Speech: Living History through Heightened Literacy

Living History through Heightened Literacy
Reading History Critically
by Manuel L. Quezon III

Ladies and Gentlemen, Good Morning.

First of all, I would like to thank Mrs. Elena Cutiongco, President of the Reading Association of the Philippines for having honored me with an invitation, on behalf of this association, to address you today. I would also like to thank Ms. Elena Mingoa and Ms. Felicitas Pado, Secretary of the RAP, for having the patience to follow up the invitation through most of the month of February. I was ill most of that month and it was only in mid-March, I think, that I was able to finally confirm my acceptance. I am very proud of the fact that you have given me the opportunity to share some thoughts with you this Sunday morning.

The letter of invitation from the association mentioned that ‘Having read your columns, we feel that you can help us awaken our participants’ interest in history.’ The letter further informed me that the theme of this conference is ‘Living History through heightened Literacy,’ and suggested that my talk to you today should be on ‘How to Read History Critically.’ And while the President of the Association was gracious enough to give me full rein to ‘repackage’ the topic as I saw fit, I decided that the topic given to me is what the association would want to hear about. So I have decided to stick to it.

I am here primarily in my capacity as a professional: a journalist and opinion writer. But I am also here as a student, which is a particularly thrilling thing for me as it isn’t very often that students get to address educators. So I am here as a writer who likes to attempt to put a historical perspective on some of the topics he write about, and who hopes to qualify some day as a historian, and as student who has to wrestle with the process of clarifying the perspective I will assume when I earn my degree and can be called a historian. Two -perhaps three- hats which I will be assuming today.

Now in academe there is a fashionable view which I reject, possibly marking me out as an outright reactionary -at least from the point of view of the proponents of this view of History. Since History is classified as a Social Science, this fashionable view believes that the subject must be approached in a ‘scientific’ manner, which basically seems to consist of using a lot of jargon when writing historical papers and articles. I suspect that this ‘scientific’ style of writing history is naturally a by-product of a belief in historical determinism and dailectical materialism which has become entrenched in some departments of history. Now before you consider me even more reactionary than I myself admit myself to be, let me make it clear that I have nothing against a socialist orientation in history. It is, by its nature, progressive, and breathed new life into the study of our past. You only have to compare the history written by the old school, say Zaide, and read the history written by Renato Constantino to realize how much more thought-provoking and profound are the works of the elder Constantino.

No what I object to is how the -yes, revolutionary- breakthrough in perspective and analysis begun by Constantino and others, has become entrenched and has degenerated into the sort of stuff that gets published in ponderous, extremely respectable but eminently unreadable academic journals and other publications. These articles come out and are discussed among the equally learned peers of their learned authors, are consigned to the shelves of libraries, and if ever a student must sift through them, he derives no joy from the process -unless, of course, he has been so brainwashed as to enjoy that kind of writing. In which case the student would most likely make sense of his sufferings by thinking of them as some sort of rite of passage which can only have horrible results: a culture of unconcious vindictiveness in which teachers try to maintain a style out of the mistaken belief that since it is inscrutable, it must be intellectual. This is frightening.

It is frightening, because it leads to history becoming a collection of cryptic manuscripts which the average citizen would be well advised to avoid at all costs. Not that he or she would probably even bother to make sense of it in the first place. Who wants to engage in the mind-numbing effort of sorting through technical gobbledygook, even if it is supposed to be about your favorite hero? I mean many people are fascinated by outer space, but who will read a scientific journal or paper on nuclear isotopes? No one in their right mind will. Which is fine. Consider that physics is the sort of thing which can be left in the hands of the experts, because they are the only ones qualified to find practical applications for their theories. Physics, mysterious as it is, I can happily leave in the hands of the experts becuase they know what to do with it.

But what about history? If history evolves into the kind of thing which only experts can understand, and talk about with any sort of confidence, then it will surely disappear or at least become transformed into something like the temple rites of a cult: mysterious, incomprihensible, slightly scary and deeply suspicious. Most of all, it would cease to have any value whatsover becuase history doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t widely disseminated and understood. History, really, is supposed to be the common memory of a race, which provides a foundation for our own individual experiences, or personal histories. It is a set of markers which provides a frame of reference for our journey through life.

Most people are too busy undertaking the day-to-day business of living their lives to pay attention to these markers. Once in a while, though, people get it into their heads that they want to learn something about the past which they never had the time to learn about previously because they were so busy making the extra cash to pay for their vacation. These people suddenly bursting with curiousity (and usually a little extra cash) are called tourists. They might decide to invest in hiring a tour guide to point out all the interesting and entertaining things they never knew. And they are quite happy to be herded from place to place like a herd of laughing cows to look at the sights and be in awe of the stirring events which took place there.

