Remembering Cesar Adib Majul and Teodoro Agoncillo

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When I entered UP in 1961 as a freshman, I was one of those relegated to  the A.B. (General) program. Those of us in this block had no inkling as to what field of study to major in. Fortunately, there was a series of lectures we had attended—the Rizal Centennial Lectures—featuring the biggest names in the Diliman intellectual firmament. These included Cesar Adib Majul (Philosophy) and Teodoro A. Agoncillo (History), Ricardo Pascual, Agustin Rodolfo, etc.

Although belonging to the different fields of the Social Sciences, Natural Sciences and the Humanities, one common theme in these lectures was the role of history, as intimated by Rizal, in the development of a “national sentiment.” For how would one develop his dignity as a person and as a member of the nation unless he knew who he was and what he had done with, and for, his fellowmen?

Dr. Cesar Adib Majul, one of these lecturers, was not only my teacher in Western Thought I but also my boss when I became his student assistant when he assumed the position of dean. I had a somewhat intimate knowledge of his research concerns such as the biography of Apolinario Mabini, the moral philosophy of the Revolution and the First Republic, as well as the history of the Muslim Filipinos. As I would discover later, these works of his had stood time and had remained unequalled on these topics until now. But what most impressed me was his clear, even if concise, lecture defining Rizal’s concept of the nation.

Dr. Majul’s work discipline likewise impressed me. After his early 7 a.m. until 10 a.m. class, he would leave instructions to “Ate Mary” (our AO/supervisor) and immediately proceed to the Filipiniana section of the Main Library. He would return around 3 or 4 p.m. to sign papers. Although I found it difficult listening or understanding him through his husky, almost nasal, voice, I was always a willing and interested listener whenever he had something to say on Rizal, Mabini and the other heroes. In these conversations, it was as if he was goading me to discover my true potential as a future writer, a culture bearer and a nationalist. I think it was this patience in imparting his thoughts which was his true legacy.

And perhaps this was likewise the legacy of his contemporary, Prof. Teodoro A. Agoncillo. I served as a graduate assistant to Prof. Agoncillo when he became chairman of the Department of History. He would come to the office earlier than everyone else, that is, at around 7 a.m. When I started coming earlier than him, he would come even much earlier, at 6:30 a.m.! As a graduate assistant, my main duty was to listen to his endless perorations, critiques and gossip. (Sorry, Prof. Ago, do not be angry, but it was true!) Prof. Agoncillo was unforgiving in his denunciations on the then Graduate Program director (Dr. Ricardo Pascual) for taking advantage of a graduate history major whom he felt should not have passed her thesis defense if not for the Graduate Program director’s influence. He was particularly irked with Dr. Majul, then famous for his justice and moral philosophy studies on Mabini and the Revolution, for approving the graduation of that student, Dr. Majul being a panel member and part of what Prof. Ago
ncillo thought was an “academic conspiracy.”

But despite these quirks and a hot temperament, I thought Prof. Agoncillo was an effective and good teacher, more effective than even the well-liked lady professor reputed to be the Department of History’s encyclopedia. No week would pass without Prof. Agoncillo giving little pieces of papers containing five difficult words allegedly to make sure of their meanings as he would use these in his articles. I can still remember some of them: insolent, gangrene, jejune…etc. etc. He would ask me to “review” his various articles and lectures such as the one on the women characters in the Rizal novels. Although on the surface, he appeared angry with his reactions in his booming voice, I thought he secretly admired our audacity in making critical annotations on his works.

Then one day, I discovered not receiving any renewal in my appointment in my graduate assistantship. I was deeply hurt and disappointed until I learned why: Through his network he heard that I accepted an offer for a US graduate scholarship. He was one who wanted to direct the future directions of his wards. How I still remember the stinging rebuke of Prof. Agoncillo: “What will you do there? Look at these PhDs who had not written anything after their dissertations at those US universities?”

And then he would point at himself who, with just an MA, had been conferred honorary degrees here and abroad. He thought he had done more than enough to merit a PhD with his works on Bonifacio, the Malolos Congress and the Japanese Occupation.

Looking back, although Prof. Agoncillo was an antagonist with those from the Philosophy Department, his method was like that of the philosophy discipline in developing critical skills among the students. He also developed in us the value of self-discipline and the love of country and fellowmen. Prof. Agoncillo was critical of those historians and writers who would attribute anything positive about Filipino culture to the influence of the colonizers and foreigners while attributing anything negative to the natural lack of talent and ingenuity among Filipinos.

Prof. Agoncillo became well known as the proponent of a Filipino point of view in history. Essentially, this meant expunging from our textbooks the more than five chapters of Spanish Age of Exploration and Discovery. He would ask: why should our history be cluttered with themes of “Spain in the Philippines,” relegating the Filipino to the role of rowers of galleons, and mercenaries of Spaniards in their various adventures when nothing had been said about our struggles and revolts? He would insist that the proper history of Filipinos only came when we put into our own hands our destiny as a people through a national revolution. He would say that its beginning was in 1872 at the point of execution of Gomburza. Everything else before that date was “lost history.”

We have gone a long way since Dean Majul and Prof. Agoncillo. But it is worthwhile to sometimes reflect on how these intellectuals had helped us launch our careers into the nationalist movement in both its activist sense and its partisan scholarship aspect, and in our continuing assumption of a responsibility in making the Filipino become proud of himself.

Dr. Veneracion is retired professor of History of UP Diliman. Email him at [email protected]