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Critical thinking on historical revisionism

Sara Duterte used a 24 Oras Weekend report last month to allay the apprehension that she would be moving to change the historical narrative on the country’s experience with martial law. She declared that this objective would be difficult to accomplish and denied that it was her priority as Department of Education (DepEd) secretary.

Perhaps Sara misunderstood the concern about her intentions regarding the issue of historical revisionism. I do not believe she would consider an official DepEd campaign to smuggle into the DepEd’s curricular materials a false history of martial law in the country. I credit her with more sense than that, and not only because of the difficulty of the goal. Sara may not have followed the academic literature on the subject, but she herself personally knows the truth about martial law. To reject this truth would mean repudiating her own family history.

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Soledad, Sara’s paternal grandmother, was an original Davao “dilawan,” who openly supported Cory Aquino at a time when this political stand involved serious personal risks and required exemplary courage. President Duterte himself recognized his mother as “one of the four original yellow guys now who used to march the thoroughfares of Davao.” He gave Cory Aquino full credit for launching his political career. Through Soledad, Mr. Duterte received an OIC (officer in charge) appointment as Davao mayor. He also benefitted from the support of Davao’s business community leaders, among them, Jesus “Chito” Ayala, who organized the city’s “Yellow Friday” movement, helped persuade Cory to run in 1986 against Ferdinand Marcos Sr., and served in Cory’s kitchen cabinet of trusted advisers. Disowning her political roots, well-known in Davao, would further diminish her integrity and credibility in her home base.

As education secretary, however, the issue of historical revisionism pins her down between a rock and a hard place. Already, Filipino and foreign academics have issued a manifesto in defense of historical truth and academic freedom, calling on educational agencies, including the DepEd, “to combat all attempts at historical revisionism that distort and falsify history to suit the dynastic interests of the Marcoses and their allies and to fortify their power.”

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To convert the public away from a false historical narrative is as difficult a task as producing and marketing the fake item. It took the Marcos family over 10 years to create the lie on the martial law experience that it continues to reinforce. Even if she wanted to, Sara could not erase Marcosian revisionism within her term, considering also the urgent problems confronting DepEd.

The DepEd’s immediate priority must be the prompt and safe return of the students to schools for face-to-face instruction. But the DepEd must also review defective instructional content in its curricula, as well as train the teachers in handling such learning materials, including those dealing with martial law. These objectives offer Sara an opportunity to hold the line against historical revisionism. But, first, she has to recognize the problem.

Like hypertension and diabetes, conditions that require long-term treatment and even lifestyle changes, historical revisionism may need to take a backseat to more immediate threats to life, like a bullet wound. But it cannot be ignored. A malignant tumor left untended will create more cancerous cells to overwhelm the immune system. A known lie allowed to pervert our understanding of the past will undermine the educational enterprise that we insist must develop critical thinking skills.

We can only build knowledge by learning from past events. Candidate Sara benefitted from the Ferdinand Marcos Jr. campaign, pushing the line that martial law represented the country’s “golden age.” She inherits the slight and slanted coverage of martial law in the DepEd curriculum and teaching. But this manifestation of the larger problem of the disinformation pandemic undermines not just the disciplines of history and political science. What is to stop the falsification of scientific research on ecological damage from open-pit mining or on health hazards from new pharmaceutical products — when it reveals truths inconvenient for those in power?

Sara cannot solve the problem of falsified history by herself. But as guardian of DepEd’s learning mission, she has the duty to declare her principled opposition to historical revisionism and disinformation.

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Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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