Escape from history
One of the welcome reforms in the teaching of college-level Philippine history resulted from the new K-to-12 curriculum that moved many general subjects now crowding the first two years of college to high school. In the past, Philippine history was taken up in grade school, high school and college with little or no change in content and structure. No wonder university students found Philippine history more potent than a sleeping pill, or Valium. In the new college curriculum, six units of Philippine history will be taught: the life and works of Rizal as mandated by law (three units) and Philippine history using primary sources (three units).
Instead of relearning, or being forced to memorize, forgettable dates, hard-to-pronounce names, and irrelevant events from the past, students will now be challenged to form their own opinions through the primary sources used by textbook and academic historians. For example, instead of reading a textbook summary and probably biased account of the Battle of Mactan, students will be given the relevant text from Antonio Pigafetta’s eyewitness account of the battle from where
Lapu-Lapu and his men emerged victorious. While Pigafetta was, of course, biased and described Magellan as their “Mirror and Light,” students can read the same text and try to imagine it from
Lapu-Lapu’s viewpoint although he had no chronicler and left us with no record of the battle.
Grappling with the primary source—written at the time of the event, by a participant or eyewitness—trains students in critical thinking. It helps them form an opinion not based on emotion but on facts or hard data. With this kind of history, perhaps people will stop speaking from how they feel but how they think after analyzing a text.
This early I am reading and setting aside primary-source texts that can be arranged to form a story of a nation, a story that traces where we started in order to situate students in the present, and help them look at the future with hope. A change of heart happened when, after I wrote in 1998 the landmark 100-day front-page series on the revolution and the emergence of the nation, Inquirer editor in chief Letty Magsanoc asked: “Why do you have such a negative view of the past?” At the time my reply was that I was only narrating what I read from the sources.
Sixteen years older, and hopefully wiser, I have realized that this negative view came from the compilation of sources itself. I started to see the five-volume compilation of documents by US Capt. J.R.M. Taylor, “The Philippine Insurrection Against the United States,” in a new light. These volumes were chosen from a mountain of other documents, and while I saw the present in those papers from the past, I realized that Taylor chose documents, not to show the challenges that faced Emilio Aguinaldo and the First Republic, but, rather, to show that Filipinos were incapable of self-government.
When I look at the 25 volumes of Jose Rizal’s collected writings on my reference shelf today, I wonder: What papers were left out of these by accident or design? When Rizal wrote to his family about keeping all his letters so he may refer to them at a later date, it shows that he was writing for the future. When he told his family that some of his letters should be read and shared by making copies, it made me ask: What about the letters he destroyed? Or the incidents he left out of his journals, just as he wrote some entries in code? These show that Rizal was editing, and he left me with 25 volumes of primary sources that will reflect what he wanted me to see.
In the US Library of Congress in Washington, DC, you will find papers that were taken by American soldiers from Aguinaldo’s headquarters when Malolos fell. These papers were taken home as souvenirs by the victors, and one day they may change the way we see and understand the First Republic. On some of these state papers, one will see the small, almost feminine, marginal notes by Apolinario Mabini that give us an idea of the inner workings of the Aguinaldo government.
Reading these papers can be very engaging because they seem to reflect some of the issues our own government faces today. Is this the past repeating itself? Or is it we who are repeating history? I think students should learn Philippine history in order to liberate themselves from the past.
Rereading Pedro Achutegui and Miguel Bernad’s compilation, “Aguinaldo and the Revolution of 1896: A Documentary History,” my attention was drawn to a handful of documents on cattle-rustling in Cavite in early 1897. In one document, Baldomero Aguinaldo aka Mabangis noted that one night in January 1897, near the waterfall in Mapagibig (Amadeo), the households of Andres Mendoza, Juan de Leon and Juan Mendoza were robbed of seven marked carabaos. In another circular, Mabangis asked for a list of all known cattle-rustlers in the area.
These documents reminded me of my childhood when, after an outing in Tagaytay, my mother would drop by the market to buy fresh meat that she claimed was cheaper than in Manila. My father remained in the car and laughed as he told us that beef was cheap in Tagaytay because you only needed rope for investment (tali lang ang puhunan). Cattle-rustling seems as old as history when seen from the primary sources, so how do we liberate ourselves from the past?
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