Discerning Truth in a Time of Pandemic: Reflections from a Filipino Jesuit School

On October 3, 2018, then President of Ateneo de Manila University, Fr. Jose Ramon Villarin, S. J. spoke at an international conference held in Manila and stated what he believed were the challenges in Jesuit education in the digital age. 1 In his speech, he noted three main challenges: social disconnection, velocity of change and data massification. He ended with a call for educators to guide students in cultivating wisdom and in building meaningful connections, to help them in their search for truth.

Truth-seeking is integral to Jesuit education. As stated in the vision-mission statement of Ateneo de Manila, a Filipino, Catholic and Jesuit university, “As a University, the Ateneo de Manila seeks to preserve, to extend, and to communicate truth and apply it to the development of man and the preservation of his environment.” 2

This commitment to truth was also affirmed by the first Filipino Provincial Superior of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Horacio de la Costa, S.J. almost seventy years ago when he said:

The Ateneo is a school; first and foremost, it is a body of teachers; and the essential duty of a teacher is to speak the truth. The truth is often unpleasant, often unpopular; but the teacher, if he wishes to be faithful to his profession, cannot afford to dilute or debase it. He must speak the truth as he sees it, no matter how much it hurts. 3

Following this mission, the school – through its community of educators – must provide a conducive learning environment for truth-seeking; an environment where students will be exposed to a liberal and humanist education, with abundant opportunities for dialogue and encounter. Through these, it is hoped that they would be able to immerse themselves in the society they are tasked to understand, engage and serve. 4

The society we wish our students to engage has changed rapidly over the past few months, and so has the entire educational landscape in the Philippines. With this new reality, guiding students in their search for truth entails more challenges, far greater than what the former university President noted two years ago.

New Challenges to Truth-Seeking

My work as an educator in both basic and higher education led me to reflect on the challenges schools face in this time of pandemic, with a particular focus on the implications of online learning to truth-seeking. Based on my initial observations and reflection, I found that the loss of onsite contact time deprives learners and educators of opportunities for dialogue and encounter which are essential in discerning truth.

Just to give context, the Philippines has been on different states of lockdown since March 17, 2020, and onsite classes have been suspended since then. All schools in the country are now undergoing various forms of remote learning. Given this development, contact time – or what some also call “class hours” – has been reduced significantly. In the Ateneo de Manila for example, contact time per subject has been reduced from fifty-four hours per semester to about twenty-four this year. Given the university’s decision to adopt a largely asynchronous style of learning, these scheduled class hours for contact are less in reality, since most teachers were initially advised to conduct only four or five synchronous sessions throughout the course, in consideration to the context of the learners who may have trouble with internet connectivity and other difficulties related to the pandemic. Given this pedagogical shift, the concept of contact time has been replaced with “learning hours” to include asynchronous tasks students are expected to accomplish at their own pace.

Losing a significant part of teacher-student contact time has proven challenging to promote dialogue, which is essential in discerning truth. In a traditional classroom setting, learners and educators share ideas in class, challenge each other’s perspectives, evaluate arguments and decide on their stand. For genuine dialogue to occur, trust and rapport between individuals must also be established. They must feel that the class is a safe space for ideas to be shared. This delicate process cannot be easily replicated on an online platform, especially since many schools – including ours – gave students the option to turn off their cameras during synchronous sessions to respect privacy, and in some cases, to save on bandwidth as well.

Online discussions also proved difficult when it comes to discussing social issues. As American Philosophy Professor Firmin DeBrander (2020) remarked:

Conversation is halting and laborious, and it is too difficult to explain nuanced positions while keeping people’s attention. Digital media make it too easy to insult or offend and then walk away (or close the computer). Digital citizens become more entrenched in their opinions, less likely to reach out and build bridges.

Debrander’s observation is especially relevant today given the problem of reconciling discordant voices in the digital world. There is so much “noise” as it is in social media platforms, which have been the stage for Twitter wars, online shaming and “cancelling” people out. Normally, differences in opinions are best handled through face-to-face dialogue, with both parties exposed, and somewhat vulnerable to the presence of one another. How do you do that now in the digital world?

Exacerbating this problem is the proliferation of fake news in the Philippines, and blatant attempts at historical revisionism, both having significant effects on education and democratic discourse. 5 One way to counter these is to give ample opportunities to engage students with relevant content, discuss it with teachers and peers, and evaluate it based on accurate knowledge and critical reflection. This is an important aspect in discerning truth, and educators everywhere must now find alternative ways of doing so.

Ateneo de Manila Senior High School students assemble to remember the Declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines in 1972, a common subject of historical revisionism. Author’s photo.

Closely related to the challenge of dialogue is the challenge of facilitating encounter which is another essential aspect in truth-seeking. Since all schools in the Philippines adopted remote learning, interactions have been limited to the digital platform. For Ateneo de Manila, one of the most regrettable losses this year was the suspension of onsite service learning. In the senior high school for example, part of the Grade 11 curriculum requires students to tutor public school students. In the college, the Office for Social Concern and Involvement facilitates immersion programs for students that allows the latter to encounter people from marginalized sectors in Philippine society. Not only do these activities help in the formation of students, it is also hoped that such encounters bring students closer to the truth, as they are made to experience realities beyond what is normally familiar to them. As Leviste and Trinidad (2020) noted, “Service learning counts as an alternative mode of teaching that taps into the emancipatory potential of higher education.”

Aside from service learning, students also lost another venue for encounter when they were deprived of opportunities to come together for campus-based activities. Student-led activities, projects and mobilizations provided alternative learning outside the classroom as they encounter different people in campus and even beyond. These contribute significantly to vibrant campus life. Particularly noteworthy over the past few years were the student-led demonstrations in protest of government actions that violate national and school values. As co-faculty members have observed, there has been a strong resurgence of student activism in the campus in the last four years.

