Queen Isabella’s ‘fertile terrain’ for the 'Thomasites' 1

Queen Isabella’s ‘fertile terrain’ for the 'Thomasites'

Buddy Gomez — Cyberbuddy

Posted at Nov 14 2020 02:38 AM

It is fair to argue that the most beneficent impact upon Philippine society of America coming into our national life, in taking possession of the islands when they did, was in the field of public education.

Nevertheless, we ought not go overboard in heaping all but exclusive praise for the pioneering pedagogues ferried over to the Philippines aboard that ocean-crossing US Army Transport ship “Thomas.” The celebrated “Thomasites” do indeed rightfully deserve a parade. And in lasting grateful memory, too. However, a little ‘rain’ is reasonable and called for. 

An appreciation of the background and circumstances of the evidently fertile terrain the Thomasites came upon and found ready for their solicitous pioneering endeavors can provide the fruits of their apostolate a recognition that is better understood and judiciously celebrated.

Let us be precise. “Las Islas Filipinas” was not an uneducated nor an uneducable wilderness when the Americans came. We may not have been reared, and as yet inexperienced, at self-government but already the Philippine Islands had an educated class. The prevailing literacy was noteworthy for the times, standing at 45% nationwide for all individuals 10 years old and above. Manila’s was at 50%. The presence of “ilustrados” in every community spoke for itself as a level of civilization.

Unfortunately, the Spanish Crown, but for her already near bankrupt colonial economic condition, would have had a better than actually experienced record of educating her wards and would have had a greater turn out of literate citizens. Nonetheless, by her decree of 1863, Queen Isabella II did attempt to sow that ‘fertile terrain.’ The absence of smarter colonial management and the scarcity of financial support was decidedly the main drag upon the Queen’s lofty intent. 

Her decree called for “free access to modern public education,” providing for the establishment of at least two primary schools, one for boys and another for girls, in each town. The primary schools in each town were to be administered by the local government. The creation of free public normal schools to train teachers followed in the 1890s. 

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There are a number of historical vignettes attesting that these schools were poorly supported by a government that was fiscally deficient. Spain was already in steep decline. Be that as it was, according to then Resident Commissioner Manuel L. Quezon, speaking before the US Congress in 1914, by 1892….”the number of schools had increased to 2,137… 1,087 for boys and 1,050…. they were not religious schools, but schools created, supported and maintained by the Spanish Government.” 

It is well to know that the “Thomasite” teachers did not start from a ‘tabula rasa,’ not from a clean slate. There was an existing foundation to work with. Their success was arguably dependent upon the reality that despite the inadequacies of the Spanish public education system, it was a fact that Queen Isabella’s mandate had already awakened an innate hankering for education in the Filipino. An irresistible stimulation for wanting and learning how to read, write and count had been stoked. A genie out of the bottle, as it were! Admittedly, an unfinished task when America came.

There was waiting for the Thomasites undug springs of the Filipino’s unquenched thirst for learning, new knowledge and advancement. 

Here are relevant entries from Wikipedia: ”The Thomasites built upon the Spanish school system created in 1863 and the contributions laid down by the U.S. Army.” “They expanded and improved the public school system and switched to English the medium of instruction.”

The Philippines possessed a wealth of historical documents written down by Catholic friars and missionaries. It is highly unlikely, however, that these were utilized as teaching materials. It was not until the mid-1890s when a history textbook was published. It dealt with Spain and the Philippines at the same time, with emphasis “on making the Filipinos aware of their debt to Mother Spain.” Furthermore, these Philippine materials were inadequate, treating mainly of “unrest and violence….(Chinese, Japanese and Moro pirates) epidemics, volcanic eruptions…….with little that was distinctively Philippine…” ( quotes from ‘Study of Books for Children in the Philippines: 1866-1945’… Netzorg).

That being so, unless refutedly effectively, it is reasonable to conclude that Filipino schoolchildren began to first learn more thoroughly the history of their country through the American teachers!

In 1902, as Book XI of “The World and its People, a Series of Geographical Readers,” Silver, Burdett & Co. published the “The Story of the Philippines” by Adeline Knapp. This could very well be the first book on Philippine History published in English as classroom reading.

In 1905, “History of the Philippines” by David P. Barrows was published by the Bobbs-Merrill Co. It was “an introduction to the history of their country” “for pupils in the public high schools of the Philippines.” 

By the way, both Ms. Knapp and Mr. Barrows were Thomasites. 
It can be safely and fairly stated that in “American books….there appear, for the first time, Filipino figures from History, folk tales, pictures of workaday folks in local landscape, with Filipino songs sung.” In them, “Filipino patriotism gets promoted endlessly.” Indeed, also a Thomasite hallmark!

Before running forth any further, I owe my readers a disclosure. I wish to obviate any false impression that I am passing myself off as a ‘historian.’ I am not. Instead, I am a history storyteller! I am not academically credentialled but an average, run-of-the-mill ‘history buff.’ I am, however, a Life Member of the Philippine Historical Association from whose activities I have not participated since my entry thirty years ago. Obviously, I am engaged (engaging and enjoying it) in storytelling about historical matters, eager to share acquired information while dishing out fact-based relevant opinions and commentaries. It has been a personal creed to bow before and accept proffered superior knowledge, always ready to be corrected. 



Tomas 'Buddy' Gomez III began his professional media career in ABS-CBN's (previously Chronicle Broadcasting Network) DZQL-Radio Reloj in 1957, after which he spent 25 years with the Ayala Group.

In 1986, the then Pres. Cory Aquino appointed him Consul General to Hawaii and later served as her Press Secretary.

During the Ramos administration, he was chairman and president of state-owned IBC-13 Network.

After government service, he became an ‘OFW’ in the U.S., working as front-desk clerk and then assistant general manager of a hotel. He also worked as a furniture and antique restoration specialist.

He is now retired and lives in San Antonio, Texas.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.