History is not merely a record of the past. It is not a regurgitation of chronicles or tomes. And above all, it is not a grocery list of names, dates, places and events.
It is a story with a beginning, a middle and an end; it is rewritten every time inasmuch as it is retold. And like all stories, it is an interpretation of reality as seen through the eyes of a writer. It carries with it a message which the writer hopes is sufficient for us to affect our own realities. Any story without that ambition is empty and hollow.
By default, we believe that history is taught so that we can learn from the mistakes of the past. That is not necessarily so. That too is an artifice created by the historian. History can be used similarly to repeat the mistakes of the past (just don’t label them as mistakes) or to justify past acts contrary to our present values. I also find this position tenuous since what we may perceive as mistakes today may have been the best choice during that time. Hindsight, after all, is always 20/20.
And history is not a science of hindsight. More importantly, it is the very art of foresight.
Today we celebrate our 109th Independence Day. Lately, I have felt that the story of our Independence Day has become empty and hollow as the date has been juxtaposed with headlines that state the obvious — the Maguindanao CoCs have been stolen! Is this what we have come to? Is this what we have done with our freedom from tyranny? Sure no society can be perfect, and so I need not point out that over a century since our independence, we still have political killings, poll fraud and vote fixing.
And all this we can trace to the very first elections held for the Malolos Republic.
During last year’s Independence Day, I spoke about “winning back our streets” and emphasized how the language of freedom and independence should be translated into giving the majority of our population enough dignity in order to be free and independent themselves. Despite our runaway economic progress as of late, a lot more work remains to be done. Our Gross National Product has yet to express itself as Gross National Happiness.
In a speech today at the Andres Bonifacio Monument in Caloocan City, SC Chief Justice Reynato Puno succintly said,
“So long as the vote of even a single citizen is made a mockery of, we are not free. So long as the Filipino is hounded by lack of education, we are not free. A person is not free who does not understand his rights and responsibilities to society. So long as people are destitute and leave our country because of hopelessness in the future, we are not truly free.”
This year, I would like to work with another theme. As I have been exploring a new understanding of history as of late, it is just fitting that I take an honest look at how we teach Philippine history to our kids. What story are we trying to tell whenever we look back at our past? Besides memorizing all the names, dates and trappings of the Katipunan to the People Power Revolution, what are we truly commemorating when we study our history?
I have observed that revolution has remained a central theme of our history. And this is rather apt, given our history of subjugation under foreign (ie. Spain, America, Japan) or unjust (ie. Marcos) powers. Revolution has always been a source of national pride, giving us a sense of self-determination and the esteem that yes, we can make a difference.
That is also why our heroes appear so ‘perfect’. From the selfless author in the person of Jose Rizal, to the noble white-shirt-with-red-pants Bonifacio; from the tailor-suited Hollywood star Manuel Quezon to the heroic but hit by a bullet Ninoy Aquino — we have more icons than Windows. During our grade school days we are taught all of the ‘great men’ that we should aspire to be like, but we never realize how much, in reality, they are like us.
Nonetheless, this focus on revolution has also ignited the feverish belief that we have made our stamp on world history. The 1896 Revolution paved the way for the Malolos Republic, the first republic in Asia. The 1986 People Power revolution inspired the rest of the world to take charge of their political life in an era where democracy and political institutions hoped to do away with such sorts of uprisings. But what have we really accomplished in those 90 years between the rise of the Katipunan and the fall of the Bagong Lipunan?
A lot would answer “nothing” because the rhetorical nature of the question invites such a response. However, to answer that reflexively points to everything that I see wrong with how Philippine history is taught and learned.
There is a widely held belief that our history is punctuated by revolution. Many even claim it as an “obvious fact” but in reality, all that “obvious fact” is is what your Philippine history teacher most likely told you. A lot more happened between the rise of the Katipunan and the fall of the Bagong Lipunan, and I am not even talking about the American assimilation and the Japanese invasion. And even before those two bookend events, we have our relatively underappreciated pre-colonial history. And after that? We have had a history after Marcos, which includes rebuilding during Aquino and Ramos, and relearning our lessons with Estrada and Macapagal-Arroyo.
