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Most people’s idea of a perfect lecture probably doesn’t involve holding back tears for a full hour — but when the thing you’ve been waiting for over the course of your college career finally comes to fruition minutes after you take your seat, sometimes it can’t be helped.
On February 1, an email from the director of the Asia Center elicited my own class-time encounter with this peculiar, salty joy. The news in my inbox? In the coming months, Harvard will hire a preceptor to teach Tagalog — the most-spoken language in the Philippines, the native tongue of my mother’s family, and the language, as I uncovered for The Crimson in December 2021, that Harvard affiliates leading the United States colonial education system in the Philippines once worked to suppress.
Harvard has existed for nearly four centuries — all of those years as a settler institution on unceded Native land, over a third of them as an active site of enslavement, and approximately a quarter of them as an observer of the legacy of the overseas colonial education system that it helped to establish.
Through administrators that bore its degrees, its pedagogical training, and its presidential seal of approval, Harvard designed and implemented a system of mandatory English-only instruction in the Philippines — ignoring contemporaries’ concerns that it would lead to cultural destruction and building the foundations for a pernicious, enduring form of internalized racism known as colonial mentality.
Yet for over 120 years following the U.S. invasion of the Philippines, which occurred concurrently with the installation of a Harvard graduate as the colonial superintendent of education, Harvard found no reason to offer the language of a country whose colonization helped launch the U.S. into its modern-day position as a global superpower.
Never mind that through the 1990s, Filipinos were the second largest immigrant group in the U.S. Never mind that today, Tagalog remains the fourth most-spoken primary language in the nation, following only English, Spanish, and Chinese. And never mind that students in the Harvard Philippine Forum spent years advocating for Tagalog courses, sending countless unanswered emails to the administration in what appeared to be the one exception to Harvard’s notable commitment to funding “obscure languages.”
The only possible reason for this lack of a reason is systematic ignorance: an inexcusable unawareness of the significance of Tagalog in the daily operations of this country, or a decontextualized false belief that Tagalog lacks use because most Filipinos also speak fluent English. This belief that an entire language — and all of its embedded memories, legends, worldviews, and possibilities — is of little to no value compared with English and thus permissible to mute has colonial precedent; its hypothesized role here is nothing new. For over 120 years, Harvard has perpetuated the same brand of ideological ignorance in the academic setting both at home and abroad, its manufactured silence spanning the Pacific, its halls reverberating outwards with deafening white noise.
In the weeks since I first received that fateful email, my processing of the news has taken place in parallel with preparation for Cultural Rhythms, Harvard’s oldest and largest multicultural production. Tomorrow, members of Harvard Philippine Forum will perform tinikling, a folk dance in which two dancers deploy strategic footwork between clapping bamboo poles.
Some say tinikling was inspired by the grace of the hopping tikling bird; others, the defiance of farm workers who learned to dodge bamboo-stick strikes to their ankles during the period of Spanish colonialism. Either way, it is one of the most popular dances in the Philippines and in the Filipino American community — a form of cultural articulation whose boisterous, joyous noise-making infectiously invites more.
My mother lost the angles of her mother tongue by the time she finished high school in Los Angeles; like many second-generation Filipino Americans — a group that in 2004 lacked heritage language fluency at a rate nearly 40 percent higher than the average across Asian immigrant groups — my inheritance was a mouth rounded by soft English words, assimilated, accentless.
But my mother taught me tinikling when I was seven, her old college costume of woven piña cloth loose over my girlish frame. I learned to dance where my tongue was severed, borrowing another form of language to graft on the space of the wound.
The diaspora is like this: a series of survivors’ translations, a making of music from shipwrecked tongues. Unable to speak Tagalog, I cannot name what was lost. But I have found other ways to speak — just as my mother did, and just as Filipino American scholars and students and advocates have for decades. Amid institutions filled with white noise, we articulate translation after translation to keep our heritage alive, audible if you know how to listen.
Harvard’s existence can be understood as both an overarching legacy and as a series of individual moments, including the present, within that legacy. This is how people can be harmed by what Harvard was, even if it is no longer — even if it repatriates the stolen artifacts, redresses the sinister ties, offers the severed language.
For groups experiencing the material and ideological effects of Harvard’s role in U.S. empire, when do present instantiations of the University outweigh its legacy?
I do not mean to suggest that we seek a return to a mythical pre-colonial essence; such an aim is not only impossible, but also misrepresentative of the ever-shifting nature of culture and identity. From a material standpoint, however, Harvard’s legacy is still largely a form of manufactured ignorance. Currently, only one course on the Philippines is offered at the College; Southeast Asia, made illegible between South and East Asian studies, entirely lacks a formal department; and the effects of Harvard’s pedagogy still linger noxiously in the transpacific setting, producing psychological scars that cannot easily be unmade.
The hiring of a Tagalog preceptor is a necessary first step; it is also just one instantiation in a legacy made of instantiations, one novel articulation in a century-long speech. So while I am undeniably elated by the news of Tagalog’s offering, I refuse to celebrate Harvard for a legacy it has yet to remake.
Instead, I celebrate those who made this current moment possible — those who have been gradually drowning out Harvard’s systematic white noise by speaking alternate tongues of resistance all along. I celebrate the students who argued with an apathetic administration for years, making the presence of the community audible through rhythm and dance even when Harvard refused to listen. I celebrate the alumni in the Philippines who raised support for the new position, amplifying the call for Tagalog until it was heard by the right people. I celebrate director James Robson and the staff at the Asia Center who worked to create an institutional space for Southeast Asia, translating a decades-long dream into decisive action.
And most of all, I celebrate the preceptor and students who, in the coming months and years, will give new voice to once-muted words. Articulated through angular tongues and joyous noise, their proud, boisterous Harvard is the one that I hope, someday, to celebrate.
Eleanor V. Wikstrom ’24, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House and a co-president of the Harvard Philippine Forum.
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