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The past is a foreign country

/ 05:22 AM January 18, 2019

Some years ago, on the first day of class, while going over the syllabus, a student asked me whether the books on the list of references were available online. When I replied that the books were available in the library, the student rolled his eyes and, in a slightly belligerent tone, followed up with: “You want me to go to the library?”

I said that not all books were online; some had to be consulted in the university library. He then asked sarcastically: “You want me to handle a physical book?” What I didn’t tell him was that I would sometimes borrow or hide the important volumes to teach them how to locate the book on the shelf using the Library of Congress classification system. I wanted to test how creative and resourceful they could be when the book was not on the shelf.

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Whenever I relate the above exchange, some people start to wail about the death of books and how young people are not reading books anymore. I disagree on both points, because paper books are far from extinction; they have merely transformed into the digital format for reading on a tablet, laptop or phone. Magazines have gone from print to digital, too, and I wonder how much longer the paper edition of the Inquirer will be around. Then there are books that have gone from the visual to the audio, to make sitting in Edsa traffic more productive and bearable.

Contrary to popular belief, young people today are reading, and perhaps reading way more than others their age from another time or generation. They read texts, but on the small screens on their smartphones, their field of sight reduced, their attention span shorter, as in 140 characters in a tweet. They don’t get their news from newspapers or television anymore but through social media and their phones.

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I know young people are reading. The question is, what do they read? What is their tolerance for long texts without pictures or video? What frightens me is the thought that many students mistakenly believe that what is not online does not exist.

In 1940, a textbook series for public school pupils rolled out, and Book Three was titled “The Flags and Other Stories,” by Eleanor G. Riss, Manuel Lopez and Pelagia Untalan. The frontispiece in color depicted a smiling brown-skinned girl holding a doll with light skin and blonde hair; it was painted by Fernando Amorsolo. The interior illustrations were by Cesar Amorsolo and Dionisio Paras. Lessons in civics, Philippine history and good manners and right conduct were imparted through simple stories with guide questions.

One story, “Lydia’s Helpers,” illustrated a toothbrush, a comb, a bar of soap, a towel and a wash basin to teach children about hygiene. The next story was about Rita, who was sent home from school because she had lice in her hair. Her mother then mixed half a cup of coconut oil with half a cup of petroleum, rubbed this mixture into Rita’s hair and wrapped her head with a towel that stayed on overnight. In the morning, her hair was rinsed with soap thrice, then hot lemon juice was applied to deal with the stubborn white eggs that remained in her hair; the eggs were then all removed with a fine-tooth comb.

There were stories about the boyhood of Jose Rizal and Apolinario Mabini, and about Francisco Baltazar, “a great poet from long ago.” One story was about Abraham Lincoln. Two flags that every child was taught to recognize and respect were depicted on a page—the American Stars and Stripes at the top of the flagpole, and below it the Philippine Flag. The first three pages contained numbered, detailed instructions on how to prepare a new book for use:

“1. Take the book in your right hand and place it on your desk. 2. With your left hand carefully open the front cover and press it down slowly. 3. Hold all the leaves with your left hand. 4 Open the back cover with your right hand and press it down slowly. Press it down near the inside margin. 5. Take 10 pages from the back and open them as you opened the covers… 8. Continue opening 10 pages from the back and 10 pages from the front until you have pressed down all the pages.”

This Commonwealth-era textbook contrasts student life then and now, reminding us that the past is truly a foreign country, because people did things so differently then.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

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