Learning About History

I’ve recently discovered that I love finding out about the history of places and their people. I love hearing about or looking at pictures of what a place looked like, what events shaped it to what it is today, and the experiences its people went through.

It could have something to do with my tendency to brood about the past–not a hobby I would recommend to anyone. It could be about being able to travel and appreciate other places–something everyone should try to do.

It could be the people I met at my first job after college.

They were such a patriotic bunch. My boss had me walking up and down Manila City’s old streets, looking at old land records, searching for History books and CDs, chasing after maps from engineering departments to find out what Metro Manila looked like before we all decided to cover up its waterways in the name of development. I had been living and studying for four years in the nation’s capital, and I had never been to historical Manila. I got lost all the time. I loved it.

I remember one scorching afternoon when we walked the alleys of Manila to look at its esteros (estuaries). We found ourselves resting and eating fried bananas in one street stall in Quiapo near Quezon Boulevard. An old resident we struck up a conversation with told us that the pavement we were sitting on used to be a waterway. It blew my mind. I tried to picture the place with water beneath our feet. It was also sad. Having all these esteros covered up or heavily polluted is a major reason for Manila’s flooded streets during the rainy season.

These were the moments that stirred my love of History. It was about being there, seeing the place, talking with people, and most of all, having someone strum a chord in my mind about why I should care in the first place.

Why did it take so long for me to appreciate History? I had about 40 minutes of it everyday back in high school. I had all the time to read about it, talk about it, and ask my teachers about it.

I guess it wasn’t important enough in my young mind. But I recall talking animatedly with a classmate about some of the things we read in our books. We were in our fourth year and the subject was World History. We were fascinated about the pharaohs of Egypt, and we were laughing about the names of their gods (no offense meant). We were interested.

We were just not interested during class.

In fact, those 40 minutes of History or Social Studies was torture. All our teacher did was to assign randomly a country or two to each student to report on. So Classmate One would stand in front for about 20 minutes, and rattle off the form of government in a country, its flag and what the design and colors meant, how their economy was doing, what their presidents did, what their people did…zzZzzZz…We all dozed off while our teacher interrogated Classmate One, checking to see if he or she did the homework right. It was a thesis defense, really. Then, it was time for Classmate Two to report on his or her assigned countries. This happened every day. There were no discussion and sharing of ideas and picking of the mind. It was boring. It felt useless.

Like in elementary, History in high school was all about memorizing people, places and dates. If you were good at memory work, you would ace the exams. But all this knowledge didn’t really instill in us what I think the study of History should fundamentally do–give us a sense of who we are as a people and as a nation, and infuse in us a certain love of our country (that also includes so we may not repeat the mistakes of the past, of course).

Perhaps if we taught History differently in basic education, we would have more Filipinos caring about our heritage, more Carlos Celdrans and Howie Severinos, who lament the destruction of structures that showcase our culture. I am no teacher, but I know what it was that got me hooked to learn as a student.

And it was definitely not all the memorizing and monotonous lectures taken from textbooks. If teachers were going to speak and students memorize or report about what were written in the books, then we might as well just read the book and take the tests.

There is nothing wrong, of course, about lectures and memorizing facts in class. But our classrooms have got to be more than that if we are to appreciate subjects like History.

As a student, I learned most when my teachers, the good ones, went beyond books and lectures and let us experience what they were talking about. In grade school, a History teacher brought us to Plaza Quince Martires and asked us to find out the names of the 15 martyrs by locating them in the monument. Instead of reading out the names and making us memorize them, she involved us in the learning process by letting us find out for ourselves. This way, we also discovered that that plaza wasn’t just put there to spice up downtown Naga City. It was made to honor Bicolanos who died for the country.

Indeed, there is truth in a Chinese proverb often used in trainings: “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”

‘Involving’ doesn’t only mean students going on field trips all the time. In fact, without competent guidance, these trips may not become educational at all. Involvement can also come from the classroom experience. In high school, a Filipino subject teacher had us conceptualizing and executing plays to depict Jose Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere. There’s a whole lot of learning and creativity that sprang from that aside from getting to know the characters of Crisostomo Ibarra, Maria Clara, Padre Damaso or Pilosopo Tasyo. Dormant talents, particularly for the arts, were discovered, too.

I also learned better in the classroom when teachers involved us in discussions by asking stimulating questions and being interested in what I and my classmates had to say, even if these went against the teacher’s personal views or my Catholic school’s dogma. My all-time favorite teacher, the late Madam Judy Altea, asked us questions such as, ‘Should there be divorce in the Philippines?’, then she’d make us explain our stand. She welcomed questions from us–a classmate even asked her why she chose to be single–and she respected us by answering them completely and honestly. This she did in our Homeroom class, a subject I felt no teacher took seriously except her. Her main subject was Mathematics, and it was the only time in my student life that I enjoyed Math. Now if only Madam Altea taught History!

Involvement can also go a little personal. Learning can start by triggering a student’s understanding of the importance of History. It can begin with an assignment that is related to the student’s family, such as finding out how his or her parents met, what they experienced during the Japanese occupation (if they were alive already), or how they ended up in Naga City, for instance, if they were originally from Albay. I can’t recall any teacher giving us an assignment like this. But I think it could have been a fun way of appreciating History.

Of course, aside from the teacher being competent to teach using various techniques, it also helps a lot if the teacher loves to teach. I probably came to love History because my boss who got me lost in Manila loved History. It was simply infectious.

Ken Robinson, a writer and leading adviser on education and creativity development, said: “Great education depends on great teaching.” I think love of country can start from a good handling of our History lessons. And that will depend greatly on having great teachers.


2 thoughts on “Learning About History

  1. Hehe. 4th year World History. Oh my. Ako rin I learned only thru self-study. That class was useless. Reporting ek-ek. Sorry, Madam G. haha.
    I’ve become a fan of Ambeth Ocampo recently lang, thanks to my sister who is a Filipino History fan. i have his books and even attended a couple of his lectures sa Ayala Museum before I migrated here. There is so much to learn about our heroes and historical events!


    • Hehe,yeah, some HS friends hold the same view in our yahoogroup. Ambeth Ocampo! I have to read more of him. Yeah, so much to learn! I have to read more. Haha! Thanks, Jen 🙂


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