Wednesday, September 15, 2004

That accounts for your respectful, polite, despicable behavior

Tonight, I attended the first lecture of HIS 3314, History of WWII. Five minutes ago, I dropped it. I have never heard such reprehensible gibberish in person, let alone from a tenured professor. I thought I'd seen reactionary, anti-American, anti-Bush madness in classes before; I was wrong. I should have counted myself lucky to only hear an occasional offensive joke, rather than a bizarre conspiracy theory dressed up in the pretense of a coherent lesson. Professor Brian Villa announced in the first five minutes of class his pride in being a revisionist historian, which really should have tipped me off that in the rest of the lecture laid only horror. He started out with recounting one of his earliest memories. His father was a civil servant in a Latin American country (which, he didn't mention), and he claims to remember, at the age of three, watching a late-arriving newsreel in his local movie theatre showing American forces liberating the death camps of Germany. Not thirty seconds later, he outlined his overarching philosophy: War is always wrong and never justified, not even to stop genocide. I cannot comprehend what kind of amoral excuse a rational person could make in coming to such a conclusion. That alone makes him an equivocating monster, in my book, but it got worse. He has "unconventional" theories, you see - theories he freely admits are based only upon his personal opinions, and without any factual proof, but are (believe him!) true, regardless. I was reminded of Dan Rather, but even Dan Rather has never tried to make leaps of logic as loopy as these. These were the most lunatic conspiracy theories I've ever heard. Not only, in his mind, did FDR know about Pearl Harbor (I'm inclined to believe he didn't), but also told all his generals, in order to warn them not to attack Japanese forces until after he'd spoken to Congress. (There had to be a short period of confusion and anger to build support for declaring war, you see.) WWI, to Villa, was a conspiracy of the great powers to oppress Germany. Both FDR and Winston Churchill personally plotted, throughout the 20s and 30s, to cause another war. Pearl Harbor was justified by racist immigration policies in California (!). And those don't include the tenuously plausible theories, such as that Edward VIII wasn't really pro-Nazi, but just part of a strategic ploy to cause Germany to assume British neutrality, or that Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement was actually a clever means of stalling to build up British forces. At some point, the mind just boggles. Then it turned to outrage, as he proceeded from the 'FDR purposely let Pearl Harbor happen to build support for war' concept to a laughter- and applause-gathering implication of "Know anything like that that's happened recently in the US?" I mean, Lordy, I thought I'd avoid loons like this if I didn't take any Poli-Sci courses. The one thing I'll say for him is that he doesn't appear to be anti-Semitic. That's something, I suppose. Lunatic conspiracy theorists don't often miss placing the Jooooos somewhere near the heart of imagined evil geopolitical machinations. I've never walked out of a class, but I wanted to tonight. Not just that, though; I wanted to punch this hateful and withered old wretch in the face on the way out, too. I did neither. I'm not that kind of person. But I did pack up and leave as soon as he called a break. The only thing that fits in my schedule to replace that class is a survey course on Early Modern Europe, which isn't my cup of tea at all. I picked it up anyway. No matter how dull, it's still better than the meeting of the tinfoil hat club that's going on down the hall. UPDATE 9/24: More here.


Blogger david said...

What you report is mind boggling. Is this man tenured? If so how come? Where are the academic standards? Whether he's tenured or not someone should force him to read some history. I will be reading your blog for further comments about life in academia in the nation's capital. Good luck David

9/15/2004 10:40:00 PM  
Blogger The Tiger said...

I've read a book of his -- Unauthorized Action: Mountbatten and the Dieppe Raid.

He actually argues that Dieppe was never approved by the War Cabinet and was in fact done without the authorization of Churchill, on the intiative of Lord Mountbatten.

He's not just tenured, he's a full professor.

I think I may have to adopt the Flea's statement: this country is broken.

9/15/2004 11:46:00 PM  
Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Paul, I don't know if this country is quite as broken as Nick thinks it is - although on my darkest days, you'll find me ranting along that line as well. But Canadian academia is definitely well and truly busted-up.

Good for you for getting the hell out of the class. Too bad you can't get the hell out of the university without hurting your own future prospects. Keep your head up, man.

9/16/2004 11:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well to continue with the Jesus Christ Superstar theme,

I think that you could have titles this post

"We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?"

9/16/2004 05:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is unfortunate that you dropped this class after only attending one lecture. It is even more unfortunate that you choose to demean Professor Villa in this public forum.

Professor Villa's credentials are beyond reproach. He was trained at Harvard by Ernest R. May, one of the top minds in American Foreign relations (May's latest job was as a Sr. advisor to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the 9/11 Commission, where he was largely responsible--with Philip Zelikow--for the Commission's final report). Professor Villa was a Fulbright scholar and performed his military service by teaching at the West Point military academy.

One of the other comments mentions Professor Villa's first book, "Unauthorized Action: Mountbatten and the Dieppe Raid." This book netted Professor Villa the Binkley-Stephenson Prize of the Organization of American Historians and the Bernath Prize of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. There is no question that some of Professor Villa's opinions and theories are unpopular; however, he is (without question) a first rate scholar. “Unauthorized Action” is an unparalleled advancement in the historiography of the Dieppe raid.

Had you remained for more than half a class of HIS 3314, you would have quickly realized that the textbook--Gerhard Weinberg's "A World at Arms"--is seriously at odds with Professor Villa's interpretation of World War II. The book is assigned purposefully, to allow students a more traditional interpretation of the war. It is worth noting that, even though Professor Weinberg strenuously objects to much of Professor Villa's interpretation, he cites "Unauthorized Action" as an example of leading scholarship on the Dieppe raid [see pages 358-362, and particularly endnote 155 on page 1026].

HIS 3314 is structured so that students are exposed to different historiographical interpretations of World War II. Whether or not you agree with Professor Villa's opinions, the exercise is one of historiography. Upper year history classes are about training students to think like historians. Where current events are concerned, of course Professor Villa's theories are founded on personal opinions. Where history is concerned, Professor Villa's ideas are the product of thought experiments supported by evidence. Occasionally the evidence is scant. Indeed, in "Unauthorized Action", Professor Villa freely admits that there is little concrete evidence to support his claims; however, through a process of inference and deduction (the real work of professional historians), he is able to construct a plausible version of past events. This is exactly what good history is all about.

As a recent student of Professor Villa's--and an Honours History graduate from the University of Ottawa--I can assure you that, had you remained in the class, you would have realized that the essence of the class was methodological. There is not pressure on students to adopt Professor Villa's point of view (indeed there is always lively discussion). The value of Professor Villa's class is to learn to think like a first rate historian. It is a question of process, not of substance.

I would respectfully submit that you have unfairly characterized Professor Villa's arguments and attributed characteristic to him which are unfounded. Professor Villa may not be your favourite professor; however, to suggest that he has no place teaching is to totally misunderstand the value of the training that you are receiving as a historian.

9/23/2004 06:08:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Denton said...

My response to Anonymous is here.

9/24/2004 08:28:00 AM  

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