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Looking Back
How many islands does the Philippines have?

By Ambeth Ocampo
First Posted 02:29:00 07/25/2007

Filed Under: history, Books, Education

Accuracy of the facts and figures in our textbooks has always been an issue. The good news is that many textbooks for science and math have been revised and, while still faulty at times, are generally considered much better in form and content than those in the so-called ?soft? subjects like English, Filipino and history. It is not my habit or perversion to go over textbooks in the sciences, so I?m not sure if these are really much improved than those in my field.

Unlike science and math, which are precise, history can sometimes be slippery, the interpretation of one and the same event changing depending on the historian writing the book. What bothers me is not that there are many different viewpoints, but rather that the textbooks have dated or conflicting ?facts.? The first step in the reform of our textbooks does not even concern interpretation. We need to make sure that our history, or Hekasi, textbooks are, at the very least, factually correct or at least updated.

All the current complaints regarding history textbooks are not new, if we are to go by an obscure and largely forgotten book by Pedro A. Gagelonia, ?The Filipino Historian: Controversial Issues in Philippine History? (Manila: FEU, 1970). I found my soiled and pre-owned copy in a used bookstore 22 years ago. It was a miracle I picked it off the bargain bin because it had an atrociously designed cover, but I was drawn to the title thinking it would provide some clarity or the last word in contested territory. The work turned out to be a comparison of history textbooks, a feat in itself, and the point was to show some of the more common conflicting ?facts.?

It was both an eye-opener and quite amusing because the author seems to have sharpened his knife especially for the most successful textbook historian of all time, Gregorio Zaide. Straying from sober academic tone, Gagelonia does not seem content with thrusting a knife into Zaide. For full effect, he actually gives the knife a few twists before pulling it out.

Reading the first few pages of this book made me reflect on Filipinos as great spectators and ?uzi-seros? [curious onlookers]. We love a fight whether it is a neighborhood brawl or a Manny Pacquiao fight in Las Vegas. We even see this every day on the road when traffic builds up around any minor accident because everyone slows down, not only to get a closer look, but to make some snide comment.

I did not realize, for example, that textbooks differ with regard to the exact number of islands in the Philippine archipelago. When you ask Filipinos how many islands we have, the snappy answer to the stupid question is often a comment like, ?Do you mean high tide or low tide?? The disturbing question has been effectively evaded by jest. If you press the person and ask, ?All right give me the figures for both high tide and low tide,? I?m sure the smart-ass will slink away. The most common figure given is 7,100 or 7,107 islands, but nobody knows where these numbers came from. For all I care, this figure can also be used to answer the great medieval theological question: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

To make his point, Gagelonia plucked five examples from textbooks in use during his research. Agoncillo and Alfonso in the now classic ?History of the Filipino People? state that the Philippines has ?more than 7,000 islands and islets.? Antonio Molina in Volume 1 of ?The Philippines Through the Centuries? says 7,083 islands, a figure I have not seen before. Gagelonia does not name anyone who cited 7,107 islands, but Alip in Volume 1 of ?Political and Cultural History of the Philippines? gives the usual 7,100 islands.

Zaide in most of his textbooks uses the same statistic -- 7,100 islands -- but in his book ?Catholicism in the Philippines,? he gives 7,083 islands like Molina, a professor in the Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas.

Reading this made me wonder if the number of islands changes depending on the use of the textbook in Catholic schools. It is understandable that different authors will come up with different numbers, but Gagelonia is right when he singles out Zaide for citing different figures in different books he wrote.

Historical method dictates that you get down to the primary source. Where did this random number come from? Nobody seems to know. How sure are we that we can even make 7,000 islands and islets if only 3,000, more or less, have been given names? At a party, I once asked some people working for the National Coast and Geodetic Survey as well as the National Mapping Agency to give me the exact figure. They too were surprised by the question. I presumed, wrongly of course, that employees from these agencies would have the exact figure at the tip of their tongue.

One last thing about current textbooks: Any study of the Philippines begins with its physical shape and other characteristics, yet most of the books do not come with a map of the archipelago; this has to be bought separately. And if a map is available, it is probably small, badly drawn and lacking in significant detail. If we cannot be clear on something as basic as the number of islands in the Philippine archipelago, what does this say about more complicated lessons in our textbooks?

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

More Inquirer columns

Previous columns:
Formation - 7/20/07
Old textbooks - 07/18/07
Feng shui ? 7/13/07
Corrections on ?history? ? 07/11/07
Missing pieces ? 7/06/07

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