It’s time to stop teaching history with the Pinoy as ‘kawawa’

Published March 2, 2021, 11:40 AM

by Rom Mallick

This overly simplistic view has been damaging our national consciousness and we need to snap out of it

There’s something wrong with how Philippine history is being taught in this country. Well, that is quite the understatement. But this isn’t going to be a list of factual errors found in Department of Education textbooks nor a list of historical inaccuracies that persist in lesson plans across private and public schools. This is going to focus on just one major flaw in the education in history of the Filipino: The underlying theme that the Pinoy has always been “a victim,” that we have always been “kawawa.”

(Manila Bulletin/Unsplash)

This narrative doesn’t reveal itself automatically. It is born from a realization that comes after having gone through history classes in both the primary and secondary levels, as well as the few units of history subjects still required in university education. 

The Philippines—the Filipino—has always been “kawawa.”

This starts with how Philippine history under the Spanish is taught. The common narrative is that we were enslaved for 333 plus plus years. But, believe it or not, while it wasn’t ideal, life under the Spanish crown wasn’t entirely miserable. There was development. There was growth, at least culturally, albeit some may argue that it came at the expense of what was “true” Philippine culture—although Nick Joaquin will argue that there is no such thing as “pure” Pinoy culture. What we largely attribute as Spanish colonial rule comes from the version of it popularized in Jose Rizal’s novel “Noli me Tangere,” which if the national hero was alive today, he would tell us that this was from his experience of the Spanish during the later part of the 19th century. Rizal himself, in fact, did not consider the Philippines as a colony directly ruled by Spain until some years after 1800, but this is for another discussion. 

(NCCA file photo)

Then, as the yoke of Spanish rule was removed, another conqueror came to lord over the Filipino pobrecito. According to many history classes, the Americans, just like their predecessors, started another era of oppression. Again, a huge understatement. Just like with the Spanish, it wasn’t all doom and gloom under the US. They brought the public education system we have adopted even until today, for one. Our system of government, for better and worse, has largely been patterned after theirs. There was also development in terms of culture, as what was Filipino grew to include ideas previously foreign. Sure, things were not ideal but they rarely are anyway. 

Teaching Philippine history with the narrative of the ‘kawawa’ at its core has damaged our national consciousness so much that it has become quite difficult for most to believe that we can stand on our own two feet without a strongman to swoop in and save the day.

Then, as the Philippines prepared to be independent from the US, World War II came to our shores. Years of oppression, again, followed under the Japanese. Arguably, because it was war time, to say that the years spent under the Empire of the Rising Sun were bad would be correct. But, as with most things in life, nothing is ever so simple. The experience with the Japanese was not the same all throughout the country, although it was horrible for the most part. This is undeniable. 

Liberation and independence came. The Third Republic was born and the Filipino thrived. That is until Martial Law, which is usually the next pivotal point taught in most history classes in grade school and high school. Again, the Filipino became “kawawa,” until Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in the “unbloody” revolution that was People Power.


You might say, but this is our history, right? Or is it really? Could it be that we have been looking at things from a perspective that is a little too skewed toward suffering and lost, in the hopes of perhaps finding heroes we could look up to and venerate on the altar of nationalism? Maybe. And find these heroes, we did. Although some of these names in our pantheon of patriots don’t really deserve to be included there, we honor them as heroes nonetheless. 

But what has this kind of “kawawa” narrative really contributed to our development as a people? Several things come to mind. For one, it perpetuates the often mis-praised value of Filipino resilience. The Pinoy can weather any difficulty because, well, he’s so used to them. But one point is more poignant than the rest: That we are a people who always need saving. In a certain sense, this is also a kind of colonial mentality.

(Manila Bulletin/Unsplash)

This misplaced belief has, throughout most of recent history, produced in us the need to look for more heroes—why we celebrate every bit of news about some half-Filipino, half-whatever who get popular acclaim worldwide and why we rely on the idea of a “strongman” to save us from our woes. Teaching Philippine history with the narrative of the “kawawa” at its core has damaged our national consciousness so much that it has become quite difficult for most to believe that we can stand on our own two feet without a strongman to swoop in and save the day. Nation-building, after all, starts from an unwavering belief among peoples that they are, in fact, part of one nation. It is not a process that depends on one hero or a set of heroes. It is not dependent on a strongman. It starts with every-man.

And, in case it has not been quite clear, no we do not have a history of being “kawawa.” So we should snap out of this mentality and enter into a mode where we take on nation-building as a personal responsibility. After 500 years, perhaps it is time, right?