Ambeth Ocampo: Taking history from ivory tower | Inquirer News

Ambeth Ocampo: Taking history from ivory tower

By: - Staff Writer / @Inq_Lifestyle
/ 12:52 AM June 05, 2016

PHILIPPINE Daily Inquirer columnist and historian Ambeth R. Ocampo    RYAN LIM/MALACAÑANG FILE PHOTO BUREAU

PHILIPPINE Daily Inquirer columnist and historian Ambeth R. Ocampo RYAN LIM/MALACAÑANG FILE PHOTO BUREAU

“History is stereotyped to be boring and irrelevant, but I’d like to think that in the past three decades, I took history from the ivory tower of academe and gave it back to the people to whom it also belongs.”

So says historian and Inquirer columnist Ambeth Ocampo, who recently won the 2016 Fukuoka Prize, a prestigious annual award honoring exceptional work in preserving or creating culture within the Asia-Pacific region, and presenting it to the world.


“As an outstanding historian and intellectual, Dr. Ambeth R. Ocampo has made a great contribution to academic, cultural and social progress in the Philippines through his university teaching, his writing for newspapers and magazines and his service in historic and cultural administration,” says the Fukuoka Prize awards committee in its citation.


“His clear and accessible explanations of the wider global context in which the country developed during the period of the Spanish and American colonial regimes have helped promote a more open sense of nationalism and facilitated the advancement of international exchanges both with Asia and with the West,” it says.

Previous Fukuoka laureates include such giants of world culture as Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa and Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar.

Among the Filipinos who have received the award in previous years are architect and National Artist Leandro Locsin and filmmakers Marilou Diaz-Abaya and Kidlat Tahimik.

Ocampo, 54, is currently an associate professor in the history department of Ateneo de Manila University.

At various times, he also served as chair of the National Historical Institute, National Historical Commission of the Philippines and National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

However, he is probably best known outside of academe and cultural circles for “Looking Back,” his popular column on Philippine history and culture, which he started writing in 1987, and which has appeared in the Inquirer since 1990.


Compiled in award-winning and best-selling books such as “Rizal Without the Overcoat” (1990), “Bonifacio’s Bolo” (1995), “Luna’s Moustache” (1997) and “Mabini’s Ghost” (1995), Ocampo’s witty and insightful essays on historical figures and their times have inspired generations of young Filipinos to take a deeper and more abiding interest in their past.

“Writing the way I do … I presented the past in a friendly way and made it relevant to the present, and hopefully the future,” he says.

Ocampo’s popularity has earned him criticism from some of his more hidebound colleagues in the academe, “who demand turgid text, footnotes and framework for 800-word essays.”

“Unfortunately, no one listens to historians, but that’s why I have a career,” he adds.

“‘Rizal Without the Overcoat’ has gone through many editions since it was first published in 1990. It celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. It’s a book that has been in print for a quarter of a century, [so] it must be relevant, I must be doing some good somewhere.”

Ocampo was first bitten by the history bug as a student at  Ateneo, where he credits the influence of E. Aguilar Cruz and Doreen Fernandez with sparking his curiosity about the past.  His historical bent was cemented when he met the eminent historian Teodoro Agoncillo in 1984.

“I knew that he once wrote history for the popular press, a genre whose trailblazers were Nick Joaquin and Carmen Guerrero Nakpil,” he recalls.

“Following in the footsteps of the people I mentioned above, 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.”

Ocampo was first published in the waning years of the Marcos era, in the so-called “crony press.”

“History, at that time, was considered safe by the censors,” he recalls. “They did not realize that, at times, I commented on the present using the past. This soon became a pattern in my writing. Inquisitive, irreverent, always making a connection between past and present. By focusing on the human side of our heroes, I showed Rizal without an overcoat, made him more than a memory fossilized in bronze and marble, and helped readers see the Philippines through the eyes of her heroes.”

This has continued to be Ocampo’s modus operandi, except for a seven-year interlude starting in 1993 when he entered the Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat as Dom Ignacio Maria, OSB, “to find God in silence and work.”

“In retrospect, those were the happiest seven years of my life, my most productive, too,” he says. “Monastic life gave me perspective, taught me to listen, to reflect and be still.”

After leaving the cloister, Ocampo returned to doing what he does best: turning young people on to the wealth of knowledge and insight that can be had by seeing the past with new eyes.

Having a foot in both worlds—the academe and the popular press—has placed Ocampo in a unique position.

“Media gives me a medium to engage the public, while academia gives me credibility,” he says. “Anyone can write about Rizal’s love life, and it is often thought to be plain gossip, but being academic means that treatment of the topic may be light but it is well thought out and based on primary source research in the original Spanish or French.”

“Academics often write for each other in journals and conferences; I use academic material and give it to the public in small doses.”

Apart from his Inquirer  column, social media gives him another platform for sharing his wealth of knowledge with his legions of fans.

“My [Facebook] page has over 56,000 likes—it’s far from Kris Aquino’s followers, but for an academic it’s quite remarkable. Here I present visuals from my research with very short text. It’s a different medium altogether.”

Ocampo admits to being both pleased and daunted by receiving the Fukuoka prize, putting him in the company of such eminent scholars as Benedict Anderson, James Scott, Anthony Reid, Clifford Geertz and Wang Gungwu.

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