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History does not change

/ 05:14 AM February 22, 2019

One assignment my students remember for life requires them to go to the library, dig up the newspaper on the day they were born, and write a short essay describing the Philippines then.

In recent years, I have students born or raised overseas who ask if they can use The New York Times or some source easier to access online. I insist they refer to a Philippine newspaper, because the course is on Philippine history. For everyone, it is perhaps the first and last time they will use a microfilm reader. At least they get some value for money on the library fee added to their onerous tuition.

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When possible, students are encouraged to interview their parents and ask what they remember of their birth day, if only to underscore the fact that parents can be the most unreliable source of information. True enough, mothers remember little of that day, aside from labor pains or their water breaking out of schedule; fathers more so, even if they just twiddled their thumbs in the hospital waiting room. Between the faulty memory of a parent and the hard data from a newspaper, what should you believe to be true?

The headlines then, students reported, were mostly about politics and many issues that we still face today: rising oil prices, depreciation of the peso to the dollar, corruption in government, disasters from typhoons, flooding or earthquakes, the New People’s Army insurgency, secession in Mindanao, election irregularities and protests, etc. Without instructing them to do so, these students read the past in relation to the present and came to the sad reality that the Philippines has changed little since the day they were born. Even the people in the news were the same, or at least still alive, like the seemingly immortal Juan Ponce Enrile, who was already in the news when I was growing up.

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I took the opportunity to disabuse them of the silly notion that “history repeats itself.” Contrary to popular belief, history has no mind, no will, no force and cannot repeat itself. History is a scapegoat for people who don’t want to take responsibility for their actions and decisions. We repeat history in cycles, like mindless mice running hopelessly in a wheel.

But then all is not lost, because the future is theirs. My eyes panned across the classroom, and I felt envious of their gym-toned bodies and their flawless skin taut from proper diet, supplements, basic skin care and the magic of dermatologists. They are articulate and tech-savvy, and yet I can predict, with absolute certainty, that they will repeat history like every other generation before them.

I flung my arms in the air in resignation and asked: If nobody learns from history, why do we need to study it? Before anyone could hazard an answer, a student related a particular problem. He was born on Good Friday, so there was no newspaper on that day. I advised him to use either the Maundy Thursday or Black Saturday issue. Then another reported that she was born on Christmas and the news, unlike those of her classmates, was full of cheer. Then I asked, what about a person born on a leap year, whose Feb. 29 birthday occurs only once every four years?

This semester was the first time in my many years of teaching that only one in almost 200 students looked at the Horoscope, and she didn’t even remember, or care, what it predicted for her birthday.

Almost all the students noted how the same news was related differently in two newspapers, leading to a lively discussion about editorial slant, bias and viewpoint, which then led to reflections about fake news in the present. I asked them why the library only carried broadsheets. Who preserves tabloids? What if a nuclear or chemical attack destroyed all our libraries and news offices, leaving the future with only Bulgar, Toro or Tiktik as primary sources? What would people in the future make of our times using a tabloid? Should we believe martial law-era newspapers that reflected a time of peace and order, or do we read critically, knowing that the press then was heavily censored?

Things were picking up, when a student said I wrote a column on his birthday and made me crash, my age exposed to all. My college students are juniors and seniors, born on the cusp between the terms of Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada, making many of us who lived through martial law, Edsa 1 and Edsa 2 literally “history” to them.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: ambeth ocampo, Enrile, event, headlines, History, labor, news, newspapers, oil prices, students
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