This is the way of the world, and a lucky thing for people who like history and want to make it their vocation. The ability to provide goods and services being the sole means by which a person can hope to food on the table, it’s fortunate indeed that people who like to learn about the past can find a way to turn this knowledge into a means of supporting themselves. It is the rice and fish of the historian. Of educators, such as yourselves, in general, too, with the difference that while general education, and particular academic disciplines are necessary, history isn’t (and yes, many subjects classified under ‘the humanities’ as well).

This may all sound very pedestrian to you, classifying the nurturing and the spread of knowledge as goods and services, but that’s the way things are. We keep hearing all sorts of things about the ‘Third Wave’ of human development, of history, really, which as I understand it can be described as the Information Revolution, in contrast to the two previous waves, the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. Now tell me, how is history supposed to be part of this Third Wave, and a fulfilling vocation, not to mention a desirable good or service, if it becomes incomprihensible? Going back to my little tourist analogy, it’s logical to assume that a tour guide, who talks way above the heads of the people who hired him or her to provide them with information, will rapidly lose business and might even foster a lingering resentment against tour guides in general among his or her dissatisfied clients. This would not only be sad, but unfair to tour guides and their profession as well.

If you carry the analogy a little further, what would be worse about this situation is that it might kill the desire to learn more among the tour guide’s clients. And carried further still, it would be tragic if one viewed it as a worthy goal not just to have people gawking at sights, but people -a citizenry- who would one day stop being a happy herd and actually get into the habit of engaging their tour guides in mutually benificial dialogues: in other words, thinking and involved tourists .

A thinking and involved citizenry: isn’t that the goal of education? thinking and involved citizenry: shouldn’t that be the dream of anyone who loves, writes about, or teaches history? It should be.

Personally I view history as a discipline which does have its own ‘scientific,’ method, by which I mean that there are certain standards within the discipline according to which individual works are created and their contents judged. But this I consider to be in the realm of fact-gathering, facts being merely ‘the brutes of the intellectual domain’ as an American jurist put it. From these facts you create history which is meant to be read by other people of widely divergent opinions and intelligence. You not only want to inform them, but entertain them as best you can. This doesn’t mean pandering to them or talking down to them, or engaging in frivolous discourse -which seems to be an objection held by some in academe to attempts to make history ‘popular’ or relevant. I remember one professor speaking contemptuously of a real historian who writes a widely-read column in another newspaper. He sniffed that that writer only wrote about ‘trivia.’ My reaction was, hooray for trivia! If trivia makes you think and care about the past, I’m all for it. You cannot say (a) the people are too stupid to understand such things, and this subject is too exalted to be treated in such a bakya manner, or (b) the people are too attached to their prerevolutionary ways to understand the way history really is from a perspective masquerading as a progressive ideology. These attitudes are both -and I am sure some people will resent this- elitist, pure and simple.

What I am getting act has to do with the over-all theme for today’s conference: ‘Living History through Heightened Literacy.’ You see if the goal of education is not just to cram people’s heads with facts, but to make them develop a feeling for history, a feeling that history is part of their being, then certain conditions have to be met and the challenge they pose, met. The essential conditions are these: they must know the basics, which gives them the confidence and motivation to think critically, and which fosters the desire to learn more. The challenge facing all of us here today, you the educators and I, the writer, are how on earth do you satisfy these conditions?

First, educators must grapple with a situation which may not be acknowledged, but which I tell you exists. The vast majority of our people, who have been herded from one history and social studies class to another, year after year, emerge, at the end of their academic experiences, knowing nothing -or worse than nothing!- about our history. And some of these people, in their turn, become educators themselves. I will tell you a true, and shocking story.

I have a friend now studying in what is considered to be one of the top three unversities of the country. A couple of years ago, when he was still a freshman, he asked me to help him study for a history exam. So I did. Basic stuff. Somehow, the subject of where the Philippines got its name came up. ‘Wasn’t the Philippines named after Philip of Spain,’ my friend asked. ‘Of course, I said. How can you be a freshman in college and even have any doubts,’ I asked him. My friend replied, ‘Oh no, I was sure, just checking. You see my teacher in fourth year [high school] told us the Philippines was named after Philip the King of Spain and the Pines in Baguio.’ I was dumbfounded. ‘Maybe your teacher was kidding,’ I asked, hopefully. ‘Oh no,’ my friend assured me. ‘She even said it a couple of times.’ Now let me tell you this was a teacher in one of the most ‘exclusive’ private schools in the Southern part of our metropolis. Can you imagine the number of students running around now with this highly eccentric idea of where our country got its name?

