Wednesday, January 05, 2005

History cannot be objective

History cannot be objective

Updated 09:28pm (Mla time) Jan 04, 2005
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A13 of the January 5, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

AT THE BEGINNING of each semester, I require my students to go to the library and dig up the newspaper on the day they were born. Fortunately, the Internet is useless for this exercise, which requires physically going through a Philippine newspaper in hard copy or microfilm. They are also instructed to read the newspaper of the next day, if only to get to know what the Philippines was like on the day they came into the world. To validate their research, the students are made to ask their parents what they remember aside from having a baby on that day. Most of the parents do not recall anything significant, while the few who do are often proven wrong by the newspapers. Thus, the lesson to be learned in this research exercise is that sometimes parents are the most unreliable source of information.

When I read the papers submitted, I feel ancient, seeing that my students were born at the tail-end of the Marcos period. I must really be Jurassic since I grew up thinking that the Marcoses came with the tacky, gilded and over-carved furniture in Malacanang. For my students, the only connection with Marcos they have is Borgy the model, and that's a different story, even if both loved to lift their shirts and flaunt their abs.

Most students complain that nothing earthshaking happened on the day they were born. They wanted big news like the World Trade Center crashing down or the tsunami that recently devastated South Asia. Writing this makes them realize that good news is not news and does not normally appear in the papers.

There are no great omens that come with the birth of most great people, or if there were, then people did not notice. If we were to look back on the Christmas story, a giant star shed light on a manger in Bethlehem and nobody paid any attention, except three Magi carrying absolutely useless gifts for a newborn baby. Shepherds nearby had to be frightened by angels to take any notice.

What students find surprising is the peso-dollar exchange rate that is so far from today's P56.12 to $1. I'm probably old enough to be a parent to my students, but like them, I cannot imagine what my father describes as a Philippines where the exchange rate was P2 to $1.

Historical research is a way to see the world in a different time that information can be enjoyed purely for itself or can be used to give perspective to the present and the future. In 1978, Gilda Cordero Fernando put together a landmark book, "Turn of the Century," which gave us the word "coffee-table book." These lavish books under the GCF imprint were literally placed on the tops of coffee tables for guests to browse while waiting for a meal or their host. I enjoyed these books initially for the pictures, because they were so big and heavy one could not read them comfortably in bed. It was only later in life that I actually read the text and was surprised that the authors were a venerable lot: Teodoro Agoncillo, Nick Joaquin, Doreen Fernandez, Nicanor G. Tiongson, Felice Sta. Maria, Lorna Kalaw Tirol et al. Despite this, some academics snorted that GCF books were trivial or fluffy. Now that sounds really familiar: those terms have been used to describe this column and my teaching two decades later.

There was solid research in GCF books, but the format made it accessible. The only thing inaccessible here was their price or the fact that some people bought them for show rather than reading. I'm sure some parents probably told their children not to touch the coffee-table books for fear of soiling them.

One of my traumatic experiences was arguing with a librarian who wouldn't let me photocopy three pages from a GCF book. She gave me a lecture on copyright and intellectual property when whole books were being photocopied under her nose. GCF books were sacred.

Today, libraries are not that strict when you photocopy pages for personal or academic use. With sophisticated phones, you can photograph anything in a museum or library without asking permission.

Technology has changed, but the task of historical research is still the same solitary exercise of going to a library or archive to read. Reading the newspapers on the day they were born gives students a taste of historical research, writing about it makes them analyze and put data together into a coherent essay. If they just copied out the material, or worse photocopied the newspaper and submitted it, they get a low grade. But if they tried to make sense of the news and attempt some sort of interpretation from their perspective, now they are getting somewhere. If they compare and contrast the past and the present, it gives me great satisfaction and it merits a better grade.

History cannot be objective as we would want it to be. When given a mass of data, the historian has to use some and discard the rest, and this alone makes his work subjective.

I always tell my students that if you want to read something objective, all they have to do is read the white pages of the telephone directory from A-Z. Now, that is objective. When your fingers do the walking into the yellow pages, it is the next step, arranging the data in some form other than alphabetical.

As we return to school this week, I do hope my students learn something from my crazy assignments.


Blogger jen said...

yes,history cannot be objective entirely or absolutely as it cannot be subjective...History is a total clash of objectivity and write,you make, you study, interpret and read history using those two...we base history from facts, on observable phenomenas but we also relate it to the present and see its value in our own interpretations that is modified by our own prejuices, is a also subjective.

"History cannot be absolutely objective as it cannot be absolutely subjective."

June 14, 2005 at 10:01 PM  

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