The history of Joseph Ellis has taken another twist. The Mount Holyoke College historian, whose books about the founding fathers won prizes, fabricated a Vietnam War record to impress his students, and when the lies were exposed, his life’s labors were made suspect. Postmodern critics may be delighted with the implications of the Ellis saga; every writer is an Ellis, they might say, every work of history a cloud of authorial prejudice and deception. Even for those without such PoModish proclivities, however, a question has been introduced: Where does the chronicle of past events end, and where do the annals of self-consciousness begin? (In a 1997 conversation with David Gergen, soon after the publication of his book about Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx, Ellis observed: “Jefferson was not a hypocrite. … He had almost separate chambers in his psyche, where he could put things and seal them, where you didn’t have to—he didn’t have to confront them. … He wasn’t a person who sort of did this in a calculating way. It came to him quite naturally, who he was, because he didn’t like argument; he didn’t like conflict. He didn’t like debate, and he wanted this to always come out nicely, and, therefore, he would tell you what you wanted to hear.” Is that so, Professor Ellis?)
Mount Holyoke, Ellis’ employer, has now issued its punishment: Ellis will be banished from the classroom for a year, and although he retains his library privileges, the university doesn’t expect to see their formerly prized professor stalking the stacks. Is this punishment necessary? Professor David Garrow, one of Ellis’ more punitively minded critics (what else would you expect from a law-school historian), would probably argue that this punishment isn’t severe enough. Has Ellis has suffered sufficient punishment? He’s been humiliated and discredited, and anything more would be vindictive. Moreover, if he’s an asset in the classroom, as the university believes since it says Ellis will return to his duties in 2002, why punish students by denying them the professor’s real expertise and proven knowledge? If he must reflect on his misdemeanors, as he should, then he owes it to his students and to the rest of the faculty to reflect on those errors in the same forum that he made his lies: in the lecture hall and in the classroom. (And if the punishment should include a financial penalty, then Ellis should teach free of charge.) Shunting Ellis to the boondocks (which in academia can be known as a sabbatical) for his transgression would only help gild the tiresome notion that what’s wrong always matters more than what’s right.
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