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Changing the future

Each semester, my students are assigned to write short essays that introduce them to the historical method. By accomplishing the tasks in a series, they hopefully form a sense of how a historian works by the end of the course. First, they do research, gather, and validate data, then present these in a clear and coherent narrative. Having more data than what will fit in an essay of 800 words, they need to choose what to use, what to leave out, and learn about subjectivity in history. For many students, the first eye-opener is reconstructing the Philippines on the day they were born from newspapers and finding out that parents can be an unreliable source of information. When fact-checked, some parents remembered the wrong sitting president or even the weather.

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Our vehicle for time travel is the Inquirer archive, the only Philippine newspaper available online for this assignment. While the online archive saved students from handling the brittle physical copies in the library or grappling with the microfilm reader, I feel they missed out on a truly formative experience. Some students who had The New York Times app on their phones asked if they could use TimesMachine, the NYT Archive, instead of the Inquirer, bragging that this online resource was searchable by name, date, or subject, and went all the way back to the 19th century. They could not use NYT for this assignment because snippets of Philippine news cannot reflect the time the way the Inquirer does: with advertisements, peso-dollar exchange rates, weather, horoscope, komiks, the Opinion-Editorial page, and much more that provide detail and context to the day they were born.

Many students discovered that “the past is a foreign country” with advertisements from another world. They laughed at bulky TV sets that were like pieces of furniture compared to the sleek models today, the same could be said for cars, refrigerators, and cellphones. Comparing the current P43 price for a Jollibee Yumburger with the P25 on the day she was born, Marts Estacion commented about the “travesty that inflation does to the life of common folk.” Ji Lopez compared technology today with that two decades ago in a detailed paper that was beyond my comprehension.

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Some students, names withheld for their privacy, related their birth and development in the context of the LGBTQ struggle not just for acceptance and equal rights, but for their basic human rights. Two papers focused on the health and beauty ads I ignored. Iana Enriquez focused on slimming advertisements then and now, and drew insights into the changing notions of beauty and what kind of aspirations were inspired by these ads. Doy Ceniza from another class looked at the same beauty and wellness ads noting that these were aimed at women rather than men. When she commented on these ads as proof of the “exoticizing of women,” I commented that today we have the “sexualization” of both men and women. The paper also made reference to the infamous economic briefing conducted by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, derailed by a reporter who asked how much sex she was getting as president. Mrs. Arroyo replied: “Plenty.” Next day, what little reference to the economy was drowned out in the news by the president’s sex life.

Reading the papers of my students was like going into their world, and I admit, I probably learned more from them than they did from me. Their papers revealed a sophistication I did not have when I was their age. Worse, some students found my columns on the day they were born. I felt old as a dinosaur.

After sharing their research, we processed the experience. Some students concluded that history repeats itself. COVID today was SARS yesterday. The Ukraine war today was the Iraq war yesterday. Old newspaper headlines on crime, corruption, natural disasters, and even personalities like Juan Ponce Enrile were eerily familiar. The world had not changed much since the day they were born. But history is about hope, not despair. History cannot repeat itself because it has no mind of its own, no power over us. Rather, it is we who repeat history because we don’t know it, or ignore it at our peril. Thus, the challenge of this exercise was knowing the past, changing the future. What can we do so the present will stop reading like the past?

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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