FILIPINOS have often been pilloried for their short historical memory, so it may come as a surprise that the Fukuoka Prize, probably Japan’s biggest international cultural prize, will be awarded this week to Ambeth Ocampo, popular historian and probably the only historian familiar to the social media-crazy but otherwise wit-derelict millennial generation.
In announcing it would be giving 2016 Academic Prize to Ocampo, the Fukuoka Prize (FP) Committee cited his “achievement in reclaiming history as the property of ordinary citizens, for his contribution to promote an open-minded nationalism and global sensibility in the Philippines, and for his great service to international cultural exchange.”
The prize covers Ocampo’s popular history writing, his scholarship and teaching, as well as his stint in the cultural bureaucracy as chair of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) and concurrent chair of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).
Ocampo will be formally bestowed the FP in glittering ceremonies in Fukuoka City, Japan on Sept. 16, along with two other Asians: Pakistani architect Yasmeen Lari, who will receive the Arts and Culture award; and Indian musician A.R. Rahman, winner of the 2009 Oscars for original song and music scoring of “Slumdog Millionaire,” who will receive the Grand Prize.
Formerly known as the Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prize, the FP is turning 27 years old this year. Although not as old as the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the “Asian Nobel Prize,” FP now rivals the Manila-based international award-giving body.
Previous Filipino recipients of the FP are National Artist for Architecture Leandro Locsin (1992), filmmaker Marilou Diaz-Abaya (2001), historian Reynaldo Ileto (2003), and filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik (2012).
Fr. Harold Rentoria, OSA, head of the subcommission on cultural heritage of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), welcomed the news.
“It is a well-deserved award because [Ocampo] has contributed a lot in terms of educating young minds on history and culture,” said the Augustinian friar. “He made history an interesting subject to people through his writing and teaching.”
Former NCCA commissioner Regalado Trota José likewise praised Ocampo.
“He made many people conscious of the approachability of history, especially to those who otherwise would be negative to history like certain officials of high government,” said José, a church art and architecture historian and archivist and Cultural Heritage Studies professor at the University of Santo Tomas. “Also he made us aware of the Rizaliana treasures in the National Library, such as Rizal’s third novel ‘Makamisa,’ which at that time the custodians didn’t even know they had it.”
That he would now be taking his place among Ileto and other FP Academic Prize laureates unnerves Ocampo.
“I’m not feigning false modesty or fishing for compliment when I tell you I felt undeserving of the award after browsing the impressive, or should I stay stellar, roster of previous awardees,” Ocampo told the Inquirer. “After all, the names: Benedict Anderson, James Scott, Anthony Reid, Clifford Geertz and Wang Gungwu are in standard postgraduate reading lists on Southeast Asia.”
“While the honor pleased me at first,” he added, “the feeling later turned to fear when I asked myself not so much what did I do to deserve this, but what do I for an encore?”
The award comes with a cash prize that the amount of which Ocampo did not disclose.
“Why is everyone so fixated on the cash prize?” he complained. “It’s not always about money you know, but then unlike previous awards I have received whose medals, plaques and trophies I cannot pawn, this comes with a modest cash prize. “What will I do with it? I don’t know yet, but it will probably fund my legacy research projects, books I want to write when I retire from teaching in a few years.”
The man behind the popular biweekly column, Looking Back, in the Opinion page of this paper, Ocampo has periodically collected his columns in best-selling books. That some of them have been reprinted several times should defy dire predictions of the alleged death of books.
The minatory rants seem misplaced since books have, after all, just been shifting mediums—from print to electronic-so they’re not going exactly extinct.
What may be in danger of extinction is critical reading, which the best works of history try to foster.
But alas, critical historical intelligence presupposes historical memory and literacy, and as Ocampo’s former colleague in the Op-Ed page, Conrado de Quiros would say by way of his column title, “There’s the rub.”
Once relegated to pure rote and memorization, history in Philippine classrooms has even gone downhill. Millennials not only have failed to go beyond memorization and hackneyed declarations of historical guideposts; they’ve forgotten them or are ignorant about them altogether.
Last year when the historical movie “Heneral Luna” became the biggest-selling Filipino independent movie, a millennial gushed over the movie and asked actor Eppie Quizon, who played Apolinario Mabini in the movie, why he was sitting all throughout what was essentially an action movie.
It turned out that the poor guy didn’t even know the textbook cliché about Mabini—that he’s known as the “Sublime Paralytic.” The no-brainer could have been worsened if he hadn’t known about the other cliché about Mabini—that he is called the “Brains of the Revolution.”
Ocampo teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in history at Ateneo de Manila University, and even his popular history writing presupposes that his readers have a fundamental historical literacy that should have been acquired in basic education. His scholarship can be of use only in adding depth or in correcting fallacies in history; it cannot provide historical memory itself.
The Filipinos’ short—or altogether absent—historical memory appears to have been abetted because of the clumsily assembled K-12 curriculum, which adds two more yeas to the 10-year basic education system.
Harvard-trained historian and former Central Bank deputy governor Benito Legarda Jr. has questioned the Philippine history curriculum, which he indicated is nativist and glosses over the Spanish heritage that went into the building of the Philippine nation.
“The narrative is cast as a simple fight for freedom, against imperialism and colonialism, a binaural scheme, on the premise that we were already a nation seeking to restore our nationhood,” said Legarda, also a former NHCP commissioner. “I find the premise shaky and the approach too reactive.”
Legarda recommended a “more productive approach” that “would focus on the building of the nation, culminating in the great achievement of Rizal and his generation in defining Filipino nationhood.”