I have grown increasingly convinced that we are approaching a time when a focus on revolution won’t be as important. And in one sense, I also believe that retaining a focus on revolution would hold back our country. People have grown tired of politics, corruption, and the heavy burden to “get to the streets” and get our old leaders out of power and bring new blood in. In a culture of divining for one revolution after another, the wait for true and genuine change is unbearable, and hope is fleeting as we feel that we are always on the verge of the next popular uprising. I see this general apathy — what I would term our political poverty — as a sign of ‘revolution fatigue’, an omen that the time has come for us to rewrite our history.
Working from the perspective of a high school teacher where we only have one year to study Philippine history, the question now is, what do we teach?
I have always believed that we study Philippine history in order to become better citizens. It is inevitable. Once you’ve learned of our past, what have gone right and wrong, and what others have tried before, it is inevitable to feel compelled to help chart our country’s future. At least, that is a mark of a good course in Philippine history and, in my mind, should be the goal of anyone who engages the subject either as a teacher or a student.
Limited by four quarters or barely ten months, there is still so much one can do. The first quarter must focus on our pre-colonial history and firmly establish our archipelago’s place in the Southeast Asian region before the coming of the Spaniards. A lot of commentary can already be made on Philippine culture, particularly why we don’t feel Asian but really are. The answer has less to do with our colonial past than with our disconnection from what happened (or didn’t) before they arrived. The first quarter ends with the arrival of the Spaniards, and the political, economic and social institutions they introduced or revised upon their arrival.
The second quarter begins with the theme of how all the institutional changes created a perfect storm that precipitated a revolution. Working with the assumption that our students have been introduced to the key figures of our colonial history in grade school (so adjustments have to be made if they haven’t), discussion can proceed into the contributions and perspectives of these different figures to the revolutionary movement. Of course, a chronology of events leading up to the Philippine Revolution is important if only for our students to appreciate how a confluence of factors and ideologies culminate in a revolution. The quarter ends with the flag waved at Kawit, Cavite.
The end of the second quarter also leaves a good ending point for a first semester. There can also be a sense of coming full circle as the story of how an archipelago becomes one country comes to an end. This sets up the second semester nicely where, quite frankly, the shit hits the fan. It is also in the last two quarters that we begin discussing the historical context of the modern day Philippine state.
The third quarter begins with the establishment of the Malolos Republic, with focus on how the remnants of the revolution left the government vulnerable, a weakness exploited by the Americans. Discussion quickly flows into the establishment of the American regime in the Philippines, with emphasis on the politics and economics between Washington and Manila as exemplified by people such as Osmeña, Quezon and William Howard Taft. Their relationship after all, sets up the basic template followed by all Philippine politicians today — the ubiquitous patron-client relations. Then there is the interlude into the Japanese era, but with less emphasis on blood and war, and more on survival and our tenacity as a people. The quarter ends with our liberation, setting the stage for the rise of a more modern Philippines.
When the fourth quarter begins, students must have a sense of the different issues plaguing Philippine society and politics, and have enough curiosity to venture into possible solutions and alternatives. This is the take off point of the last quarter, which begins with post-war reconstruction. It is imperative that the different contributions of the past presidents be explored, with emphasis on what among they did contributed to nation-building and what did not. The apex of the fourth quarter would have to be the Martial Law era under Marcos, but now we can allow our students to explore the different roots of the proclamation for themselves (and explore what they would do similarly or differently). The school year concludes with exploring how the post-Martial Law era presidents attempted to rebuild our country post-Marcos. And perhaps, we can leave it a point for them to ponder, explore and illustrate where we stand in history right now and where we’re headed.
It is my hope that in such a year, there emerges an understanding of what we’ve really been through as a people, and how being a “nation” is not something we’ve earned, but something we build towards every day. It began before the Spaniards came and continues on to this day. For me, it is of utmost importance that our students realize that their lives are being written on the same history books where we find the ‘great people’ of the past. They can be great too, and it would be an injustice to them if I, as their teacher, aspire for any less.
To turn the spotlight away from revolution in no way means that what we teach our students won’t arm them for a revolution. I just find it more impressive and much more worthwhile to provide the foundation for lasting change, as it is my aspiration in teaching Philippine history to transform my diligent students into dutiful citizens. Isn’t that in itself a revolution?
In the spirit of our 109th Independence Day, this has been my toast. Our history is still being written, and it’s time we all leave our mark. We’ve been free for over a century, so might as well make it count for something.