this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on August 20, 2009.

For most college and high school students, history is a subject one has to slog through. If one is lucky, one studies under a fun, lenient teacher. However, history is not always considered an important subject comparable to mathematics or English.

Neither does history seem to feature prominently in public debates about our education system. True, certain subjects for debate (e.g., Jose Rizal versus Andres Bonfiacio for national hero, the “real” date of Independence Day) have become old standbys. However, one will notice that the topics tend to be quite narrow. They only deal with specific dates or historical personages. They do not reflect the idea that the very scope, or if you like, the frame, generally used to teach the subject is highly questionable. It can be argued that this frame is gravely limited, to the point that we must question whether “Filipino History” is really being taught to us at all.

It would help to understand this issue better if we examine “The History of the Filipino People” by Teodoro Agoncillo, a staple of public and private education at both secondary and tertiary levels. Agoncillo’s attempt to encapsulate the entirety of our history in one text is laudable for ambition alone: it is one of the few texts that tries to tackle all of Filipino history, instead of focusing on a specific event or time period (i.e. the martial law years or the Philippine-American War). However, it is inevitable that some critical readers will come up with various things that it should have included, but didn’t. Sometimes, these are small events that can be passed over without too much damage to the merit of the work. On the other hand, there are glaring omissions. For example, the predominantly Islamic peoples to our south and the indigenous peoples to our north barely feature in Agoncillo’s wider narrative. They are mentioned in his geographic/cultural overview of our country in the introductory chapters of his book, and then they disappear from the picture. It is as if to Agoncillo “the Filipino people” only refers to the dominant cultural group of lowland, predominantly Roman Catholic Malays.

Agoncillo’s book is symptomatic of a wider phenomenon. Most other history books mainly focus on the history of central and southern Luzon and the Visayas. There are some books on Mindanao and the northern indigenous groups, but they are often cultural studies rather than historical chronicles.

Such an oversight has grave implications that reach far beyond the academe. If we are to build a nation, it makes sense to pay extra attention to the foundations—not just the logistics and institutions, but intangible things like shared history and a sense of unity. Our idea of our past is an important aspect in the formation of a strong, inclusive Filipino identity.

Of course, one cannot—and should not—simply rewrite the history books to suit the political needs of the present (there are ugly words for that kind of thing). An effort should be made to widen our perspective on history so that it includes everyone, not just certain ethnic groups. This is not only politically desirable, it is also only fair. All Filipinos, no matter what tribe or province they hail from, deserve to be treated as builders and stakeholders in our country’s past and future.

It will not be easy to resolve this issue. The various ethnic groups in our country have developed along separate lines for so long that it might not be possible to incorporate their histories into one overarching narrative. In that case, we might have to study multiple parallel narratives in order to come up with a more inclusive picture.

There is also the matter of the absence of written records, especially in the case of indigenous groups. Historians—and the students who will study their textbooks—have their work cut out for them. But then, mere inconvenience cannot be a reason to block large chunks of the population out of our past and, in effect, the formation of our future as a people. As Filipino citizens, as human beings, the marginalized sectors of our society deserve our effort.

The violence and fragmentation that have wracked our country over recent decades show that the rifts and scars run deep. Formulating a shared history is, therefore, necessary: not to artificially fill in the gaps, but to show us that even though we may be shouting to each other across a great divide, both sides are part of the same territory. We need a history that is truly Filipino, in the sense of telling the story of all Filipinos, not only the part that fits into a single narrative thread.

As far as Philippine History is concerned, it is high time to change the curriculum, or change the title of the course.

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