How Philippine Education Contributed to the Return of the Marcoses

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

How Philippine Education Contributed to the Return of the Marcoses

The inclusion of factual errors and blatant misinformation in school textbooks has provided fertile soil for the historical revisionism of the Marcos clan and its allies.

How Philippine Education Contributed to the Return of the Marcoses
Credit: Depositphotos

Back in 2018, I spoke in front of big group of teachers from schools across the country about the challenges of Social Studies education. One of the challenges I mentioned at the time was the rise of negative historical revisionism, most notably in the form of efforts to present former dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, his family, and the Martial Law period in a positive light.

During the open forum, a teacher from a school in Northern Luzon asked how something can be labelled as historical revisionism, or worse, a distortion of history. She said that no one can really say what is true in history; that it has always been matter of perspective and interpretation. The accusation that the Marcoses were engaged in a perverted form of historical revisionism was therefore just a propaganda of the “other side,” which wanted their preferred interpretation of history to be the canon. She was truly passionate about her views, and was close to tears as she spoke.

This incident might sound surprising to those who are knowledgeable about history and Martial Law. However, in my experience as an educator and teacher trainer for the last 15 years, it was an expected response to discussions related to the Marcoses and Martial Law. Of all the topics in Philippine history, these have proven to be among the most contentious for teachers, and produce the most passionate exchanges. There are many reasons for this: regional loyalties, differing Martial Law experiences, and access to information, among others. Whatever the case, it is safe to say that it is a cause of concern when teachers themselves – those charged with the education of a future generation of Filipinos – question the facts and legacy of one of the darkest periods in Philippine history.

Issues in Martial Law Education in the Philippines

As the Marcoses have gradually crawled back to the heights of national politics, commentaries have abounded on how they were able to harness the power of social media to rehabilitate their image for a post-People Power generation. There have also been commentaries on how the Marcoses have successfully allied with prominent political clans in the past in order to strengthen their bid for national leadership, which culminated with the victory of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. at this month’s presidential elections.

One topic that needs a more detailed discussion, though, is the role that education played in the rise of the Marcoses over the last three decades. Some articles have raised concerns about Araling Panlipunan (Social Studies) textbooks that contained errors and misinformation about Marcos Sr. and Martial Law. In such books, the former strongman is usually presented in a positive light, as a benevolent dictator who had to use force to cure society’s ills.

As a content editor for Philippine History textbooks, I have seen firsthand how factual errors, carelessness, and even blatant misinformation have escaped scrutiny, making it into manuscripts, and even into print at times. As I have discussed elsewhere, I once raised a concern with a publishing house after the writers of their Philippine History textbook copied an erroneous write-up from a heavily criticized post from the Official Gazette in 2016, which claimed that Marcos had “stepped down” from the presidency in 1986, instead of being ousted by the People Power Revolution. The government’s communications department eventually edited that segment after a public uproar.

Policing history textbooks in the Philippines can prove to be a daunting task for academics, historians, and even the Department of Education, since textbook production in the country has been liberalized since the ouster of Marcos. While the Department of Education still has control on which topics need to be covered and which learning outcomes to measure, they have very little control over the actual content of textbooks. What we see in our textbooks is the product of many factors, such as the authors’ personal beliefs and knowledge, the editorial staff’s assessment and recommendations, and of course, the business side of textbook publication.

It is important to discuss accuracy in textbooks because in the Philippines, most Araling Panlipunan (AP) teachers are not history majors and thus rely heavily on textbooks. This poses a challenge for the sector, since prior to the Philippine educational reforms enacted in 2013, most AP subjects at high school level dealt with history: 3 out of 4 subjects, the only exception being economics. It is hoped – and expected – that schools and teachers would invest in faculty development to address this issue. But the reality is that there is very little incentive for most AP teachers to invest in content specialization after already investing in becoming accredited teachers. Given this reality, it is of the utmost importance that quality of textbooks are used in classrooms.

An equally pressing concern is how Martial Law is discussed and analyzed in both textbooks and classroom instruction. A study spearheaded by the Far Eastern University Public Policy Center in January 2022 found that discussions of Martial Law in selected AP textbooks were fairly limited, despite the significance of the topic. This was also true in the classroom. Since Philippine history is usually discussed in a chronological manner, topics like Martial Law and the People Power Revolution tend to come at the tail end of the curriculum. Given the amount of topics needed to be covered by AP teachers in one school year – along with the usual class cancellations brought about by incidents such as typhoons – Martial Law is often not discussed with the length and depth it deserves. In some case I have personally seen, it was not discussed at all.

There is also the issue of presentation, emphasis and interpretation of Martial Law. For example, how was corruption during the Martial Law era discussed? In many instances, too much focus was given to the corruption of Marcos cronies, and not to that of the Marcos family itself, which could have been easily facilitated by presenting Supreme Court rulings recognizing the extent of the clan’s ill-gotten wealth. Without a solid discussion on the Marcoses direct hand in corruption, we run the risk of perpetuating one Marcos myth: that the family was not corrupt, but were surrounded by corrupt individuals who took advantage of their position.

