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Maureen Justiniano

    Philippine historians at a glance

    Part 2: Introducing Ambeth Ocampo


As promised, I am back to continue looking at historians and their work. In the previous issue (Vol. 4, No. 16, August 16-30) I started introducing you to a few people I know who are passionate about history.

I remember the first time I learned about Ambeth R. Ocampo in 1990 was when I was book browsing (no big surprise there) at the National Bookstore in Manila and I happened to find this new book on Jose Rizal. I thought I had already read everything that was written on Rizal so I was a little reluctant to buy it. I found that no matter who wrote a book on Rizal, it was always the same narratives and stories over and over again. Wala na bang iba? [Is there anything else new?]

 Ambeth Ocampo & Maureen Justiniano

Historian, writer and Chairman of the National Historical Institute, Ambeth Ocampo (left) with Maureen Justiniano

 Ambeth Ocampo
 Ocampo delivers a public lecture on the artist Juan Luna at the Ayala Museum, July 2008
What caught my interest in this book by someone named Ambeth Ocampo was its intriguing title, Rizal Without the Overcoat. Hmmm, I wondered how this book would be different from the other Rizal books. It turned out that the book was completely different. Different in the sense that it contained new information and new research about Rizal, and none of the regurgitated ones that I had been reading since I started going to school. It was also great that Ocampo’s book catered not to academics but more to the general public who would rather be reading anything else but history for fun. From that moment on, I got hooked on reading Ambeth Ocampo’s new brand of history.

Afterwards, I managed to get my hands on most of his books (I think I’m still missing two more, one is already out-of-print which I gave to someone). I even asked my aunt to subscribe to Philippine Daily Inquirer so that I could follow his weekly column, Looking Back. In addition, I was able to track down several old prints of his earliest articles in a different magazine, which I showed to Ambeth when I finally met him in person at the Ateneo de Manila University in 2005.

As you know already, my real passion is studying (and hopefully, teaching) history, in particular Philippine history. Ever since I started reading Ambeth’s articles and books, I have always wondered what it’d be like to attend his history class. I figured that if he teaches history the same way he writes it, it would be wonderful to be a part of his class. I was not disappointed when I finally got the opportunity three years ago.

In 2005 I took a 7-month work leave in order to study history in the Philippines because I wanted to pursue a doctoral degree in Philippine history. Unfortunately, my MA degree is in Modern European history (specializing in German history) and I had taken no university courses in Philippine history because none are offered in Canada. There was no option for me but to either go to the US or to the Philippines to study Philippine history. Of course, I picked the Philippines because this would give me the opportunity to study under Ambeth Ocampo at the Ateneo. Actually, at the time of the processing of my application, Ambeth was the officer-in- charge so we e-mailed each other concerning my application before I finally got to meet him in the summer of 2005.

Okay, I must admit I was awestruck at the beginning. We had a meeting at the Ateneo History Department office; therefore, I had to at least maintain some kind of decorum so I just asked him to sign my 1st edition copy of Rizal Without the Overcoat. At least, I didn’t embarrass myself by asking him immediately if I could get my picture taken with him. The meeting was supposed to be an academic session not a photo-op.

Anyway, Ambeth’s class was exactly as I’d imagined and more. His lectures were engaging as well as entertaining. I don’t think his students (all 150+ students from 3 different sections) ever missed his classes because he made history accessible and fun for all of us. And believe it or not, I also found his quizzes and exams to be just as interesting and imaginative as they’re challenging. I remember one exam where we had to come up with our own title covers for Rizal’s novels, Noli Me Tangere [Touch Me Not] and El Filibusterismo [The Subversive] and then, explain why we chose our cover designs.

Ambeth makes sure that his students think outside the box rather than worry about memorizing tons of stuff without actually knowing what they are about. And that’s how Ambeth approaches history, with an open and analytical mind. The popularity of his books and his PDI column, Looking Back proves that Filipinos are finally realizing that history is more than memorization.

With the debut of Ambeth Ocampo’s column Looking Back in this issue of Pilipino Express (See page 8), I hope the readers will enjoy Ambeth’s ‘brand of history’ as much as I do.

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