how education, backed by quality local legislation and anchored on the rule of law, has liberated those in the peripheries of society and empowered them to live productive, prosperous, and meaningful lives. It is through education that people find true liberty and prosperity in a democratic society.
I have personally seen how the abstract concepts of liberty and prosperity have become tangible in the lives of many Butuanons in this generation. And this is because of a simple program implemented by the Department of Education in partnership with the LGU. This program is called the Alternative Learning System or ALS.
The Alternative Learning System is the flagship program of DepEd for those who do not have or cannot access formal education in schools – a parallel learning system in the Philippines that provides a practical option to the existing formal instruction. I have dedicated most of my time in the LGU to the learners of the ALS, which DepEd labels as the last, the least, and the lost. The ALS is intended for the out-of-school youth, the uneducated adults, the indigenous peoples, the farmers, the kasambahays, the tricycle drivers, the market vendors, the persons deprived of liberty, the senior citizens, the persons with disabilities, among others. In other words, it is created for the vulnerable, the marginalized, the disenfranchised. It is for those whose voices the government should listen to and those who for so long a time have failed to self-actualize due to absolute determinisms like poverty that precluded them from enjoying the blessings of democracy and the rule of law. Since my goal is to explain the concepts of liberty and prosperity from the perspective of the ordinary Filipino on the margins, I choose to situate my analysis in the context of the Alternative Learning System.
For one, liberty could refer to the fundamental freedoms guaranteed under the Bill of Rights of the Constitution. It could mean freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the right to assemble and petition the government, or freedom of association. In a philosophical work entitled “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill wrote:
“That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant… Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
In Rubi vs Provincial Board of Mindoro, the Supreme Court explained:
Civil Liberty may be said to mean that measure of freedom which may be enjoyed in a civilized community, consistently with the peaceful enjoyment of like freedom in others. The right to Liberty guaranteed by the Constitution includes the right to exist and the right to be free from arbitrary personal restraint or servitude. x x x As enunciated in a long array of authorities including epoch-making decisions of the United States Supreme Court, Liberty includes the right of the citizens to be free to use his faculties in all lawful ways; to live and work where he will; to earn his livelihood by a lawful calling; to pursue any avocations, and for that purpose, to enter into all contracts which may be proper, necessary, and essential to his carrying out these purposes to a successful conclusion. In general, it may be said that Liberty means the opportunity to do those things which are ordinarily done by free men.
In development economics, a famous economist named Amartya Sen understands development or prosperity in the context of freedom or liberty. For him, development has to be more concerned with enhancing the lives we lead and the freedoms we enjoy. In his approach to development, Sen talks about three things: development as sustenance, development as self-esteem, and development as freedom.
Sen’s “development as freedom” is similar to Abraham Maslow’s concept of self-actualization in his hierarchy of needs, which means achieving one’s full potential; and the idea of achieving one’s full potential is essential to achieving the spirit of genuine liberty.
But for the ordinary Filipinos who come from the poorest sectors of society, who do not have access to education, and who strive each and every day to put something on the table for their family, the struggle for liberty is not as complicated as Maria Ressa’s battle for free speech against the government before the court. Neither is it as complicated as the many cases decided by the Supreme Court on civil liberty. Rather, it is as simple as having a wide range of real choices from which to run their daily lives.
This is the kind of liberty that the Alternative Learning System seeks to promote and advance on the margins. In the ALS, the goal is not only to educate people, but also to provide these people with access to economic opportunities that could improve their socioeconomic status, thereby truly liberating them from the clutches of poverty and inequality. The ordinary Filipino will not be able to understand and even exercise the liberties guaranteed under the Bill of Rights unless they experience the simplest and most basic concept of liberty – the freedom to choose from a wide range of choices according to their preferences. The Constitution promises:
“The State shall promote a just and dynamic social order that will ensure the prosperity and independence of the nation and free the people from poverty through policies that provide adequate social services, promote full employment, a rising standard of living, and an improved quality of life for all.”
The Alternative Learning System is a policy that improves quality of life for everyone who becomes part of it. And in this policy, liberty and prosperity are twin concepts that have taken a tangible shape.
Just recently, some 100 persons deprived of liberty graduated from the ALS Accreditation and Equivalency (A&E) Program ran by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), the Department of Education, and the City Government of Butuan at the Butuan City Jail. The A&E Program is a strand under the ALS, under which the out-of-school youth and adult learners undergo a ten-month learning program after which they take a national examination. If they pass, they either proceed to secondary or college, which is a case to case basis. Simply put, the A&E Program is a tool under the ALS that restores an individual into the formal education setting. The graduates at the Butuan City Jail are literally deprived of liberty; they are serving the sentence rendered by the courts of justice for the crimes which they have committed. According to them, getting out of jail does not automatically guarantee genuine freedom, considering the lack of economic opportunities beyond the prison cells in the status quo. In other words, for a person deprived of liberty, genuine liberty means being able to live a productive and prosperous life. It means being able to contribute meaningfully to nation-building. Through the ALS A&E Program, which exemplifies the ideals of a liberating education, vulnerable members of society, such as persons deprived of liberty, are able to experience liberty in its truest sense. For the graduates at the Butuan City Jail, a liberating education serves the function of restoring what is left of their shattered person and reintegrates them back to society as functional and productive citizens. As Jean-Jacques Rosseau puts it, “man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” This brings us to a deeper concept of liberty, which all persons including those in jail struggle to achieve and embrace and which the ALS aims to give everyone.
In indigenous cultural communities, the Alternative Learning System has also become instrumental in advancing civil liberty. In a place called Sitio Tagkiling, Brgy. Anticala, Butuan City, the ALS has given hope to a number of indigenous peoples who have graduated from the A&E Program and the Literacy Cum Livelihood or LCL Program. From being isolated in their ancestral lands which are situated in the most far-flung areas of the locality, these indigenous peoples are now in the city pursuing higher education in state universities and colleges and private higher education institutions. From being the last, the least, and the lost, they are now part of an empowered class – now at par with their Butuanon counterparts.
As a law student and as a future member of the legal profession, my personal advocacy has always been to champion liberating education and the rule of law. And I continue to do this through my work with the Alternative Learning System at the City Government. In fact, when I was elected as the Secretary-General of the Association of Law Students of the Philippines, my first project had something to do with the Alternative Learning System in Butuan City, because to me, it is where liberty and prosperity become real concepts. I am planning to bring legal education in the Alternative Learning System under the LCL Program. The words of Dean Joan Largo of the University of San Carlos will always inspire me:
“We need to encourage as much people to learn the law if we truly want to give life to the provision in the Civil Code that ignorance of the law excuses no one from compliance therewith.”
It is my hope that introducing legal education to the ALS learners would empower them even more and would make their educational experience more liberating and the world that awaits them more prosperous. By then, they will not only be able to contribute meaningfully to local and national development and experience liberty in its fullness, but also safeguard their personal liberty with a substantial knowledge of their rights as citizens and the manner by which to enforce and protect these rights. As former President Macapagal puts it, “those who have less in life should have more in law.” Those on the margins of society deserve no less.
I am very proud to be part of this noble initiative of advancing liberating education through the Alternative Learning System, and my passing the bar in the future will not stop me from pursuing this advocacy. The words of Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin also inspire me. During our oath-taking at the Supreme Court, he said: “Always use the law to make the society better.”
It is what I am doing. It is my commitment.
 Mill, J. 1859. On Liberty.
 G.R. No. L-14078, March 7, 1919
 Todaro and Smith. (2012). Economic development. Boston: Pearson.
 Section 9, Article II, 1987 Constitution