Qwertyman for Monday, May 8, 2023
I HAVE a subscription to the New York Times, which I enjoy for its features and commentary as much as its news coverage, and the other day my attention was piqued by a small headline: “It’s Not Just Math and Reading: US History Scores for 8th Graders Plunge.”
According to the article, recent test scores reveal that young Americans (about 13-14 years old for eighth-graders) have become much less knowledgeable about their history and civics over the past decade—with 40 percent scoring “below basic” and only 13 percent ranked as “proficient.”
I immediately wondered how our students would score given similar tests. Would they be able to answer even simple questions about why Ferdinand Magellan sailed to the Philippines, what prompted Filipinos to revolt against Spain, why the Americans occupied us, what led to our involvement in the Second World War, and what martial law and EDSA were all about? I’ll probably be safe in my prediction that they would score dismally, from what I’ve seen in my own classes in UP (yes, in UP), where I’ve been dismayed to find a yawning ignorance of history and literature among my students, supposedly among the best in the country.
Don’t get me wrong: these are bright, idealistic kids, desirous of all things good for their people and their families. They perform well in class and will likely succeed in whatever career lies ahead of them. But when I ask a roomful of English majors if they know or have read NVM Gonzalez and only a couple of hands go up, I get worried. When I ask when or what year the Americans arrived to conquer us and I get strange answers like “1945,” I get worried.
However shocked we may profess to be, we can’t blame the students. In 2014, following the passage of the Enhanced Education Act of 2013 or the K-12 Law, the Department of Education issued Order No. 20, Series of 2014, effectively removing Philippine History as a high school subject and subsuming it as an “integrated subtopic” under “Asian Studies,” supposedly to provide students with a wider global perspective. The idea sounds nifty, but as many educators have since pointed out, its practical effect has been to dilute the teaching of Philippine history to the point of oblivion. The result is that we have young Filipinos with no knowledge of the most basic facts and issues of their past, and no appreciation of how that past brought us to where we are today.
That vacuum has been an open invitation to misinformation and historical distortion, the stock-in-trade of political propagandists, trolls, and spinmeisters. It’s become much easier to sell myths like a golden age under martial law to impressionable youngsters who were never told or taught the truth. Not surprisingly, Order No. 20 has been attacked by its critics as a means to lobotomize the youth and to render them more susceptible to alternative narratives (aka fake news) concerning our history.
And yes, I have to acknowledge that all this began under the late President Noynoy Aquino, a champion of K-12, whom I prefer to believe had no such nefarious motives in mind, as he and his family would have had little to gain by erasing history. But the policy was upheld and sustained by the following administration, with DepEd Secretary Leonor Briones arguing strenuously that History (including our martial-law experience) was being taught in Grade 6 under Araling Panlipunan, and again in high school as a component of Asian and World History.
Given the current DepEd’s expressed desire to review K-12, it might be a good time to test how effective that policy has been: just how much Philippine History are our high school students learning and retaining? How much should they know by the time they get to college, where thornier issues such as nationalism, agrarian reform, and foreign policy will be threshed out in all their nuances?
Long before these questions arose, it was a common complaint among students and even teachers that our problem with History was how badly it was taught, often as a collection of names and dates rather than a coherent narrative (which I must say I sometimes wonder about, fact often being stranger and messier than fiction). We generally agree that History should involve more reasoning than rote memorization. But as the New York Times reports, “That emphasis can contribute to a troubling lack of background knowledge,” with experts observing a “rapid and very significant decline in what students know about history and geography—like the fact that Africa is a continent, not a country.” So the basics of names, dates, and places remain important—getting the facts straight before getting into more complicated arguments.
It’s even more troubling to note that on top of this decline in historical knowledge and awareness among young Americans, there’s now a ham-fisted effort from conservative politicians to purge school curricula of what they see as “woke” content—subjects that have challenged the longstanding impression of America as a nation forged by whites. Governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis—eager to present themselves as the flag-bearers of political and moral rectitude—have supported moves to eliminate African-American and LGBTQ studies from the curriculum. Others have called for banning books that threaten their view of traditional America, including books titled “The Infinite Moment of Us” (a young adult novel about love and sex) and “How to Be an Antiracist” (a nonfiction book about racism and ethnicity). This reminded me of how some Philippine state universities, not too long ago, went on their own book-banning spree, on some silly suspicion that books by such authors as National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera were “subversive.”
The New York Times piece came with an irresistible teaser: a brief five-question, multiple-choice history quiz for readers to test themselves on how well they know American history. I scored four out of five (failing a question about post-Civil War reconstruction)—not too bad, I thought, for a guy living seven thousand miles away. But then I come from a generation schooled on American textbooks, who know American history and geography better than many Americans. That’s a topic for another column.
In the meanwhile, let’s ask ourselves: how well do we know our history, and how important is that knowledge to understanding our present and shaping our future? Is “Maria Clara and Ibarra” pointing the way forward?