Notes & Essays

Everyone Should Learn History. But How Should It Be Told?

On Philippine history: Should it be told in context to the nation or to the globe?
IMAGE Philippine Information Agency / Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco, Official Gazette / Ninoy: The Willing Martyr.
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History must be learned and read, but how must it be told? This is the challenge of historians and historiography today.

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Historiography, or the act of writing history, is not just a matter of scouring through dank archives, conducting long-winded interviews, or narrowing one’s data to pure facts. Historiography is how we interpret the past, and history is the base of that interpretation.

To write history is to neither treat nor consign it to a juridical exercise, for historiography narrates and makes sense of the past. But it’s also up for interpretation and such a narration is always the domain of contested views and innumerable disputes. So, historiography, for better or for worse, should not and will never escape the context of the moment it was written.

Historians carry the weight of our past, and making sure it’s told the way it should be, on their shoulders.

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The challenge to Philippine historiography is hard, to say the least. Not only is Philippine historiography facing the crises of politics (shout out to historical revisionism) within its premises and shifts in collective perspectives, but it is also subjected to the overarching framework of education, most notably state-sponsored education. Worse, Philippine historiography is a fragmented terrain, wherein questions about whose view and whose history matters more is still a matter of exhaustive debate.

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And this leads to the relative detachment of those who write history and those who read it. One of the relevant concerns in this day and age, especially resonant across the new generation of historians, is if Philippine historiography should take a ‘multicultural’ or a ‘transnational’ approach.

Figures such as Patricio Abinales, Lisandro Claudio, and Nicole Aboitiz seem to promote this tendency through their monographs, whether in book-form or in journals. They are further reinforced by the Southeast Asian scholar Benedict Anderson, and the late Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” concept in particular, which attempted to simultaneously furnish a political philosophy of nationalist imaginings, how they maintain those imaginings, and also by linking these nationalist imaginings through various historical figures, as broad as Jose Marti of Cuba, Macario Sakay of the Philippines, and Marco Kartodikromo of Indonesia.

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As such, this inclination is gaining momentum from younger scholars who are experiencing the monocultural globalization of the world first-hand, while also aware of its drawbacks.

An international approach will allow us to properly trace the beginnings of ilustrado radicalization and their exposure to outside ruminations, and its contributing effect on the 1896 Philippine Revolution.

But this has a major caveat; the very notion of a history written from a global point of view produces an unintentional focus on figures and voices from the top, either assimilating the musings of those below or in extreme cases, neglecting these musings altogether.

In short, it will be the narratives of an elite few, instead of the masses, that will be written for future generations to read.

In contrast to the global approach are those who either lean or affiliate themselves with the “Pantayong Pananaw” concept of Zeus Salazar. Salazar, deeply influenced by German metaphysics and French structuralism, would argue for a ‘new history’ based on the Filipino heritage considered from a wholly Filipino syntax and outlook.

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In spite of his background as a Europeanized intellectual, Salazar heralded “Pantayong Pananaw” to be the main progenitor of restarting the debate of history as interpretation confined to evidence versus history leaning towards internal concerns. In hindsight, “Pantayong Pananaw” proved to be controversial, and at the same time a provocative challenge to how one should go about recounting history. 

Salazar’s entire system of thought is heavily criticized on grounds of promoting a ‘nativist’ reaction to an otherwise positivist discipline, with accusations of Fascist leanings a staple of misgivings, which can be traced back to Salazar’s contribution to Ferdinand Marcos’ “Tadhana,” a planned twenty-one volume trilogy of Philippine history written for the purpose of legitimizing the goals and ideals of the “New Society.”

This is made more likely by Salazar’s stress of using the ‘national language’ as the only acceptable manner of discourse to narrate the story of a nation or group. Another point of friction stems from “Pantayong Pananaw’s” “taal” or the essence of a nation, a postulation known for its emphasis on diluting and muddling class analysis intentionally in favor of rendering such concerns secondary, though Salazar’s division of culture between ‘masa’ and ‘elite’ highlights the lingering presence of a westernized mentality.

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These almost irreconcilable pathways among multiple pathways on how to approach Philippine history shows the constant diversification of the field. However, the plethora of questions on how to approach and interpret Philippine history raises a concern that is relevant to the general public: in which direction should Philippine historiography go? 

One can recognize the indispensable utility of both, and its capability to sustain each other. For Salazar’s "Pantayong Pananaw," which has supplanted the nationalist historiographies of Teodoro Agoncillo and Renato Constantino, the internal turn is a significant departure which continues to break new ground. The globalist approach, on the other hand, is a recognition that the Philippines is not an isolated place, and is tightly integrated to the regional and transnational proclivities than one would have thought of previously. 

So, as new ways of retooling and reconstructing the past are conceived, theorized, and practiced, these two possibilities will have to mingle and consider themselves as integral to a larger project outside of the concerns of the academe and even historiography itself.

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These arguments, erudite as they may seem for the flatterers or even divorced from the concerns of the general public for their detractors, are integral on shaping on how we interpret the past in line with our present surroundings. In a country mired with extreme disparities between rich and poor, and constant frustrations directed even to our very foundations, history will often be political, for better or for worse.

To quote the novelist and socialist George Orwell, who penned his musings on the importance of history in his magnum opus 1984 some seventy years prior: he who controls the past controls the future, and who controls the present, controls the past.

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