“This approach,” he explained, “would start from a base line of independent chiefdoms practicing personal rather than territorial jurisdiction (barangays as distinguished from villages) in a social ambience of slave holding, slave trading and slave raiding, practicing the quaint custom of killing slaves to accompany their deceased mothers in the next world.”
“Our history,” Legarda further explained,” should portray how we evolved from this base line to the Filipino national personality that blossomed with Rizal and his generation—a nation that was active in world trade, had advanced learning with standards (according to Gunnar Myrdal) second only to Japan, producing doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, engineers, theologians, prize-winning artists, the highest wages in Asia (higher than industrial Japan), etc. These compare favorably with the Dutch, French, and British colonies in Asia.”
Legarda likewise pointed out “omissions” in the history curriculum and protested the negative focus on the friars who reportedly “egged on” the imperialists.
“But… the Spanish were the only colonialists who questioned the rightness of their actions (none of the others even bothered to ask),” Legarda pointed out. “Prelates like the Dominican Bishop Domingo Salazar defended the Filipinos against abuses of encomenderos. The Augustinian Martin de Rada was another friar who defended and protected the Filipinos.
“They organized defenses in towns against Moro slave raiders,” added Legarda. “And they contributed to Philippine philology with 17 grammars of native languages. Unfortunately they obstructed the secularization of parishes and the aspirations of the Filipino clergy and provoked the criticism of Rizal and his associates.”
Without referring to the K-12 curriculum, Ocampo said his history is not one of “navel-gazing,” but more open. “It makes for a confident and open nationalism that is relevant in a global and globalizing world,” he explained, “rather than the xenophobic me-against-the-others type of history I learned in school.”
Excerpts from the interview:
In some of your columns, you deal with the incidental details of history that some historians and history teachers consider trivial so that they say you have a tendency of “trivializing” history. How do you respond to this?
All history is the distillation of data great and small. My critics are too focused on the forest when my method is to highlight the trees. How can one have a forest without trees? It is one thing to criticize and quite another to show me up by writing their own history. It’s a free country, if they can do better they are welcome to write about the forest.
You were a student of Teodoro Agoncillo at University of the Philippines. What would be his influence on your work and how would you set your work apart from that of your mentor?
Agoncillo was long retired from the UP when I met him in 1984, I only knew him for less than a year and the few times we met were hours spent with him talking to a student literally at his feet. Agoncillo built on the curiosity planted by E. Aguilar Cruz, and the love of research ingrained by Doreen Fernandez by giving me a point of view and showing me what committed scholarship was all about. Most people only remember Agoncillo as a name on the hefty college textbook, I knew that he once wrote history for the popular press, a genre whose trailblazers were Nick Joaquin and Carmen Guerrero Nakpil. Following in the footsteps of these people, I wrote history built on solid primary source material, often from the original Spanish or French, and made sure that the essays were not just to inform but to entertain and educate readers into becoming historians themselves by providing a nugget of information, an insight they could reflect on.
How would you characterize your historiography?
I grew up on a “nationalist” Philippine history that Agoncillo pioneered in the 1960s, it was a history that was written for its time rabidly pro-Filipino in viewpoint, anticolonial. Agoncillo declared then, and believed to his dying day, that there was no such thing as Philippine history before 1872 (the execution of Gomburza), because before 1872 what we had was not Philippine history but rather a “History of Spain in the Philippines.”
He compressed almost three centuries of a shared history from 1565-1898 in two short chapters. Only two chapters of his 29-chapter textbook are devoted to the Spanish period. Contrast that with six chapters on the 19th century focused on the emergence of nation. Two short chapters that cover three centuries of history against nine chapters that cover less than a century of the anticolonial struggle.
We cannot return to the past, we cannot undo the past, we cannot change the past so the choice is to look back on it from the lens of anticolonial struggle, or to try and see how the encounter between the colonizer and the colonized, for better or worse, formed us into the Philippines and Filipinos we are today.
Most of my writing since I have traveled and lived abroad the last four years has been about finding connections, instead of a history that is akin to navel-gazing, I want to see how in the past we were connected to our neighbors in Southeast Asia through shared history and prehistory. It makes for a confident and open nationalism that is relevant in a global and globalizing world rather than the xenophobic, me against the others type of history I learned
You were a cultural bureaucrat at one time. What do you think would be your main accomplishment/s when you chaired the NHCP and in that connection, as chair of the NCCA?
My main achievement was shepherding the legislative charter of the NHCP. I followed up and lobbied and got the law signed in a record six months. I resolved nagging controversies and declared the Code of Kalantiaw a hoax; we moved the First Shot in the Philippine-American War from San Juan to Santa Mesa; moved the site of the Blood Compact from Tagbilaran to Loay, etc.
I tried to implement the Flag Law such that people are now aware of the law, how flags should be properly displayed and how the anthem should be sung at boxing events. I had all the don’t-do-this, don’t-do-that signs removed in our shrines to make them more welcoming. We were the first to allow photos in our museums, a boon to a generation enamored with selfies.
At the NCCA where I served as chair for two years, I focused on cultural diplomacy, one of the fruits of which is the Escuela Taller in Intramuros. I was adviser to the Bangko Sentral and helped craft the banknotes you have in your wallet.
Could you please give us a preview of your Fukuoka lecture?
My Fukuoka lecture will be about how I do my work, the challenges and joys of bringing history down from the ivory tower and giving it back to people where it also belongs. It will be about history as contested territory and how it is also important to know some historiography to understand how and why a narrative is created because history always has a point of view. I will comment on how we need to liberate ourselves from the past by understanding it.