Sign of the times: Reviving Philippine historical education

Most Filipinos become aware of our country’s history within the four walls of the classroom. In subjects such as Sibika (or HeKaSi), Social Studies, or Araling Panlipunan (AP), they grow familiar with Lapu-Lapu’s bravery and Dr. Jose Rizal’s sacrifice. With the help of colorful flashcards, students learn to recognize the symbols of their heritage and culture—the baro’t saya, the carabao, the sampaguita, and many more. 

However, some would argue that the concepts taught in these subjects barely scratch the surface, as nuances of our history are overlooked and instead cast into neatly-packaged symbols, where students are primed to view our national identity in a certain way. To complicate things further, the recent removal of Philippine History as a subject in the High School portion of the K-12 curriculum has limited the already lacking role of the subject in basic education.

As the country commemorates the 500th anniversary of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s arrival in the Philippine archipelago and his subsequent defeat at the Battle of Mactan, discourses on how to view the colonial portion of our history intensified in social media.  Educators, students, and people passionate about Philippine history all weighed in on the legitimacy of celebrating the arrival of Spain and Christianity. The liveliness of such conversations highlights the need for a strong foundation in historical education, which the removal of the subject in the basic education curriculum has made more difficult to achieve. Therefore one must ask, what is the role of historical educators in a world where historical fact—and even fiction—circulates freely online? 

Unclear motives

Jamaico Ignacio, president of the High School Philippine History Movement and AP teacher at the Ateneo Junior High School, witnessed firsthand how the Philippine History subject was quietly omitted from the revised seventh grade curriculum in 2014 and replaced by Asian History.

A lot of teachers like Ignacio were left hanging by the Department of Education (DepEd) who gave no concrete reason for the major changes. “Teachers were frustrated, especially those who’ve been teaching Philippine History in high school for, what, three or four decades because Philippine History has always been a pivotal part of the high school curriculum ever since the American period,” he remarks.

He explains that the only clear response provided on the removal was in an opinion column in 2017 made by DepEd Secretary Leonor Briones, who argued that the absence of the subject is justified because the topics in Philippine History are “naturally integrated” into the areas already covered by other subjects.

However, Ignacio argues that the same curriculum makes it difficult to seamlessly integrate Philippine History into other subjects, saying, “[Teachers] will need more time, contact time, hours, logistics, [and] resources in order to quote-unquote, include Philippine History in those subjects.” 

The curriculum only allots at most three hours a week for AP, compared to major subjects such as English, Filipino, Science, or Math, which are each given at least four or five hours a week. “Ang magiging priority ng teachers ay ‘yung main content nila, not necessarily other subjects or add-on subjects such as Philippine History,” Ignacio adds.

(The priority that these teachers will focus on will be their main content.)

The power of the teacher

The significance of Philippine History as a subject has everything to do with the importance of the teacher and the classroom as this is where most students cultivate their awareness on the nation’s history. Thus, it is important that students should be given the opportunity to explore and reflect on the stories and ideals of the nation’s founding. 

However, not all stories are given equal attention. Jose Alain Austria, a History professor from De La Salle-College of St. Benilde, argues that some sensitive issues such as the realities of colonialism, the marginalization of indigenous peoples, and the atrocities of the Martial Law era can be left undiscussed as people are more concerned with instilling patriotic fervor than confronting and learning from the wrongs of the past.

“We were brought up [with the notion] that history is about trivia: the first, the oldest, etc. [The study of history] is not like learning for a quiz show. But rather, it’s learning about the story [of a nation] and how to make sense out of that collected experience,” Austria emphasizes.

He also points out that this fear of navigating sensitive issues in the past can doom us to repeat the same mistakes. “You cannot serve the nation by feeding [the people] feel-good stories,” he asserts, “The truth, whether it’s bitter for us to swallow, is necessary for us to study.” 

Beyond the classroom

But as important as teachers are, they are also limited by time and resources. As a result, social media becomes a battleground for modern historical discourse as familiar lessons are deepened, expanded, and even contradicted. Austria believes that while “fake news peddlers” would not be able to hold a candle to the integrity and legitimate scrutiny brought upon by historical researchers and educators, their influence on social media is a looming threat that can undermine the telling of historical truths.

“In staying in the ivory towers of our history departments, we allowed these alternative histories to flourish,” he laments, “Now that the damage has been done, we historians realize [that] ‘my goodness, why have we lost connection to our audience?’”

Other fronts such as libraries, museums, and cultural centers then are assigned the role to aid teachers in bridging the gap between the historical field and the wider audience. “If you would rely so much on teachers behind them and the burden on the teacher might be too much na, ‘di na niya alam kung saan ang direksyon.” 

(They would not know where the direction of their teaching would go.)

Allies of historical education

The removal of Philippine History from the high school curriculum has brought into the spotlight problems that have long existed in historical education. Hence, in the call to bring back Philippine History to high school, there is also a need to improve how the subject is taught.

Ignacio’s High School Philippine History Movement is drafting a position paper that calls for the return of the Philippine History subject and the establishment of an  inter-agency body comprised of curriculum experts education, and History majors to allow for a revised curriculum that advocates for teaching historical knowledge with a structure that garners student interest and retention. 

“[We want] to force the experts in education and history…to create a curriculum and [a] set of resources that [are] digestible, fun, and at the same time, trains the critical mind of students [and] is relevant to the historical narratives of the people,” he says.

As this movement gains traction, Ignacio reminds educators of their important role not only as nation-builders but as people-builders of greater social and political participation.  He contends, “If a teacher show[s] the historical truth of our nation and trains their students to be critical thinkers, they will carry it throughout their lives. They can be influential in pushing students [and] the community into participation.”

Deo Cruzada

By Deo Cruzada

Matthew Gan

By Matthew Gan

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