Thomasites and the Peace Corps

THIRD EYE - Ramon J. Farolan - The Philippine Star

In the midst of the Philippine-American War, in August 1901, just a month before the massacre of US troopers in Balangiga, Samar, an American army transport ship USS Thomas arrived in Manila with a different load of passengers unlike those in the past. They were young Americans, many of them recent college graduates carrying baseball bats, tennis rackets, musical paraphernalia and cameras. In his book Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century, Jonathan Zimmerman describes the visitors that arrived on the Thomas: “On its previous voyages, the Thomas left San Francisco Bay for the Philippines laden with warriors and grim armaments. But now, it carried a peaceful army of gentle pedagogues whose only ammunition would be schoolbooks, pencils, papers and chalk. The 526 onboard the Thomas included 346 men and 180 women, hailing from 43 different states and 193 colleges, universities and normal schools. Ten of the teachers had served as soldiers in the Philippines, which had come under American rule three years earlier (?); several others had taught in Hawaii. For the rest, however, the trip would provide the first taste of the “tropics” and of America’s unique mission there... Unlike other world powers that used force to subdue their conquered populations, the United States would rely on education.”

The group came to be known as the Thomasites, although the term was later expanded to include American teachers who arrived on other transports. The Thomasites were the largest contingent of pioneers who came to the country with the purpose of educating Filipinos, but they were not the first to start the program. Before the Thomasites, US Army soldiers began teaching Filipinos the English language, in effect laying the foundation of the Philippine public school system. One last word about the transport ship Thomas. It was also the Thomas that brought back to the United States Brig. General Jacob H. Smith, who had just been convicted in a court martial for his infamous orders “kill and burn” in Samar. He was known as the Black Knight of America’s war in the Philippines but received a hero’s welcome on his arrival, with his hometown Portsmouth, Ohio honoring him with gun salutes and a welcome reception.  

Stanley Karnow in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines, had other observations about Americans who came to the Philippines in those early years. He said, “There were swindlers, hucksters and dubious adventurers among them. Many who began with noble motives became lonely and discouraged, and vented their bitterness in racial slurs against the Filipinos. But many – doctors, engineers, agronomists, surveyors, sanitation specialists and teachers like Philinda Rand – were driven by an unflagging faith in the virtue of their commitment.”

Karnow added, “8,000 volunteers had applied either out of altruism or for adventure. Money was also an attraction: As an inducement, they were offered as much as $125 a month, substantially more than teachers earned at home.”

English spread quickly, with US officials estimating that more Filipinos could read, write and speak English than any other language. While there were critics of America’s educational program, whatever success was attained must be credited to these pioneers who taught in the Philippines. The public school system that was established has been described as America’s single greatest achievement in the country, with Filipinos rapidly gaining the highest literacy rate in Southeast Asia and the English language bringing about some semblance of unity among its people.

In August 2001, as part of the Thomasites Centennial Memorial Program held at the American Teachers Plot at the North Cemetery in Manila, US embassy charge d’affairs Michael E. Malinowski made these remarks: “As these headstones so poignantly remind us, some paid a very dear price for their commitment to Philippine education. Of the 540 Thomasites who landed in Manila a century ago, 27 were dead within two years, mostly from disease (cholera, diphtheria and small pox). It was this kind of dedication, this spirit of service which earned the American teachers the love and respect of Filipinos. They were not here for gold or glory. They were here to work with Filipinos and they did... I am pleased to say that the Thomasite tradition of service still survives... that the attitude of public service exemplified by the Thomasites is being carried on today by the Peace Corps.”

As we mark the 121st anniversary of the arrival of the Thomasites, Filipinos all over the land remember their efforts and sacrifices with gratitude and respect. To honor their memory, we must all be deeply concerned about the state of our educational system today. If we are to reverse a deteriorating situation, we need to rekindle in our people the same spirit of volunteerism, dedication and sacrifice that brought the Thomasites to our land.

On the US Peace Corps. Most people connect the idea of the Peace Corps with the speech of president John F. Kennedy at his inauguration in 1961 when he declared: “And so my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” But senator Hubert Humphrey writes in his book The Education of a Public Man: “I introduced the Peace Corps in 1957. Many senators, including liberal ones, thought the idea was silly and unworkable. Now, a young president made it possible and the program has touched many lives and made them better.” In the Philippines, the country director is Ms. Jenner Edelman.

vuukle comment


  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

Get Updated:

Signup for the News Round now

or sign in with