Looking Back

Remembering O.D. Corpuz


Onofre D. Corpuz (1926-2013) served as education secretary not once but twice, first in 1968-1971 then in 1979-1983. He served as president of the University of the Philippines in 1975-1979. These are challenging posts that make or break careers. He excelled in both, but a reputation based on administration is fleeting, and he is best remembered for his publications: “Bureaucracy in the Philippines,” 1957; “The Philippines,” 1966; “Roots of the Filipino Nation,” 1989; “Economic History of the Philippines,” 1999. He translated obscure works on Philippine history from the original Spanish and published “History of one of the Initiators of the Filipino Revolution” by Matatag, 1988, and “The Events of 1872: A Historico-bio-bibliographical Account” by Manuel Artigas y Cuerva, 1996.

In a household where his wife and children were also addressed as “Dr. Corpuz,” he was set apart by his initials O.D. that became both his professional name, his alias, and his nickname. One academic once told me in jest that O.D. actually meant “overdose,” and I took that literally because I came to know O.D. when he and E. Aguilar Cruz were the senior members of the National Historical Institute board. Listening to these two men during meetings was like going through a crash course on Philippine historiography and research. I was too young to have sat in O.D.’s UP classroom, but listening to him gave me a sense of how historians did their work, and his enthusiasm made me, for better or worse, the historian I am—or, as my critics say, the historian I fail to be.

O.D. had a near-photographic memory and could quote verbatim whole passages from books and documents, which he would then put in context with the knowledge and insight culled from half a century of research, reading, and reflection. He inspired me once to embark on reading the entire 55-volume compilation of documents known to historians as “Blair & Robertson.” I never got beyond Volume 7 and was crushed by his example because he read all the volumes not once but twice!

I treasure the afternoons that I visited him in his humble home on Matiwasay Street in Teachers Village. He would wait for Dr. Corpuz (the wife) to leave the house and then pull out a bottle of white wine that we would share as he read the finished chapters of his hefty, two-volume work of history, “Roots of the Filipino Nation,” to me. I often complain aloud that I should’ve been born 50 years earlier to meet the authors of the books I read in the library, but I am fortunate to have known O.D. and Teodoro A. Agoncillo, both National Scientists, and been inspired by them.

O.D. wrote out his thoughts on teaching in 1979 that give us an idea of his method:

“You give [the students] readings (excerpts), a lot of lectures; they must take a lot of notes, they must retain information and have their own data bank in their minds. The basic need is to get them to develop their memory skills. It is the same for all courses. But then you want to educate them to think about the data.

You organize and reorganize the information material and present it to the students, so that the significant historical forces or trends lie contained in the information, not popping up by themselves, but waiting to be sensed and discovered. You handle the discussions to help the students to think things out, until they discover those trends and forces. The students make the discovery through the thinking effort.

“As the students think, they will place importance on some information, more significance on others, and less or none on the rest. I used to tell them that when you think, you must edit the information or data. An editor keeps some items, dismisses the others, and organizes those that remain into relationships. In the class discussions I would knock down the silly answers … short of killing the fires of their interest. But the answers were often not the point. What mattered to me was that everybody, including those with the wrong answers, knew that they had to edit. And I told them that learning required two basic skills: the ability to remember, and the ability to forget. You can’t learn anything without memory, and you would die emotionally or intellectually if you could not forget. Forgetting and remembering are both essential to life, and to learning. Which things to remember, what significance to give to them, and which things to forget or attach no significance to, I guess pretty much sums up my theory of learning then.”

I wish I had met O.D. when he was younger, when he sported long hair and, as education secretary, made surprise visits to schools arriving alone on a motorcycle instead of in a limousine with many hangers-on. O.D. may have been “overdose” to a few who were overwhelmed by his publications and crushed by his erudition. For me, O.D. was an overdose of inspiration. I don’t think he would be happy with my playful take on history that appears in this space twice a week, but his example remains a challenge for me to write one real book instead of many volumes of compilations. We can only hope that other young scholars read his works and be inspired to carve their own niche in their disciplines. They may not have met O.D. in the flesh, but his books are the best gauge of what he was like as an extraordinary gentleman and scholar.

Philippine historiography is diminished by his passing.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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Tags: Ambeth R. Ocampo , Looking Back , O.D. Corpuz , Onofre D. Corpuz , opinion

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