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From Where We Sit

Teaching Philippine history

Jessie Carpio

In my recent visit to the shrines and castles of the Japanese cities of Osaka and Kyoto, I noticed that elementary pupils, in groups of five to 10, were being guided not just by their teachers but also by elderly persons who appeared to be explaining to them the history or the significance of the places we were visiting. I, of course, assumed that was what the older guides were doing as they gesticulated vigorously while talking (in Nihongo, I suppose). I believe this is how elementary educational field trips should be conducted—focused and in small groups, especially if they involve young and impressionable kids.

But how is Philippine history taught now in our schools, and how different is that from the past? Are historical field trips really effective and necessary? During my time in primary school, decades ago, our history class was just a matter of memorizing the names of protagonists, events, places, and dates. I could tell you who killed Magellan but I did not imagine a wily Lapu-Lapu strategizing, setting up a trap, leading his men with bolos and spears against a technically superior group using guns and swords as led by Magellan. I knew that Antonio Luna was a general but nothing else beyond that. Thus, the movie, Heneral Luna, was an eye-opener for me. Moreover, I never went to any educational field trip. I saw Luneta and Fort Santiago only when I was in college. To me, history was taught really without its “lessons.”

Why is history taught in such a manner? We have a rich history—our ancestors fought battles with the colonizers; be they Spaniards, Americans or Japanese. We have heroes and heroines who gave up their lives for our independence and freedom. In recent history, we accomplished the first non-violent people-power revolution that became a template for other similarly situated countries. Given this background, we have good materials for teaching history.

However, we find that memorization still rules the day. How do we explain that? Is it because we have no sense of collective nationalism that we have no affinity to the greatness of our ancestors? Is that the reason why we are oblivious to the manner of teaching history as a subject? Our celebrations of independence and the death anniversaries of our heroes are dry and uneventful. Is our apathy handed down from one generation to the next?

So how can history be taught better? How do we teach history in the age of social media? How do you make history appealing to the millennials? I know that field trips alone could not be the answer. They are important for sure; but when looking at teaching, we look primarily at two things: the educators (school teachers plus the parents) and the materials used in teaching. These two are critical elements, yet mainly interdependent.

An excellent teacher of history, my daughters assured me, is Ambeth Ocampo. According to them, Mr. Ocampo, who was their professor, makes teaching history fun. He brings pictures to class, tells anecdotes and stories, bringing historical characters to life. Not only does he bring them to life, he makes them human; a character someone can relate to. In Mr. Ocampo’s class, Rizal was not doing patriotic things all the time. He had “good times” too, went out with friends and got drunk.

Making history fun is actually a lot of work. What is hidden from the surface is the extensive amount of research that Mr. Ocampo does. And there goes the challenge to the teachers of history—how far-reaching do you prepare for your classes? Do you do your own research and really make effort to understand your historical characters? And, to us parents, do we know enough to explain history to our kids? Do we have stories to share that will make them appreciate these historical characters? If educators are not conversant enough of the past then they have nothing to share. Consequently, teachers (and parents) rely heavily on their teaching materials; and so the teaching method reverts to memorization.

With heavy reliance on the teaching materials, the content and structure of the materials become critical. History books are replete with stories, mostly anecdotes, of our heroes and the villains. The key ingredient (and the one usually missing) is putting the stories in the right context—the culture and the norms, the politics, the economy, etc.—in short, the zeitgeist or spirit of that time. This is the other challenge to the educators—providing context to the stories in history books. How does one provide context if one had not done research and prepared properly? Or what if there really is nothing to provide?

We obviously have several challenges to address and government educational agencies like the Department of Education (DepEd) and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) will have to step up. They should enrich the contents of history books with the proper context and should make the teaching method more interactive and into pop culture like what Ambeth is doing. Also, DepEd and CHED (or maybe a non-government organization) should prepare short videos and upload the same on YouTube. Meantime, we can start with meaningful and educational field trips, and we can encourage and patronize movies with historical significance. History is important to every nation. We should take the study of history thoughtfully.

Jessie Carpio is the President of P&A Grant Thornton Outsourcing Inc. P&A Grant Thornton is one of the leading Audit, Tax, Advisory, and Outsourcing firm in the Philippines, with 20 Partners and over 700 staff members.


As published in The Manila Times, dated 15 June 2016