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Maureen Justiniano    Better PR for Philippine history

Ever wonder why well-known Philippine historian Ambeth R. Ocampo’s “brand of history” is so popular with the Filipino public while his different approach to history remains a bane to the existence of many conservative Philippine academics, who basically had to struggle just to sell several copies of their books? While I would consider the traditional and often ‘dry’ academic historical approach to be as interesting as Ocampo’s more “revisionist” and often tongue-in- cheek approach to history, most Filipino readers would beg to differ.

You see it all depends on whose approach would be less boring to the readers. But even that is not going to guarantee a captive audience for the mere fact that we are dealing with history, period. Unfortunately, with history’s reputation as simply being a compilation of names and dates – a definite recipe for inducing a temporary catatonic state of boredom to unsuspecting students and the public in general – no one wants to be on the receiving end of a historical discussion or lecture, unless you are one of the few and the “proud” (or brave) who would actually admit that they like history.

I admit, I’m one of the few and the “proud” who love history (in particular, Philippine history). That is why I am used to the blank-stares and “kill-me-now” expressions I often get from my own siblings whenever I start on one of my tirades about Philippine history. Fortunately, many of my friends are subtler in expressing their boredom when I talk about history. (That’s why they are still my friends.) They usually just nod their heads and hope that I’ll eventually get the hint that it’s time to talk about something else.

Frankly, I don’t blame them for their reactions because they were used to learning about history in the Philippines through “memorization without understanding” (borrowing from, and slightly changing the title of Renato Constantino’s monograph on Jose Rizal, “Veneration without Understanding”). As a result, they come to expect that Philippine history is nothing more than a never-ending list of names of heroes and villains (which one is which, is up for interpretation) as well as historical places and dates only meant to be memorized and then, regurgitated during quizzes and exams.

This kind of approach to the study of Philippine history doesn’t exactly help to draw in interested individuals. In fact, the end result is quite the opposite. This approach actually forces people to run for the hills when someone mentions history, or Philippine history.

Of course, one can argue that this method of teaching Philippine history to Filipinos fosters stronger nationalist ideals and greater love for the motherland. Yes, I do agree that it does help promote strong nationalism; however, it is done so through “the miseducation of the Filipinos” (borrowing again from another Constantino’s title). What I mean by this is that because Filipinos are conditioned in school to memorize rather than to analyze history, we tend to just take in the information without really understanding the context where it was derived from, or even checking whether the source of the information is credible or not.

Are you familiar with the Kalantiaw Hoax or even the name Jose E. Marco? (See Paul Morrow’s article in his website on this.) Well, all Filipino children grew up knowing the list of laws by Datu Kalantiaw, which is supposed to prove that the natives of the archipelago were already civilized even before the Spanish arrived. It turned out that everything was a hoax and the forgery was actually created by this Jose Marco.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of the Philippines and the Office of the President have given out the Order of Kalantiaw awards to 206 retired justices of the Supreme Court and international dignitaries until the National Historical Institute under its director, Ambeth Ocampo, issued a formal statement in 2005 that the Kalantiaw Code was indeed a forgery. Frankly, I would not be surprised that there might be other historical documents that historians had been referring to for the longest time that might also turn out to be forgeries of Marco or other individuals.

Basically, what I am trying to get across is that Philippine history is not static (or boring) because it is meant to engage and to challenge Filipinos to take part in the open discussion of their history. Ambeth Ocampo, in fact, has succeeded as a historian to convince the Filipino public to appreciate their history and to see the connection between their past and their future. His “brand of history” is popular because he makes history accessible to everyone. I can only aspire to be able to do the same.

Maureen Justiniano is currently working on her second Masters degree in Southeast Asian Studies and this coming fall, will begin her PhD in Southeast Asian history (specializing in the Philippines) and Comparative World at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also the Filipino Language instructor at UW-Madison. In addition, Maureen is one the founding members of ANAK and occasionally, contributes articles in the ANAK column.


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