Column: Miseducated by Constantino

Published on October 13, 2015.

If Teodoro Agoncillo was the Moses of the class-conflict theory of the Philippine Revolution, the historian Renato Constantino was its Joshua—he led their followers into the promised land. Since the late 1960s, the rich-versus-poor theory has become mainstream fare, even conventional wisdom; despite the efforts of the director and the cast of “Heneral Luna” to add layers of nuance to their interpretation of history, for instance, the movie’s narrative momentum leads easily to a confirmation of the Agoncillo-Constantino thesis. It is the frame that fits most conveniently.

To Agoncillo’s pioneering work, Constantino added structure and consistency; unfortunately for the Philippine revolutionary experience, it was the structure and consistency of a Marxist ideology. In groundbreaking, icon-shattering lectures and essays such as “Veneration without Understanding” and “The Miseducation of the Filipino,” and in forceful textbook-length arguments like “A Past Revisited,” Constantino advocated, in the words of his most perceptive critic, “the importance of the correct understanding of the Filipino past in order to have insight into the problems of the present.” The scholar John Schumacher, SJ, summed up the historian’s driving impulse: “[H]e has expounded on the pernicious role that the official view of the Filipino past inculcated by colonial historiography and the American educational system has had in disfiguring in the minds of Filipinos the true story of their past.”

It is a profound irony, then, that Constantino sought to recover that “true story” using a Marxist framework, which the revolutionaries themselves did not use and which the revolutionary experience disproved.

I admire Constantino’s intellectual generosity; he played a key role in the publication of documents or publications that undermined his own research, such as John R. M. Taylor’s “The Philippine Insurrection against the United States” and Jonathan Fast and Jim Richardson’s “Roots of Dependency: Political and Economic Revolution in 19th-Century Philippines.” His “The Miseducation of the Filipino” crystallized a generation’s dissatisfaction with the pro-American cast of the educational system, and his “Veneration without Understanding” was a courageous attempt to demote Jose Rizal from the nation’s hall of heroes.

But it was a misleading attack, because, as I tried to prove in this space, it was based on a selective misreading. In one column (“Renato Constantino’s false choices”), I focused on the historian’s use of a “rhetoric of false dichotomies,” which allowed him to understand Rizal not only as insufficiently nationalistic but even as incompletely Filipino. In another column (“Falling for the American trap”), I zeroed in on what I called Constantino’s “argument from Americanization,” which ironically leads the historian to consider Rizal precisely as the American colonial masters wished (not as Rizal was in fact, and as perceived by the Katipuneros and the revolutionaries themselves).

To quote Schumacher again, this time in his review of Floro Quibuyen’s “A Nation Aborted”—“[The author’s] main target is the current university textbooks represented by Teodoro Agoncillo and Renato Constantino. They and their followers, such as Vivencio Jose in his biography of Antonio Luna, and Claro M. Recto outside the university sphere, and lesser figures, have propagated the dichotomy between the ‘Reform Movement’ and the ‘Revolution.’ This dichotomy, oft-repeated but oft-refuted … by real primary research, persists nonetheless. The roots of that dichotomous approach, which Quibuyen terms, using Gramsci’s terminology, ‘vulgar Marxism’ (in the case of Agoncillo, we might better say ‘vulgar pseudo-Marxism,’ found more in terminology than consistent ideology), he finds, ironically but correctly, in the Spanish antifriar journalist, Wenceslao E. Retana, and the pro-American, Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera. Each for their own reasons wished to present Rizal as a reformist, who never countenanced armed revolution.”

In other words, Constantino’s Marxist analysis of Rizal leads to the same conclusion as Retana’s pro-Spanish and Pardo de Tavera’s pro-American interpretation.

Even more damaging, Constantino’s framework offers a simplistic view of the character of the revolution itself. A third excerpt from Schumacher, from a third journal article, surveys the missing:

“A third point of importance is the role of classes in the Revolution and the war against the Americans. That a large majority of the wealthy and educated classes opposed the Revolution when it took place, that various groups or classes tried to turn it in different directions for their own ends, that most of the more affluent and educated submitted to the Americans more or less willingly, some immediately, some only much later, that there was a determined and long-lasting resistance on the part of some sectors of the masses—all this is fairly clear. What is needed is to determine why some acted ‘according to their class interests’ and others did not, and how many; to clarify the relationships between ilustrados and wealthy, between Manila elite and provincial elite, the differences between the Tagalog provinces, or all of Luzon, and the rest of the country, both as to leadership of the Revolution and participation of the masses. These and other largely unexplored areas of the story of the Revolution will not be answered by historical theories proceeding from a determinism of economic classes.”

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in History

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