Uusually, of course, since teachers are human, too and make pardonable mistakes, courses in school, particuarly in the primary and secondary levels, rely on a basic textbook which contains essential information for the student, and on which the teacher’s lessons are supposed to be based. Any history textbook, if read with attention, would contain the information that the Philippines was named after a grim and workaholic king -and that alone- and that our name isn’t a hybrid contruction composed of that gloomy king’s name and the name of a type of tree which grows in Baguio. Which goes to show you just how attentively the average student reads his or her textbooks.

I don’t blame the students for not bothering with their textbooks. Theyr’e a penance inflicted on students and their parents by schools and book publishers who operate on the assumption that in order to produce something affordable, you must cut costs by printing the books on miserable paper and not care one bit as to how readable and eye-catching they are. Color and innovative presentation are viewed as dispensable luxuries. This is an outrage. I studied abroad from 7th grade to part of 11th grade, and let me tell you that while some of my teachers weren’t exactly bubbly characters, my textbooks were certainly lively. They were full of interesting pictures, extracts, and additional facts besides the main text. Now as to the main text itself our textbooks, particularly the one by Agoncillo, could hold their own against theirs, but it is in the added details that the shortcomings of our own textbooks are revealed. Theyr’e downright primitive, absolutely crude. An insult to the student and the teacher, a slap on education in general.

To be fair, the fact that our history textbooks are appallingly grey and boring is due to several factors beyond the control of teachers and even the schools. The first, as I said, is the view held by the publishers that in order to produce books that are affordable, they have to be crudely printed to keep down costs. Why do they have to keep down costs? Becuase parents aren’t willing to pay a lot of money for a textbook.

Why is this so? Becuase parents have no guarantee that the government, the Department of Education, might suddenly decree that all the textbooks have to be junked because new guidelines have been issued, which in turns leads the schools to issue new lists of required textbooks which parents are meant to comply with. As an aside, another factor may be a persisting colonial mentality among our book-buying public. For a nation with one of the highest levels of literacy in the region and the world, our book-buying sector is quite small, and among this segment of the population a habit persists which can only be attributed to the lingering effects of our colonial mentality. A nice paperback book published abroad costs about three hundred pesos, which is, I agree, a lot of money, but apparently not too much considering how foreign books in this price range have flooded our bookstores. This means that book buyers are willing to buy them at that price. They consider the books worth it. And yet books written and published by Filipinos, often superior in style and of far more relevant subject matter, cannot be sold at that price.

Consider that for a locally-published book to be considered a runaway best seller, it should sell about five thousand copies in its first year of publication, or so I was told. Usually publishers are satisfied if a thousand or so copies are sold, at least they recouped their investment which is usually the only thing they hope for (and note that out of the thousand or so copies the author himself is responsible for selling say, a hundred or so copies alone to his friends and relatives!). In fact most books published seem to be written off as a loss; the only reason they come out at all is because the publishers make enough money selling cookbooks and self-help books to subsidize the publication of so-called ‘serious’ works, fiction and non-fiction. If parents don’t even want to spend what they’d normally shell out for a foreign book for a local book, how much more so will they be inclined not to shell out a decent amount of money for a textbook which their other children may not even be able to use at all?

Still, while these may be the conditions at present, I think it is no justification for coming out with lousy textbooks. We’re a smart and creative people: let us come up with ways to deal with these handicaps. First of all, schools should consider adopting the practice used in other countries, where the school owns the textbooks, which are assigned to the students and returned by them at the end of the year. The student only pays for the book if he or she damages it or loses it. The cost of the book can then be spread out, and it can be said to pay for itself after a while, say three or four years, when it wears out and has to be replaced, which might be the time when the books are due to be updated anyway. So instead of four students -the number who will use one book during its lifetime- shelling out say P150 each a year, you could come out with one nice book which costs, say P350 pesos, and yet each student, through his tuition, would actually only be paying something like 87 pesos! I think this makes sense and is possible, given a little coordination between the DECS and educators.

Another problem of course, and a thorny and controversial one, which involves our strong tradition of centralized everything, is the fact that we have a guerrila war of sorts going on between schools run by religious organzations and the authorities of the State, which is a secular institution. The State attempts to enforce ‘standards’ which are either ignored or evaded through the use of loopholes and deception: this at a time when the basic facts of history are supposed to be taught. The result is some students know their history better than others becuase other students went to schools where the authorities decided that they had their own interpretation to foster and maybe things to downplay if not hide. The clearest evidence for this is presented by the never-ending controversies surrounding the teaching of Rizal’s novels, which, it is alleged, some sectarian schools have reduced to a reading option when their reading has been mandated by law. Later on in life, in colleege, how are you supposed to get an intelligent discussion of Rizal’s works going if you have to devote two weeks to informing people ignorant about the Noli and the Fili about their significance and their contents?

