Teaching martial law period literature in the era of post-truth

Pressing are the current times when students are led to believe the “convenient truths” on the President Marcos debate. Despite substantial studies proving the oppression during the Martial Law period, the students’ emotions are won over by apologists whose tweaked narratives renounce common sense.

In the age of devaluing reason and glorifying propaganda, literature teachers should be among the front runners in advocating a precise reading of the national history.

Revisionism is in the heart of the post-truth era, where people resort to false information that sits well on their biases instead of wielding academic measures to pursue wider historical dimensions. Bedeviling our nation’s past allows the tyrant to seize the people’s imagination to topple the liberty our forefathers fought for. It delays discourse. It knows no respect for identity. It shatters truth, a basic element of humanity and progress. It triggers a collective amnesia.

Students are a massive sector who can help impose the destiny of our nation, and it matters what type of leaders they vote, what sort of biases they cling to. In a body politic that ignores the grief of Martial Law atrocities and swaps the definition of a hero, it is not enough that literature teachers instruct students to identify metaphors.

In one way or another, the concept of post-truth is what we wish for. We acknowledge the forces of colonialism and political agenda behind historical interpretation, thus we demand legitimacy. But we begin to fret the moment the government itself initiates the practice of forgetting a memory that needs to be preserved, and replace the gaps with untruth.

In the book, A Duterte Reader, UP Manila professor Cleve Arguelles uncovers the administration’s mnemonic regime pivoting to the counter-narrative of moving on from People Power. For him, cultural institutions and the silence of history textbooks have not succeeded enough in putting across the value of Martial Law, prolonging the war on memory. No amount of apathy and denial can retrieve what we will leave behind.

***

Since false claims are crucial in public discourse, it has permeated educational institutions. Now, some students are proud to share their lack of curiosity, or one at the back would retort, Sir, what can you say about Marcos being able to edify architectures we enjoy today? Another kid would add (and I paraphrase badly), Our country was the Tiger Economy of Asia, until elite forces wiped out the best president we ever had. Somebody would share that Cory has a role in the Ninoy assassination. Then the bias card. How are literature teachers supposed to respond to this way of reasoning?

While mathematics teaches us that 4 is the answer to two plus two, literature is designed to be taught in an inherently political classroom. Not a single poem is devoid of ideological underpinnings, especially if it is produced in the time of authoritarian crisis.

Protest writings are hinged upon resisting the ignoble restraint of expression. Dictators are quick to harass literature for fear that stories would widen our manner of seeing. But writers persist, for in trying times art is indispensable. If this is the atmosphere of the text the teachers are tasked to deal with, teachers should uphold their integrity based on wider conceptual handle, awareness on the issue, and empathy.

Take for example, Merlie Alunan’s The Bells Count in Our Blood, a poem that initially comes to mind among writings that represent the Martial Law period.

In 1985, Dumaguete City lost Father Rudy Romano, and for 32 years, no justice was served for the priest-social worker who selflessly served the oppressed and the vulnerable. As a way of choosing not to forget the priest and his unfortunate plight during the Marcos administration, the community would ring the bells for him every 8 in the evening until he is found. The poem speaks about how the disappearance of one body marks a malady in society, affecting us all, more so if we are cradled with fear and silence. The constant ringing of the bells summons a memory to “keep us from decay.”


The poem is as slender as a bell, but it must hold fire as well. To discuss this apolitically and proceed to the next chapter when difficult words are unlocked is a disservice to the message and context the poem conveys. In analyzing literary pieces, teachers must encourage students to take part in a research project encompassing different fields of social sciences. This method allows art to demystify layers of humanity which are instrumental in molding our worldview and curbing our prejudices. Besides, teachers should ask the right questions that would strengthen values and be wary of the students’ respect for human rights.

Are teachers fulfilling their primary role as shapers of young minds if students have acquired knowledge and skills but haven’t developed social responsibility? Students are a massive sector who can help impose the destiny of our nation, and it matters what type of leaders they vote, what sort of biases they cling to. In a body politic that ignores the grief of Martial Law atrocities and swaps the definition of a hero, it is not enough that literature teachers instruct students to identify metaphors.

***

People commonly say that democracy should start inside the class, but democracy has become an abused terminology. It is invoked as an excuse to stop listening to dissent. It is used to argue based on lies. And most of all, it is a tool for excluding ideologies that afflict one’s pride. With this, a teacher should assist the students’ attitude toward life, allowing them to ask: Does my opinion constrain justice, or does it incite false consciousness?

Should teachers be worried when students name them names? A teacher from Mindanao critical of the government’s policies is called un-Mindanawon. Disobedient. Dilawan. On false dichotomies, Arundhati Roy has this to say: “It’s a failure of the imagination. An inability to see the world in terms other than those the establishment has set out for you […] If you don’t love us, you hate us. If you’re not Good, you’re Evil. If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorist.”

If there could be one lesson from anti-Marcos writings, it should be respect, and teachers should strive to put this lesson forward.

Kinupot by Edgar Talusan Fernandez. Photo taken at National Gallery Singapore, 2018

NOTE: This think piece is previously published in Rappler in September 2017. Today marks the 47th anniversary of Martial Law in the Philippines. In solidarity with the activists who came before us during these trying times, I wanted my writing to keep their legacy alive.

It’s a welcome progress that the University of the Philippines – Diliman will be offering a course on martial law in January 2020. Real struggles of the generation’s heroes have long been hijacked, trampled upon, and forgotten. It is through teaching martial law, and institutionalizing the teaching of martial law that we can counter historical revisionism.

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4 Comments

    1. Thanks a lot Sir Gilbert! We owe this to you who paved the way for us to get the civil liberty is rightfully deserve. I also read your essay. It’s endearing and at the same time it draws me back to the time I wasn’t born through references. Thanks for publishing a SOX recollection of the martial law. Our kids and other elders have forgotten already!

      Like

  1. This is an interesting post and I am so glad that I found someone here in the internet who still believes in the real truth about what happened in the Martial Law era. Many people our age has been led to believe in the tweaked version of history and it’s just so saddening. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lenn! We owe it to the past generations who fought and risked their lives to give us freedom of speech. I wrote it in Mindanao, in 2017, when it’s difficult to criticize what the president loves. Until now I still hold on to my principles. Padayon!

      Liked by 1 person

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