This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

June 24, 2001 — Even if he'd been some poor slob in a bar trying to impress a woman with macho tall tales, Joseph Ellis' list of whoppers was pretty amazing.

Not only did the Mount Holyoke history professor and Pulitzer Prize–winner falsely claim to have been in the Vietnam War, he said he was a combat paratrooper in the legendary 101st Airborne. Not only a combat paratrooper, but the commander of a whole platoon of them. Not only that, but he was on the staff of American commander General William Westmoreland. Not only was he involved with the civil rights movement when he came back, he was so important that the cops in Mississippi followed him constantly. Even his high school exploits were the stuff of legend — he didn't just score a touchdown, he scored the game–winning touchdown in the last game of his senior year.

It's pathetic, really, that a 57 year–old man, especially one with such eminent credentials, felt the need to tell lies that enhanced his manliness. What makes it worse than pathetic, though, is that he told the war stories in a class he teaches on Vietnam.

Yet many friends and fellow hisorians immediately insisted that Ellis' lying doesn't bear on his scholarship.

"Falsifying one's own past is its own discrete problem," Stanford University prof and fellow Pulitzer–winner David M. Kennedy told the New York Times.

"What someone says about their personal life is one thing; their scholarship is another," Hampshire College's dean of the faculty Aaron Berman told the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

And, referring to the Boston Globe's first report, Ronald Story, chairman of the history department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, told the Gazette, "There were never any implications in the story that he'd distorted his scholarship or his teaching." He added, "it's really striking to me that the Globe thinks that this is important."

Blaming the messenger was the first response of Mount Holyoke's president Joanne Creighton, too, who said, "We at the College do not know what public interest the Globe is trying to serve through a story of this nature."

None of these people, apparently, were struck first and foremost by the fact that Ellis lied in the classroom. Despite abundant evidence Prof. Story, for example, still says there were no "implications" Ellis "distorted" his teaching. What in the world would constitute "distortion" if not Ellis' teaching of out–right lies?

And God knows why President Creighton's first impulse was to attack the Globe, rather than to go on the alert on behalf of her students. Did she really think the paper would make such charges without, say, looking up Ellis' military records?

Likewise, it seems disingenuous to separate Ellis' classroom lectures from his written scholarship, as if a scholar's teachings are less important when spoken aloud, or delivered to young people who don't know any better.

I mean, look, here's the bottom line of the story: A historian lied about history — repeatedly, excessively, and over a period of decades.

These were no harmless fibs, either. He claimed participation in a war, when in reality he had it easy — as one contemporary colleage told the Globe he remembered Ellis saying, "Why should I go be a ground–pounder in Vietnam when I can polish my academic credentials here at West Point?"

And Ellis' so–called apology only exacerbated things.

"I deeply regret having let stand and later confirming the assumption that I went to Vietnam," he said. "For this and any other distortions about my personal life, I want to apologize to my family, friends, colleagues and students. Beyond that circle, however, I shall have no further comment."

In other words, as the last sentence implies, it's the press' fault. And he regrets not lying, but "having let stand" an assumption, and some vague "distortions." Nor does he feel the need to apologize to anyone beyond his immediate circle — say, the men and women who really served in Vietnam, or were harassed by cops in civil rights–era Mississippi.

It was the kind of arrogance that led to a week of intense criticism of both Ellis and MHC's Creighton. The head of the American Historical Association pointed out that "Professors in the classroom have an obligation to be forthright and truthful" And another Pulitzer–winner, David Garrow, called for Ellis to be fired.

Yet all that had happened at the end of that week was that Ellis had withdrawn from teaching his Vietnam class, and the college had announced it would investigate him.

And, on Friday, incredibly, Ellis gave a public lecture, at which he said, "I want to again repeat that I deeply regret having let stand and later confirmed any assumption that I had served in Vietnam." Then he went on with his lecture.

Clearly, he still doesn't get it, and at this point, you have to wonder if he ever will.

The question is, does the academic community get how this is reflecting on it?

For a lot of people, and for a long time, Mount Holyoke College will now be known as the place where that famous liar taught. Alumni who paid a lot of money for that degree must be furious. There goes fundraising. And how long before someone sues because they paid for a class taught by a liar?

Jeopardizing the institution he supposedly loves is just another part of the damage wrought by Joseph Ellis of which he seems clueless.

But the story has dispersed beyond Ellis, now, to the academy at large. To many, universities and colleges have become places of privilege where the students aren't necessarily the first concern. And this story is doing a lot to reinforce that image. Because, at root, it seems an issue of common sense: Short of personal injury, what in the world could a professor do that's worse than lying about his subject matter?

And beyond that, who cares about the "scholarship" of someone who taught lies in the classroom, instead of truth?

Last Week’s Column: MAKE BIG MONEY: BECOME A CANADIAN POET A new Canadian award attempts to put poetry back in the mainstream . . . by giving big money to poets who are already successful.


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.