Another common topic in the discussion of Marcos and Martial Law was the president’s massive infrastructure projects. Again, in both textbooks and classroom discussions there has often been a tendency to highlight this aspect of Marcos’ rule, citing living symbols such as the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Lung Center of the Philippines, the Philippine Heart Center, and the San Juanico Bridge, among many other projects, without an adequate discussion of the context surrounding them. For example, one must adequately discuss the costs of infrastructure development such as the ballooning international debt, the absence of transparency, and corruption, and even the simple fact that Marcos was in power for more than 20 years. One must also discuss which types of Filipinos benefitted most from such projects: ordinary Filipinos, or his cronies and other Filipino elites? Without such scrutiny, one will inadvertently reinforce another Marcos myth, the idea that the era was a “Golden Age,” despite the irrefutable fact that the Philippine economy was in rubbles by the early 1980s.

A further concern related to Martial Law education is how it is processed, evaluated, and appreciated. A common pedagogical approach in teaching AP topics is to ask students to look at two sides of the topic, identifying both the “positive” features and effects and the “negative.” Applied to Martial Law, infrastructure development is usually logged in the positive column, and human rights violations in the negative. In the end, students are usually asked to weigh the positive and negative aspects of Martial Law and make their own conclusion and evaluation. While such an approach may have its merits, one would hope that the teacher will process the experience accordingly and encourage students to judge this period in history based on our values as a nation, as well as universally accepted values. If done this way, students and teachers should reach a clear answer on the legacy of Martial Law.

Unfortunately, “judging” is not a task many educators like to do, and this, I believe, is one of the biggest issues in Martial Law education in the Philippines. In my experience as an educator, I have found that a large number of teachers hesitate or refuse to judge this period in history, some due to personal bias, some out of fear or insecurity, and some based on a false notion of objectivity. The legacy of Martial Law then, is reduced to a matter of personal opinion, something that is extremely dangerous in this age of post-factualism. Such a belief can only benefit those who hold power in society, such as Imelda Marcos, who made this bold statement in the 2019 documentary “The Kingmaker”: “Perception is real, truth is not.”

Education in the Age of Marcos Jr.

Even as academics and educators grapple with the multitude of problems in Martial Law education today, they face an even bigger challenge with the victory of Bongbong Marcos in the recently-concluded polls. Academics and concerned citizens are already calling for people and institutions to protect books, documents, and other sources related to Martial Law and Marcos crimes, fearing that they may be lost or inaccessible once Marcos Jr. takes office.

The concern is valid to say the least. Bongbong Marcos, along with family members like Imee Marcos and their mother Imelda, have always asserted their family’s innocence, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Bongbong himself once called for textbook revisions, saying that these books contained “lies” about the Marcos family. Despite these efforts, the Marcoses have so far failed to institutionalize their version of history. The game is different now, though. Whereas before, they had to do it via alternative sources of information like TikTok, YouTube, and Facebook, now they have the power to institutionalize the perverted version of Martial Law and Marcos family history that they have been preaching for decades.

The family actually began process of institutionalization during the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, knowing full well that the president was an ally. In 2016, for example, the Official Gazette was heavily scrutinized for a revisionist post making the 99th birth anniversary of Ferdinand Sr. In the same year, Marcos Sr. was buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani – the cemetery of national heroes in Manila. Imagine what they can do now that they are in power, with a very strong political mandate. It is also concerning that just a couple of days after the election, the presumptive president announced his plans to nominate his running mate, and presumptive vice president, Sara Duterte as education secretary. Her nomination was both disappointing and alarming; disappointing since education has never been her focus, and alarming because of her ties with the Marcoses.

A Call to Arms

While the victory of Marcos was a big blow to educators, it was also a call to arms. Now more than ever, educators from all over the country must reassess how Martial Law is taught and evaluated in schools and even in public discussion. Admittedly, academics – and the educational sector in general – became complacent after the ouster of Marcos in 1986 for varying reasons, and this was the case for myself as well. While I would like to believe the most of us taught Martial Law the best we could, I also believe that most of us were late to realize the scale of misinformation that is spreading in and outside the classrooms, and its effect on the Filipino population.

Therefore, the most urgent task for educators, academics, and scholars is to step up efforts at combating the Marcoses’ historical distortion. Educators from all units must counter disinformation on all fronts, particularly on social media where the Marcoses and their apologists have a large head start. To borrow the words of Winston Churchill, “We shall fight them on TikTok, we shall fight them in textbooks, we shall fight them on historical markers and commemorations. We shall never surrender!”

Connected to the first point, academics and scholars must also aggressively build an army of translators who have the skill to bring down high content from academic journals and books for public consumption. These translators can be basic education teachers who are better trained in pedagogy, concerned influencers who have a much wider reach than academics, members of the religious community who are appalled by this affront to values they espouse, and even youth who share the same goals.

The academic community must also keep a close watch on how the Marcos administration approaches the remembrance and memorialization of Martial Law and related topics. Subtle changes in write-ups to official commemorations, presidential addresses, historical markers, among others, must be scrutinized, and if needed opposed. This is of utmost important since the Marcoses now have the power to institutionalize versions of history that suit their narrative.

The recent events should also encourage historians, scholars and academics to engage in textbook writing for basic education, and perhaps co-author them with teachers in basic education to ensure both historical accuracy and sound pedagogy. We must produce more books that use primary sources effectively, and cite relevant details to support assertions to counter Marcos myths. It is also essential to integrate narratives from outside Luzon, where many Filipinos suffered under Martial Law.

Lastly, scholars, academics, and all educators must impress on the Filipino people that this issue matters to every single Filipino, and is not just a fight against a person or a family as Marcos and his apologists would like to claim. The fight against historical distortion is an assertion of our values as a nation; values that are enshrined in our constitution. It is a fight against efforts to make us forget who we are as a people.