Anyway, let me tackle one more aspect of the problem of textbooks in preparation for my tackling the problem of at what point should people be expected to begin reading reading history critically.

A distinction needs to be made about what is expected of a student when it comes to studying history at a particular age. It’s obvious that one progresses as time goes by -or so it is hoped- and that as one goes through school. one becomes progressively more knowledgeable and discerning. The way I see it, the following are the minimum expectations teachers can have of their students: at the end of the elementary level, students should know the basic facts, things like the more widely-accepted important names and important dates and events. At this age it isn’t bad to be obsessed with names and dates, students are memorizing all sorts of things like multiplication tables anyway. During high school, students are expected to know the context in which the names and dates they memorized during their elementary years took place. They should learn enough background material to add the scenery to the road signs they memorized earlier on in life. It is only in college that students should be expected to relate the road signs and the scenery they learned about in their previous 12 or so years in school, with their own lives and the life of the society in which they are beginning to take their rightful place as adults and responsible citizens.

If this is so, why then do so many college students take History 101 or its equivalent, and use the the same textbook -usually Agoncillo- that they used in 4th year sometimes even 3rd year, high school? This can only mean three things. Either the previous 2 years of high school history weren’t enough, or the one year of Philippine history in college is superfluous, or, considering at the end of all this they end up not having absorbed anything anyway, all the years weren’t enough or were useless.

Please think about this, becuase this should tell you that something is very very wrong about the way history is being taught. The only chance in their lives that students will be made to look at their past as young adults, as men and women on the threshold of productive lives as involved citizens, is squandered by their elders.

But let us accentuate the positive and presume that the students have reached college armed with the basic facts and background about their history. How then will you get them to read critically?

Well, students being what they are, by forcing them read, and read widely, which involves not making it an ordeal for them to find the things you assigned them to read. Time should be spent reading and digesting the material instead of engaging in a scavenger hunt for hard-to-find, crumbling texts. Since the students have already absorbed the
basic facts, and can distinguish the difference in time between the now controversial first mass at Limasawa and the now controversial presidency of Emilio Aguinaldo, now is the time for them to perhaps read an actual eyewitness account by a Spaniard of that mass, and some manifestos issued by Aguinaldo. Not just that, now is the time to tackle the controversies that surround the event and the person. This will force the student to make up his or her own mind about the events and personalities and questions concerned, and will make them relevant to him or her.

You see the student perforce will have to develop a point of view, either diametrically opposite that of the teacher, which is fine and healthy, or in agreement with the teacher, which is nice as well, oe somewhere in between, which I think is best of all, as it reveals that the student is his or her own person. As the eminent British historian Lytton Strachey, who was in many ways the father of the modern biography-as-history, wrote:

What are the qualities that make a historian? Obviously these three -a capacity for absorbing facts, a capacity for stating them, and a point of view. The two latter re connected, but not necessarily inseparable. The late professor Samuel Gardiner, for instance, could absorb facts, and he could state them; but he had no [point of view; and the result is that his book on the most exciting period of English history resembles nothing so much as a very large heap of sawdust.

In elementary, then, we learn facts and how to absorb them; in high school we learn to state them or to use an ugly word, contextualize them to a certain extent. In college we must learn to have a point of view with which to make sense of our history, otherwise it will have as much meaning for us as a ‘very large heap of sawdust.’

How then will you actually foster critical reading of history? By presenting a wide menu of choice reading material for the student to sift through and duscuss with you; you may have to collect these readings yourselves and put them together for your students, sort of your own, personal version of Fr. de la Costa’s Readings in Philippine History . Most of all, you have to prod, challenge, even argue with your students over what they have read and what they think and feel about what they have read. It will require great patience and confidence on your part, not to mention tolerance and sympathy. You must guide their reading, but not read for them. You must discuss the readings with them but not indulge in egotistical monologues. You must correct basic mistkes but accept the autonomy of the student to disafree with you. You must challenge to go beyond mere reading, but understanding and questioning. You must give them the tools to detect bias and yet be unafraid to hold your own biases, so long as they are clearly revealed as such to your students for their own evaluation, acceptance or rejection.

In the end, the challenges are great and handicaps all educators work under in a developing country should stimulate creative solutions. You see if our elders cannot be creative, and show their critical awareness of the situation, how can their students be expected to do so.

Simply put, the only way to foster the critical reading of history is to remain critical readers yourselves, eternal students in a way, eager to share, and, most of all, willing to be partners in the journey toward discovery and knowledge.

Thank you and good morning.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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