Filipino Declamation – Monkey See, Monkey Do

confusedOnce upon an elementary school, an English teacher was teaching us how to properly recite, “To be or not to be, that is the question…” while we sat in fear of being hand-picked to perform it in front of the class. For several days it’s all that we ‘studied’ in her class. If my memory serves me right, she eventually chose one student to practice this particular ‘declamation’ piece and use it in an upcoming contest.

These declamations, otherwise known as ‘pagbigkas’ and ‘talumpati’, are some of the more cringeworthy stage performances you’ll ever see. The goal is to recite the piece with a certain diction, facial expression and hand gesture, all of which are decided by convention. Forget about substance, forget about reason. Why and how we do it are not dictated by logic. We do it because schools have been doing it, and the way we do it is the way the teachers saw it being done. Reasoning does not even reach the first level.

This happened in grade 5, when English had already been taught to us for five straight years yet literary pieces like that were far beyond our understanding. It’s like reading a prayer in Latin — you don’t understand what you’re reading and what’s the rationale for reading it, yet you’re doing it. The same is true for the average college student in the Philippines, I would say, even after 12 years of continuous English instruction. Let him read the first line, the second line or the third line of ‘To be or not to be’ and he’s lost understanding it, for reasons such as poor vocabulary, poor comprehension skills (especially when idioms and figures of speech get in the way) and poor critical thinking. Add to it the lack of contextual instruction from the teacher, who probably does not understand the piece either.

I remembered the title of that ‘declamation’ because it was repeated many times over during that grade 5 class. But all this time the phrase had been floating in my mind without any anchor to comprehend it with. Only at this point (thanks to the internet) am I able to finally understand the context of ‘To be or not to be’ — that it was a sort of monologue (a soliloquy, to be exact) spoken by a character contemplating death in a drama made by Shakespeare. But even that last explanation is difficult to understand for a grade school Filipino student unless you show him an actual drama being performed so he understands what a drama is, explain to him that Shakespeare is a person who wrote dramas and that he lived in England during the 1500’s when there was no TV yet (so dramas took its place for the people’s entertainment), and tell him that there’s a running story in the drama that explains why the character is thinking that way. All of these were not mentioned to us.

Such a context, though key to learning, is too complex for a simple first-order-reasoning mind to understand and for the teacher to explain, however, that they settle for the simple solution: just recite the piece and call it ‘declamation’. Don’t worry about learning. Worry about the contest. The art. Don’t even bother looking up the meaning of the word ‘declamation’ and why people do it. Doing so would add another context to comprehend or explain, which, though again instrumental to learning, would add to the complexity of what they’re doing. In short, just stick to convention-sans-wisdom.

You see what’s happening here? It’s a case of monkey see, monkey do. I call it zero-order-of-implication reasoning. You just do as others do. The teachers, school administrators and students are doing these declamations because (and the way) they’ve seen it done before. As for reasoning for themselves what kind of learning the students get from it, it’s not much of a concern so long as monkey do proceeds.

No wonder I did not learn anything from that lesson, which probably lasted for a week. All I learned was that there’s such a phrase as ‘To be or not to be’ though I did not understand what it meant. As was the case with many other lessons, it wasted plenty of the tax-paid teachers’ time as well as the students’, but that’s what inevitably happens when just about anyone can be a teacher in this country and the DepEd people are clueless about the real cause of mal-education of Filipinos. If the teachers are competent enough, they’re not going to influence the students to use filogic like they do. The college graduates also would not seem like they’ve been learning English for only 2 years when they’ve been attending English classes for more than a decade since they were 6 years old.

If I were a school administrator and I’m concerned about improving the quality of education (and consequently life) in the Philippines, I would only employ teachers who are intellectually capable enough to think critically and reason beyond the first or first few orders of implication, consequently influencing the students to think the same way and training them in such manner of thinking by repeating the example. These are the kind of people who would try to understand the meaning, history, purpose and relevance to the eventual benefit to the students of the concept of ‘declamation’ before attempting to teach it. They’re going to be aware that declamation is different from drama and that the main purpose is rhetoric.  With that in mind, they would know that declamations are supposed to involve sincerity and comprehension of the subject matter instead of exaggeration and acting.

Why does the concept of declamation exist in the first place? It’s for a useful reason.The purpose is to persuade, such as what was done by orators during the Roman empire. Young Romans studied declamation for a practical purpose, which was to hone their persuasion and public speaking skills. If emotion was involved it was intended to add to the persuasion effect, not for acting purposes. In the Philippines, however, that is not the case. Teachers, school administrators and everyone else refer to such horrid, artificial and weird stage acting as ‘declamations’. And unlike the Romans who taught it for a useful purpose, the Filipinos don’t really know why they’re doing it. The students are not learning anything except filogic reasoning, which the teachers are teaching by example like in this instance.

I searched ‘declamation’ on YouTube and saw that the search results are dominated by videos of Filipino students doing the kind of horrible misguided acting I just described. Here are some of the top results:


And here’s an example of a ‘declamation’ delivered less emotionally and with a fitting literature, but still without naturalness, sincerity and the sense that the speaker is in full grasp of what she is saying so as to be reasoning with the audience to persuade them to a course of action. It’s all very artificial and nonsensical. Whoever taught this kid don’t know what they’re doing themselves. Look, there’s the lip and body action, but there’s no brain action whatsoever. That’s what they teach in these so-called declamations:


I found only a few American videos of students doing a declamation, but the difference is noticeable. Here are some examples:



Even Pakistanis get it:


The main element of declamation is reason. Along with the support of sincerity, it’s what convinces your audience to side with your views. Having that in mind is the only way school activities like this would make sense, because the students learn persuasion or public speaking skills that they can use in adulthood. Otherwise, what’s the use of declamations? They’re a complete waste of time. If you think Filipino style declamation is a form of art, I bet you think local TV teleseryes are too. They’re almost one and the same kind of ‘art’.

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