AT the outset, let me openly declare that if the mandatory Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) program for senior high school that is being proposed both by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Vice President and Education Secretary Sara Duterte-Carpio, and which is supported by 69 percent of those surveyed by Pulse Asia, will have the same format and nature as the one I had to endure when I was still a student, then I would vehemently oppose it. If the goal is to use the ROTC as a vehicle to inculcate discipline and love of country, and it will be that same ROTC that made me hate my Saturday mornings, then let me strongly urge our lawmakers and policy framers to rethink hard.

The ROTC I remember was all about marching under the heat of the sun, carrying mock wooden rifles, and listening to lectures of cadet officers who knew nothing about pedagogy except to read from handouts, and shout orders. And if such a model will remain, then there is no room for a meaningful culture of discipline to be cultivated and nurtured in the minds and hearts of the young. Discipline is not just about cadets marching in cadence, and of well-polished boots and metal buckles.

It is not just about following orders, and of doing push-ups and squats. The kind of discipline that will be nurtured here is borne out of obeisance and compliance because of fear without understanding and appreciation. Being shouted at, insulted and demeaned by cadet officers may be the preferred way to discipline the young by adults who treat their children the same way, but what it does not do is to develop a culture of appreciation and understanding that is internally grounded, where people do things because they know it is ethical and moral, and not just because they are told to do so and there are penalties if they refuse. Mass punishment of cadets for no reason at all, except simply to inculcate a sense of authority by power-tripping cadet officers, can only but impress on people that authority is not about serving but about wielding power.

Worse, requiring everyone to do push-ups or squats is meaningless abuse that only decouples accountability from an act, since all get to suffer the consequence of one cadet failing to march in cadence, or having unpolished boots. Of course, it can be a lesson in accountability, to inculcate a sense of shared responsibility that since we belong to a community, we should be more prudent and circumspect since the consequences may be suffered by others, too. But this is hardly articulated at all.

The brutal, decontextualized exercise of force by cadet officers on ordinary cadets can easily lead to physical violence that can manifest in hazing, particularly by cadet officers on their juniors or those undergoing training to become officers. It should be impressed on legislators that the feeling of having the power to command, when placed in the hands of young minds, can easily lead to a feeling of impunity and entitlement to inflict psychological and physical harm.

Get the latest news
delivered to your inbox
Sign up for The Manila Times’ daily newsletters
By signing up with an email address, I acknowledge that I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Of course, any mandatory ROTC course will have to include as one of its modules military training. But if so, this should be the kind of military training that will prepare cadets for the actual conditions when they would be called to defend our country, and learning to march in cadence would not be one of those. There should be more sessions on intelligence gathering and acquisition of skills in hand-to-hand self-defense, and in humane ways of disarming and neutralizing an enemy. There should be basic knowledge in disarming explosives, and other skills necessary to deal with terrorist attacks. A key part of the module should be survival skills such as living in the jungle, foraging, starting a fire and even swimming.

Key to this, however, is the appreciation and understanding of the ideological foundations for why citizens decide to take up arms. We should not allow the ROTC curriculum to become an indoctrination session that would only institutionalize red-tagging and anti-communist rhetoric. What should also be inculcated are the structural conditions and reasons why people rebel and take up arms. A session on all forms of political violence should be included to make cadets understand the context for their emergence. But corollary to this is a session on the social development and non-military interventions that cadets can get involved with. In short, what should be impressed on them is that fighting insurgency is not just through military means.

It is here that modules on social development services, disaster relief, environmental protection, health and emergency work, and other equally important aspects of human security should be developed. Preparing cadets to get involved in emergency and relief operations during calamities and disasters, and in regular community development work will not only teach them discipline, but will give more meaning to their being part of the larger community in the context of service to their fellow Filipinos. This will be a more effective way to inculcate in them a deep love of country, something that is not just taught but lived in actual situations where they have to serve.

One area that would require focus, which may appear to be petty but is actually important, is to teach every cadet driving, vehicle maintenance, and road rules and courtesy not only as drivers but also as pedestrians. These are things that are often forgotten, but are actually basic.

In the final analysis, the ROTC that should be made mandatory should go beyond military training and must contain modules that would cultivate an inner sense of discipline and love of country that emanates not from orders or laws, but from an appreciation of what is right and wrong. It should not be military indoctrination, but a form of practical civics education that prepares the young to become citizens for the country, and not only for themselves.