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The Professor's Lies

Notes & Transcripts

Joseph Ellis became a best selling author, but even before his writing, he was famous for his vivid lectures. His classes at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts were popular because he would often puncuate his lectures with memories of his own combat experience in Vietnam. As Ellis's reputation grew—his books on the Founding Fathers have won both the prestigious National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize—the history professor began to regale local and national reporters with his memories of war.

Last year, after The Boston Globe carried accounts of Ellis's experience as a platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, someone who knew the truth about Ellis dropped a dime. Last week the Globe revealed that Ellis, famous for explaining the nation's history, had explaining to do about his own past.

"Even in the best of lives, mistakes are made," said an abject Ellis. It turned out that while the eminent historian had served in the Army, he'd spent his war years not in the jungles of Southeast Asia, but teaching history at West Point. He'd also overstated his role in the anti-war movement and even his high-school athletic record. His admission shocked colleagues, fellow historians, and students, who wondered why someone so accomplished would embellish his past. It’s simple really. It’s a matter of fear, a fear that somehow he wouldn’t measure up to all he thought he should in the eyes of others.

And when I live in lies, I live in bondage.

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