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Teaching Asian History in Two Countries: The United States and the Philippines

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After spending nine years in the United States studying for the M.A. (University of Hawaii) and Ph.D. (Northern Illinois University in DeKalb) in History, I returned to the Philippines in September of 1995. In November of that year, I joined the History Department of the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University (Loyola Heights, Quezon City).

I taught Asian history in the United States and the Philippines.  Interestingly enough, despite the fact that English is also the medium of instruction in the Philippines (a situation brought about by American colonial rule), I still had to make some adjustments in pedagogical techniques. This article shows differences in the educational and cultural systems of both countries, as well as the teaching strategies that I found useful for my students of Asian history.

I handled History 141 (Asia Since 1500) for one regular semester (Fall 1992) and three summer sessions (1993, 1994 and 1995) at Northern Illinois University. I have been teaching History 10 (Asian Civilization) at Ateneo de Manila University since the second semester of the 1995–96 academic year. (For most schools in the Philippines, the first semester of an academic year begins in June and ends in October. The second semester opens in November and closes around the third week of March.)

Before I proceed further, let me clarify a few things about the educational system in both countries. In the United States, students get twelve years of a combined grade school and high school education, while their counterparts in the Philippines usually have ten (six years of grade school and four years of high school. A few Philippine schools, however, add an extra year to grade school.) As a consequence, Filipinos typically enter college at the age of sixteen—two years ahead of Americans, who finish high school when they are eighteen years old. This system reflects economic realities in a third world country.  Because of tradition and the limited resources allocated to educational loans and scholarships, most Filipino parents shoulder the costs of their children’s schooling through college. Thus, an extra two years would make education in the Philippines more expensive (something that the average Filipino family can ill afford).  In terms of practicality, it is important to get Filipino students finished with their college degrees as soon as possible so they can get jobs, help the family, and become more independent. Lastly, a college degree is a mark of status, and even the poorest homes will have a diploma proudly displayed on the wall.

In order to make up for the missing two years of basic educational skills from high school, a college curriculum in the Philippines is loaded with extra credit hours. A Filipino college student takes an average of eighteen to twenty-one credits per semester, in contrast to the American student, who only carries twelve to eighteen. The student’s program consists of a set of general education or “core” classes (e.g., philosophy, theology, mathematics, natural science) aside from the major subjects. The classes have been determined beforehand, and the student cannot deviate from them. While some extra credits beyond the core and major are allowed, these cannot replace the required subjects. In American colleges and universities, the general education curriculum prescribes a set number of credits for each area or discipline (e.g., humanities, foreign languages) which in turn provides a choice of courses for the students.