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History of Philippine Studies at Cornell

Philippine textiles
December 7, 2021

by Claire Cororaton, Ph.D. candidate in history

As featured in the Fall 2021 SEAP Bulletin, Claire Cororaton's article on the "History of Philippine Studies at Cornell" covers a wide array of decades and topics. Indeed, Cornell University’s connections with the Philippines run deep. As the United States’ only true historical colony in Asia, the Philippines was one of the few Southeast Asian countries that might have piqued interest among American academics in the early twentieth century. The narrative of American exceptionalism, however, was entrenched. Knowledge of the Philippines, like the rest of the region, remains marginal and invisible. Thus, the genealogy of Philippine Studies at Cornell adumbrates this conflictive political history between both countries. As the institutional and intellectual configurations of area studies and Philippine Studies shift, Cornell University has served as a nexus for generating and critiquing knowledge on and about the Philippines.

American Colonialism and the first generation of Filipino pensionados

Cornell University’s involvement in the US colonial project in the Philippines indexes the formation of colonial knowledge production in the service of “nation-building” projects. In 1899, Jacob Schurman, then President of Cornell University, was appointed to lead the United States’ First Philippine Commission in charge of making preliminary recommendations on the future of colonial governance. Traces of Cornell University’s involvement in the Philippines from a century ago can be found in the the Rare and Manuscript Collections in the papers of those involved in preliminary reconnaissance trips to the Philippines such as Frank Ernest Gannet (Class of 1898), Gerow D. Brill (Class of 1888), Bernard Edward Fernow (Professor, College of Forestry).

Given the focus of the United States on building educational institutions, a select group of Filipinos went to US universities, including Cornell, to contribute to nation-building “back home.” As part of the “Pensionado” Scholarship Program, Filipinos were among the earliest Asian students to enroll in Cornell, meeting international students from Asia in the “Cosmopolitan Club.” Notable Filipino Cornell alumni, such as Vidal A. Tan, Tomas Mapua, and Victor Buencamino would go on to establish foundational institutions in government, business, and education. Although less studied for their contributions to the genealogy of Philippine Studies, these scholars foreshadow the contours of modern knowledge production of and about the Philippines and the politics of location in such production.

The Philippines meets “Southeast Asian Studies:” Post-WWII nation-building

The post-World War II era of decolonization reconfigured new conceptual matrices for scholarship as well as new institutional, political, and academic networks in the study of the Philippines. At the institutional level, Cornell’s links with the Philippines remained strongest in the agricultural and life sciences as well as other technical schools. In 1952, Cornell partnered with the University of the Philippines-Los Baños to rebuild the university, which had been devastated by World War II. From 1952-1960, thirty-five Cornell professors participated in the project, serving one to three-year appointments at Los Baños.

This project was a foundational moment in the collaboration between Cornell and the Philippines in providing technical assistance for agricultural development projects. Thanks to the institutional connections built through this project, in 1960, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) was established in Los Baños, which remains an important center for research in global agricultural studies.Furthermore, Cornell was home to scholars of the Philippines such as the economist Professor Frank Golay, an eminent specialist of Philippine economy and director of the SEAP Program (1970-1976), and Professor Robert Polson who established a rural social science research program in central Philippines.

Despite the historical predominance of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and the social sciences in the study of Philippine-related topics, the founding of the Southeast Asia Program (SEAP) in 1950 facilitated new interdisciplinary scholarly connections. Language was the link. In 1964, Professor John Wolff, a linguist of Bahasa Indonesia, proposed the Tagalog Program to provide students who were working in the Philippines an opportunity to learn Tagalog and/or Cebuano. Wolff developed new materials for Tagalog learning, including the foundational and still-standard textbook on Filipino (Tagalog). Through the years, particularly through financial support from the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) program, students of the Filipino (Tagalog) language at Cornell would include not just American scholars involved in Philippine-related projects but also second and third generation Filipino-Americans and non-Filipino international students interested in the Philippine diaspora.

A “Cornell School” of Philippine Studies?

The 1970s was a watershed moment in Philippine historiography. Amidst the tightening rule of martial law under President Ferdinand Marcos, scholars began to question the nationalist historiography of the 1950s and increasingly linked the study of history with the struggle for social justice. At this time, Cornell already had a strong reputation among the academic community in the Philippines since it had produced some of the Philippines’ foremost scholars such as Cesar Adib Majul (Government, ’57) and David Wurfel (Government, ’60). Thus, by happenstance or personal connection, more Filipino students found themselves at Cornell, itself known for the political activism of its professors.

Several monographs now considered canonical in the field of Philippine Studies were first written as dissertations by Cornell graduate students: Pasyon and Revolution (1979) by Reynaldo Lleto, Contracting Colonialism (1988) by Vicente Rafael, Clash of the Spirits (1998) by Filomeno Aguilar, Making Mindanao by Patricio Abinales (2000), and Necessary Fictions: Philippine Literature and the Nation (2000) by Carol Hau. These pioneering works of scholarship foregrounded the discursive analysis of culture and politics to the study not only of the Philippine’s history but also of colonialism, nationalism, and imperialism more broadly.

If we can then call such a thing as a “Cornell School” of Philippine Studies, as Carol Hau suggests, it is in the “intellectually promiscuity” evident in these interdisciplinary works. Filipino students at Cornell occupied the position of “transnational intellectuals,” defamiliarizing and denaturalizing the Philippines via the comparative lenses offered by area studies. By working with specialists of other countries such as Professor James Siegel and Professor Takashi Shiraishi, these path-breaking scholars expanded the theoretical and narratological frames for unpacking the complexity of the Philippine historical experience.

Central to this story is Professor Benedict Anderson, whose deep commitment and scholarly interest in the Philippines made Cornell an intellectually rich environment for Philippine scholars. Towards the end of his career, Professor Benedict Anderson became interested in the Philippines and published theoretically provocative works such as Under the Three Flags (2007), as well as essays in The Spectre of Comparisons (1998). Such intellectual productivity was collaborative and bi-directional. Anderson taught his students as much as learned from them, serving as a teacher, adviser, and friend to a large community of Philippine scholars, such as Patricio Abinales (‘97), Carol Hau (’98), Andrew Abalahin (’01), Joel Rocamora (’74), Vicente Rafael (’84), and Filomeno Aguilar (’92). This generation of scholars at Cornell  broadened the possibility of what Philippine Studies could be by imbricating them in wider transnational and interdisciplinary frames of study. READ MORE

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