Filipinos have often been accused of not caring about history. It is a luxury, as this thinking goes. They do not have time to pause, dig deeper, find context, and pore over books and readings of the past, since they are forced to live in the present. Isang kahig, isang tuka.
My concern with this thinking is that, aside from putting all the responsibility on the shoulders of the already few, overburdened, and underpaid history teachers and historians, it also removes people’s innate self-agency—the agency to find meaning in who they are derived from their own pasts and to find significance in what they do in the present.
That is what history ultimately provides.
We forget that a part of our humanity’s core, an almost universal drive, is to rise above our present predicament, to be restless until we find our place in the sun and discover the purpose of our lives in the context of a continuing and unfolding story—to find out who we are from our origins and the role we must play in the grander scheme of things, hoping to make a difference and build a better future.
To be dismissive of this restlessness is to be thrown to and fro by presentist waves, without direction, without significance, without dignity. History then, is not just a hobby or a luxury for those who have time and resources, but an important tool for recalibration, an essential part of our human experience, a window through which Filipinos will find, warts and all, our true selves.
But history has been muddled in our people’s understanding. At the shallowest, it has been reduced to memorizing dates, names, and places, detached from its rich context. At its worst, it is repackaged as a mere opinion, tsismis, or both-sideism, defanging the discipline. Nevermind that real history begins with the rigors of the time-tested historical method—a method in which historians go straight to the primary sources, test and corroborate these sources with other sources of the time, assess the motivations of these sources, and with the best of the historians’ ability and investigative hunch, gather these into an organized data, and in consideration of the complex contexts, make sense of these, ensuring that all voices of the past, even the conflicting ones, are heard, to arrive at a comprehensive and impartial conclusion. The entire investigative process is transparent for all historians of the same caliber to criticize and challenge. The conclusions of historical research give rise to narratives that are essential in nation-building.
History gives us the right mindset to recognize what is fair and true.
But narratives derived from the Past can be ahistorical. Removed from the rigors of the historical method, these narratives can exaggerate or trivialize certain events and dismiss evidence, ready to be peddled by propaganda machines. Propagandists, from the Japanese occupation in 1942 to the present, know that narratives derived from the past always resonate.
While propaganda is emotive, triggers resentment and anger, and distorts parts of the past to put forward its agenda, history calls for calm and pause. It opens up the path to discovering uncomfortable truths about ourselves and uncovering the pretenses upon which propagandistic ideas are built.
History provides answers to the earnest seeker and the diligent investigator. These answers are historical for the mere fact that they refuse to be comfily boxed into ideological frameworks or partisan use–answers that many politicians try to hide or ignore to sugarcoat their reputation and put themselves in power.
I have long gone beyond that feel-good view that history’s purpose is to find “pride” in being Filipino. Such a view of history is shallow, even dangerous, because it falls prey to far-right nationalism. It could easily shove the dark side of the past under the rug—that record of quiet subservience and colonial collaboration, of leaders’ foolish decisions and stupid blunders, our peoples’ tragedies, and even horrifying atrocities—in Jose Rizal’s words, a record of “so much shame, crime, and abomination.”
No. History, in all its fullness, is so much more.
When we are soaked in the past realities of our people, we familiarize ourselves with our own peculiarities and commonalities; no matter how frustrating things get, we know a drop can become a ripple then a tidal wave, as seen many times in our history.
History ultimately gives us the tools to be better human beings, to gain a critical mind, to have a renewed appreciation of our rights, and our space in the national public square to actively engage our kababayan. The perspectives gained in historical research make us see the evolutions of generations, societal issues, and aspirations. We understand that our present political and socio-economic headaches are rooted in the past and that as these problems have snowballed from before our time, the solutions do not come easy. They take time. We therefore learn to be patient. We learn to pause and think, to fairly judge our station and the problem before we react. Since we know how problems developed, we can start the solutions from somewhere, name the names of the ones responsible, demand recompense, and devise lasting solutions.
History makes us hopeful. When we are soaked in the past realities of our people, we familiarize ourselves with our own peculiarities and commonalities; no matter how frustrating things get, we know a drop can become a ripple then a tidal wave, as seen many times in our history. Human rights lawyer and statesman Jose W. Diokno, staring at the camera in 1983 with all confidence brought by his familiarity with Philippine history, once said: “It looks impossible for my people to get out of this trap. But we will. I know my people. Even if we have to wade through blood and fire, we will be free. We will develop. We will build our own societies. We will sing our own songs.”
History dignifies our ordinary realities. When we discover those who lived in the past, how they lived their lives given their social and economic context, and what motivated them in making their decisions that ultimately shaped our present, we learn, from across space and time, empathy and understanding, a renewed appreciation of the need for justice, and the need to acknowledge and know the memories of Our People, most especially those who have long been silenced.
Apolinario Mabini said we must “teach our minds to recognize truth” and to “train our hearts to love it.” He continues, “The recognition of truth shall lead us to the recognition of our duties and of justice, and by performing our duties and doing justice we shall be respected and honored, whatever our station in life.” History gives us the right mindset to recognize what is fair and true.
In this postmodern age, when truth is trivialized, when history is dismissed as mere tsismis or subjective interpretation, when concepts such as justice and democracy are framed not as universal values but as Western ones to be set aside in the name of pragmatism, order, and progress, history shines. It is alive in the Filipino. Deep down, the thoughts that keep us awake at night are the same and it animates our realities. And much of that, distorted or not, are derived from our views of the past.
The challenge lies in the uncomfortable conversations we have to make, in this ongoing project of nation-building, in the dismantling of our preconceived notions of what history has been made to appear, and in the discovery of what History can be when it is freed like a lion from its ivory cage.