The Laboratorium
July 2001

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Say It Ain’t So, Joe Ellis

Joe Ellis is a historian, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a professor at Mount Holyoke College. For years he has been lying, to reporters and to students, most notably by inventing for himself a wholly fictitious history of service in Vietnam.

In the weeks since the Boston Globe article documenting these lies, the Ellis Media Cycle, which started off in Denial, has passed through Outrage and into Backlash. See, for example, the Village Voice or the Atlantic.

Their argument, roughly, is that Ellis lied only in his personal life, and only about his personal life. No one has (yet) challenged his scholarship, and so, the question goes, why should his lies merit media scrutiny?

I'm sorry, but I consider this response offensive, because it conceals the repugnant assumption that Ellis' classroom lies were immaterial to his professional activities.

What, then, of his students? Are they chopped liver? A class is not a cocktail party; I don't know and don't care what he says at gallery openings, but every time he stepped through the door of the seminar room he assumed certain professional responsibilities, high among them his obligation to truthfulness.

In the classroom, as in the interrogation room, anything you say can and will be used against you: this principle of open and comprehensive debate is fundamental to the nature of an academic community. To argue for a privileged space that "doesn't count" throws the door open wide: if Ellis is free to lie to his students before he starts his lecture, why shouldn't he be free to seduce them?

His classroom work supports Mount Holyoke; Mount Holyoke provides his professorial appointment; that appointment is the sine qua non of his work as a scholar; his work as a scholar legitimates his role as a public intellectual. Without "America in Vietnam" there would be no American Sphinx. Where is the outrage from Mount Holyoke's students and alumni, who, after all, have been given a box labelled "Joe Ellis' wish-fulfillment" in place of one labelled "genuine understanding?"

I mean, come on, do we believe in higher education in this country, or not? Because if Joe Ellis' "work" fails to include his teaching, why do we even bother?