Looking Back

How we became the way we are

While there is some pessimism regarding the implementation of the K-to-12 program, I believe it is a bitter pill we have to swallow for long-term gains. Some countries will not employ Filipinos, regardless of the graduate and postgraduate degrees they hold, if they lack two years in the 12-year basic education that is now the worldwide standard. We are just talking here of years clocked in, and not even venturing into the issue of the basic education curriculum and the effective delivery of its content.

Over the years, watching my favorite nephew grow, I have always inquired about his history class in an upscale private school to compare it with my own basic education, as well as that given to public schools. I marvel at my nephew’s school that both delivers an appreciation for facts (narrative and memorization) and develops critical thinking.


Once, my nephew asked his mother to make him a conquistador costume for a report he was to deliver in class. He wrote the text himself and memorized the story of Pedro Alvares Cabral, who “discovered Brazil.” When he ran the report by me I asked, “Were there people in Brazil when Alvares Cabral arrived?” After he replied with a big “Yes,” my follow-up question was: “If there were people there, how could Alvares Cabral discover Brazil?” At this point my sister stepped in, worried that her son would be confused or, worse, flunk his history class. I assured her that if critical thinking became a problem, I would speak to the teacher myself. To my surprise, my Grade 3 nephew reacted to the arguing adults by declaring: “Alvares Cabral did not discover Brazil. That’s why we refer to them in school as explorers rather than discoverers.”

How I wished he had made a report on Ferdinand Magellan instead. How I wished I had this kind of history class when I was in Grade 3, a class that imparts the difference between history (narrative of the past) and historiography (how historical narratives are constructed).


When Prof. Danilo Madrid Gerona titled his recent book “Ferdinand Magellan: The Armada de Maluco and the European Discovery of the Philippines” he rightly asserts the Filipino point of view. It is a nationalist reading that can also argue that maybe it was the islands, later named “Filipinas,” that discovered Magellan!

Remember that Magellan named the islands “Islas de San Lazaro” because he “discovered” them on the Feast of Saint Lazarus in 1521, while the name Filipinas was given by Villalobos in 1544 to the islands of Samar and Leyte, when the archipelago was then known as the “Islas del Poniente” (Islands of the West). Imagine if we didn’t adopt the name Filipinas and became Filipinos. We would be “Lazareans” or “Lazareanos” today. Worse, we could even be referred to as “Ponientas,” which resembles Gen. Antonio Luna and Manuel L. Quezon’s favorite expletive.

I grew up with a history based on nationalism that rightfully rejected the colonial periods under the Spanish, the Americans, and the Japanese. What I find wrong with this in retrospect was the hatred for a time we cannot return to, a revulsion for a history we cannot reverse or change. When I teach history, I try to help my students develop an open nationalism in tune with the globalizing world, rather than repeating the xenophobic anticolonial nationalism I learned during the 1960s.

Referring to the Magellan Expedition as the European discovery of the Philippines, while correct, requires some retooling to be more inclusive. When Magellan arrived in Cebu in 1521, he found a busy port with Arab, Thai, Chinese and perhaps Japanese traders passing through, carrying goods from all over the world. These foreigners trading with Rajah Humabon neither needed to discover the Philippines nor wished to colonize, civilize, and Christianize its people. What we should learn from the Magellan Expedition today is how the Europeans and the “Filipinos” discovered one another in 1521, and how this encounter made us into what we are 400 years since.

There seems to be no national committee preparing for the 2021 commemoration of this encounter. I hope that when it is organized, its members would look into the way the Columbus Expedition was commemorated in 1992, not as the “Discovery of America,” but as the more inclusive and politically correct “encuentro de dos mundos.” It was an encounter of two worlds: the old (Europe) and the new (America), each with its own culture and history.

A Unesco document on the 1992 commemoration not only explains the encounter but also describes it as: “a unique opportunity to reflect on the circumstances and consequences of the meeting of peoples and of their cultures, on their successive borrowings from, and contributions to, one another, and on the resulting transformations that have so profoundly affected the general evolution of mankind.”

Reading that in 1992 weaned me from the anti-Spanish and anti-American Philippine history I learned in school. Now that I am older, and hopefully a wee bit wiser, I see how the past can be relevant, to push the present into the future. The way history is taught in schools provides Filipino students with a choice to wallow in the past and blame it for all our present ills, or to be liberated from it by understanding the process of how we became the way we are.


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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Columbus Expedition, education, Ferdinand magellan, History, K to 12
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