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Anyone who has studied history has been asked the question: “Why should we study history?” And has asked himself a similar question — albeit one with a much different tone — “Why do I have to study history?” To answer those questions, we first need to know what history is.
What is history? According to Carr (1969), history “is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his [historical] facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past”.
History is therefore comprised of a historian and historical facts. In order to better understand what history is, we need to know what a historian is and what historical facts are. Oxford Living Dictionaries define the word historian as “an expert in or student of history, especially that of a particular period, geographical region, or social phenomenon.” The word ‘historical fact’ is not in the dictionary but Oxford Living Dictionaries define the word historical as “of or concerning history; concerning past events” and the word fact as “a thing that is known or proved to be true”. Through those definitions, we can deduce that the word ‘historical fact’ means ‘a thing of the past that is known or proved to be true’. But is that an accurate definition? Professor Barraclough (as cited in Carr, 1969) said that “The history we read, though based on facts, is, strictly speaking, not factual at all, but a series of accepted judgments”.
History is not science. Historical facts are unlike scientific facts: they are not verifiable and they are not objective. There is no way to recreate the past to prove or to disprove its facts. There is no way to separate a person from his preconceptions.
What, then, are historical facts? There is an infinite number of facts about the past but only a few are considered as historical facts — after all, history is not a collection of facts and historians are not collectors of facts. It is only when historians concur that a fact about the past is bona fide and essential that it becomes a historical fact.
However, the concerns of a historian are not the basic facts — not the whos, the wheres, and the whens, which are a given. Rather, they are the whats, the hows, and the whys — which takes thorough investigation and interpretation of the facts to determine — that concern a historian.
It is likely to obtain true and accurate basic facts from an original source but it is unlikely for the rest of the facts to be objective. Take the Battle of Pearl Harbor, for instance. It is easy to find a source that provides the following basic facts: the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service bombed the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Territory on the morning of December 07, 1941. However, the answers to the questions: “What really happened?”, “How did it happen?”, and ‘Why did it happen?”, is decided by who is being asked. The Japanese would have justification for their actions but the Americans would only have condemnation. Hungerford (1878) said that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (p. 142) and the same can be said about truth. People believe what they want to believe, people perceive what they want to perceive.
The task of a historian is to re-enact the past in his mind and, cognizant of the partiality of the original source, relive it through their eyes and not his. He endeavors to think what the source though, the way the source though. He does this to ensure that his interpretation of the past is voracious.
The situation is unfortunately ironic: historian labor to explicate the past without bias and without prejudice, but he himself does so — and is only able to do so — through his own biases and prejudices for he is, inevitably, the product of his values and beliefs and of his time. Thus, historical facts, despite the best efforts of historians, are not certain facts but uncertain ascertained facts.
What is the relevance and importance of historical facts to us Filipinos?
Because of Spanish and American colonization, much of Philippine history was based on historical texts of Spaniards and Americans — a history that was written by them and written for them. The historical facts about the history of the Philippines, therefore, include biases and prejudices that serve their interests and not ours. Yet, that is not the only problem with Philippine history.
The history of the Philippines, as we know it, is akin to legends: it highlights the man — the leader, the ambassador, the poster child — and deifies him. However, it neglects the men — the masses, the Filipino people — who made the man who he is and who propelled the man to where he is.
The history of the Philippines ought to be a people’s history: a history that is written from the point-of-view of the masses, a history that focuses on them and tells their story: the story of how they struggled as one in order to succeed as one.
It is time for the past to be revisited, for the history of the Philippines to be revised—perhaps, even rewritten — as we are in a pivotal time for our country. Through a cognizance of our history — the struggles that led to the successes which made us who we are today and brought us to where we are today — we can understand our present predicament and together struggle as one and strive as one towards success.
We are not all historians — and we may never be — but we can a take up the work of a historian, perhaps not as a profession, but at least as a way to better ourselves and better our nation. The Bible says, “…know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32, New International Version). Why should we study history? We should study history that we may take the role of a historian and investigate and interpret the historical facts of the history of the Philippines and in doing so, fully understand and fully comprehend the truths about our history and thus, experience true freedom: a liberation from limiting mindsets and oppressing thoughts that were inculcated in our minds by forces that seek only their own good and not the good of all.
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