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Thomasites: An army like no other
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 12, 2003  |  EDUCATION

(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of backgrounders on Philippine-United States relations that the Presidential News Desk, in coordination with the Philippines News Agency, is issuing on the run-up to the state visit here of US President George W. Bush on October 18)

They ventured where few before them dared - pioneering men and women whose imagination was fired by America's conquest of the Far East.

Their story, however, transcends adventure. It is also about idealism, commitment, and call of duty.

And the rebirth of a ravaged nation.

On July 23, 1901, some 500 teachers from the United States boarded a former cattle ship docked at San Francisco's Pier 12 and braved the perils of the Pacific Ocean to educate inhabitants of a land they barely knew.

They became known as the 'Thomasites,' after the US transport ship "Thomas" which brought them to a Southeast Asian archipelago then named the Philippine Islands.

Although this group was the biggest ever formed for the purpose, it was not the first to be deployed by Washington.

A few weeks earlier, 48 teachers arrived on board the 'Sheridan' to also teach Filipinos basic education.

However, it was the US Army that laid the foundation for a public school system in the Philippines.

Despite being largely unschooled in pedagogy, these soldiers began teaching English to the natives barely three weeks after being stationed in the country.

They opened the country's first public school in Corregidor Island, shortly after Admiral George Dewey defeated the Spanish armada in Manila Bay on May 1, 1898.

The Thomasites successfully built upon this foundation and firmly established education as one of America's major contributions to the 'Pearl of the Orient.'

It was a legacy destined to drastically alter the fabric of Philippine life forever.

President William McKinley appointed William Howard Taft to head a commission tasked with continuing the educational work started by the US Army.

The Taft Commission passed Act No. 34 on January 21, 1901, establishing the Department of Public Instruction charged with establishing a public school system throughout the country.

It also authorized deployment to the Philippines of 1,000 educators from the US mainland to teach Filipinos.

The US government spent an estimated $105,000 for the expedition that brought 365 male and 165 female teachers from San Francisco to Manila.

The Thomasites reached Manila Bay on August 21, 1901 but were quarantined inside the ship for two days before they were allowed to disembark two days later.

The Thomasites travelled from the Anda Circle to their quarters in Intramuros where they stayed before being deployed to the provinces.

Among the assignments given were teaching posts for 20 Thomasites in Albay and Catanduanes, 32 others in Camarines Norte and Camarines Sur as well as 13 in Sorsogon and Masbate.

These Thomasites endeared themselves to the masses who longed to be educated, having been denied access to learning opportunities by the Spanish colonizers.

So consequently, American teachers who arrived later were also referred to as 'Thomasites.'

Twenty-seven of the original Thomasites either died of tropical diseases or were murdered by outlaws during their first 20 months of residence.

The teachers also had to correct certain Filipino habits that became obstacles to effective education.

Among these was the tendency of pupils to attend classes and leave whenever they pleased and this was particularly noticeable during town fiestas and other festivities.

Despite the hardships, the Thomasites persisted.

Aside from the elementary schools, the American teachers also built learning institutions that prepared students for their chosen professions or trades.

They opened the Philippine Normal School and the Philippine School of Arts and Trades (PSAT) in 1901 while the Philippine Nautical School, established in 1839 by the Board of Commerce of Manila under Spain, was reopened soon after American forces occupied the country.

Towards the end of 1904, primary courses were already mostly taught by Filipinos who were under American supervision.

After their initial teaching stint, about half of the Thomasites quietly returned to the U.S., while others were left buried in modest graves in the country they zealously served.

Many remained to complete several more terms before leaving although more than a hundred chose to permanently live in the Philippines and engage in other ventures.

For example, A.V.H. Hartendorp, a Thomasite assigned in Samar and Zambales, went into print media as the publisher of the 'Philippine Magazine.'

All the original Thomasites have already passed away but the fruits of their labor continue to be evident.

"The United States government decided to send out an army, not of conquest, but of education: hence this great movement, which is inevitably destined to be greater, in its final effect, more far-reaching, than the wisest of us can now estimate," Thomasite Adeline Knapp stressed in her memoirs.

She was correct as the public school system, which they successfully built, continues to provide countless Filipinos the opportunity to study and make a better life for themselves.

It was also instrumental in transforming the Philippines into the third largest English-speaking nation in the world.


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