Educators were also deprived of different forms of exposure and encounter. Given the nation-building thrust of the university, teachers from different units usually spend some weekends and summer breaks conducting training seminars or participate in outreach programs in different parts of the country. One particularly noteworthy experience recently was when Ateneo educators were asked to go to Marawi City to conduct teacher-training seminars for public school teachers there. This experience was an eye-opener for many faculty members who saw firsthand the scale of destruction the city endured, as well as the failure of government rehabilitation.

Ateneo de Manila teachers and public school teachers in Marawi after a training seminar. Author’s photo
The Grand Mosque in Marawi after the siege. Author’s photo

Positive Pedagogical Developments

While the pandemic has given rise to a number of challenges, there have been positive developments as well. For one, content-reduction has forced schools and departments to revisit the most essential elements of their programs, giving less emphasis on quantity of topics covered and more on depth of learning. This has been a key principle in Jesuit education from the very beginning. However, practical considerations (such as college entrance tests expectations) complicates compliance at times. In a way, the pandemic “forced” educators and educational institutions to trim content and focus on the essentials.

In the case of Ateneo de Manila, the pandemic also reintroduced teachers in higher education to some educational principles and paradigms that were usually in the realm of basic education such as constructive alignment and backward design for learning. Blended learning was also finally institutionalized, something that was tried multiple times before, but remained underutilized until now.

The pandemic has also strengthened inter-school, inter-department and even intra-department collaboration since the new demand of online learning called on faculty members to work together to streamline programs and reduce workload. For example, faculty members were grouped into teams and were asked to produce modules and materials that they can use for the upcoming year. Some of these materials – like magisterial lectures – were also made available to the public.

The shift to online learning has also led to an unprecedented access to information through online materials and free webinars, made available to students and educators. These proved to be a boost in the effort to combat fake news and historical revisionism. Many of the webinars last September 2020 for example, tackled different aspects of the history of Martial Law in the Philippines which is a popular topic for revisionism. Different departments in the college also produced “bridging video lectures” for students whose academic year was cut short last semester due to the suspension of classes.

To address the need for dialogue, teachers have taken it upon themselves to create opportunities for consultations and conversations by creating webrooms where students can just “hang out” with them and peers. Based on initial feedback, some students visit these webrooms not necessarily to consult, but to just talk, which is something teachers used to enjoy in the traditional school set-up.

Lastly, to make up for immersion-denial, different units of the university sought ways to provide opportunities for encounter by linking students and partner institutions online. In senior high school for example, attempts are being made for Grade 11 students to tutor public school students online. In the college, there are attempts to conduct video conferencing “immersions” that would connect students with partner institutions.

It is hoped that these positive pedagogical changes can better equip educators in this challenging time. With remote learning not ending soon, educators around the country have no other course but to maximize this online set-up and ensure that students continue to find opportunities to dialogue with one another, encounter other people, and pursue the truth.

Franz Jan S. Santos

Franz Jan S. Santos is am an instructor at the History Department of Ateneo de Manila University and a full time faculty for Social Sciences in the senior high school unit of the same university. He finished both his AB in Management Economics and MA in History in Ateneo de Manila as well. As an instructor for the History Department, he teaches courses related to Philippine History for junior college students. As a high school educator, he has taught subjects/courses related to Philippine History, World History, Sociology and World Religions. Currently, he is the Subject Area Coordinator for Social Sciences in the senior high school, and have co-authored syllabi for courses currently offered in the senior high school. He is also a teacher trainer for the Ateneo Center for Educational Development (ACED), a non-government organization that aims to strengthen public education.

Franz Jan S. Santos


Davidson, H., & Fonbuena, C. (2020). Facebook removes fake accounts with links to China and Philippines. The Guardian, 23 September 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/sep/23/facebook-removes-fake-accounts-with-links-to-china-and-philippines.
DeBrander, F.n. (2020). What we lose when we teach—and learn—online. America Magazine, 24 June 2020.  https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2020/06/24/what-we-lose-when-we-teach-and-learn-online.
International Commission on the Apostolate of Jesuit Education. Characteristics of Jesuit Education. 1986. Characteristics of Jesuit Education. 8 December 1986. https://www.seattleu.edu/media/university-core/files/CharacteristicsJesuitEducation.pdf.
Leviste, Enrique Niño P., & Trinidad, Jose Eos. (2020). Toward greater access and impact: Directions for a sociological understanding of Philippine higher education. Industry and Higher Education. 1-10. DOI: 10.1177/0950422220954062.


  1. 2018 International Conference on Educational Frontiers: “Education in the Age of Fake News and A.I.” organized by the Asia-Pacific Interactive Jesuit Education Consortium (API-JEC) and the Ateneo de Manila Institute of the Science and Art of Learning (SALT), October 3-5, 2018.
  2. The full vision-mission of Ateneo de Manila University may be viewed at its official website, ateneo.edu.
  3. The excerpt is from a homily given by Fr. Horacio de Costa, S.J. at an alumni mass in Ateneo de Manila on the birth anniversary of Filipino hero and Ateneo alumnus, Jose Rizal on June 19, 1952. Taken from https://monkshobbit.wordpress.com/2011/07/09/four-jesuit-priests-in-jose-rizals-life-faura-pastells-balaguer-and-sanchez/?fbclid=IwAR0uUpHLHefXLJS9plUudQJ3IP7BtWETLf5u5Q0OEKS8qCdmiPmag-y8xms.
  4. 4. All references to Jesuit education were taken from the document, “Characteristics of Jesuit Education” prepared by the International Commission on the Apostolate of Jesuit Education in 1986.
  5. 5. Facebook recently removed hundreds of fake accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior, many of which were traced to individuals from China and the Philippines.