John Ashbrook Marches to His Own Beat

| May 4, 2012

Story by Jennifer McManamay | Photos by Meridith De Avila Khan

John Ashbrook turns mildly sheepish describing his latest book. Still in progress, it focuses on the European Union expansion into Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

“This project critically — and scathingly — analyzes the EU’s philosophy and actions concerning expansion into this formerly communist region,” John says. “It also critiques the elitist and urban nature of integration.”

He is not apologetic, but acutely aware of the reaction he will stir. “My conclusions will be provocative and controversial to say the least,” he says.

He’s a bit gun-shy about how his views are received among his colleagues. While he’ll be the first to admit you can’t trust stereotypes, let’s just say former presidential candidate Rick Santorum wouldn’t pick him out of a crowd as an intellectual snob.

Indeed, Professor Gerry Berg considered him the diversity candidate when the history department hired him as a visiting assistant professor in 2005.

“He’s a modern Europe historian who, unlike most modern Europe historians at a small school, specializes in Eastern Europe, and that’s out of the mainstream,” Gerry says.

“Along those same lines, he has a unique background for someone in academe. I think he is the only faculty member at Sweet Briar who is a lifetime member of the [National Rifle Association]. He has a point of view that isn’t representative of mainstream academe. That is a product of an independent critical mind and that’s ultimately what we look for.”

John is unabashedly hard right, politically, economically and socially. That is, he believes in small government except in national defense and policing, mostly hands-off foreign policy, minimally regulated economic policy, individual responsibility, and welfare only in the form a fair tax system.

On religion, he is a “secularist who defends the right to believe.”

And guns? “Everyone, everywhere for any reason should be packing a firearm.”

In conversation, colleagues and students say he loves to stir the pot.

“I think he does this because he is interested in seeing how people will react, even more so how far people will go in response,” says Theron McLeod ’09, a former student who today regards him as a good friend.

Around the faculty lunch table he “talks trash” to be funny, says biologist Janet Steven. But as someone who sits left of center politically, she appreciates that his opinions are fact-based and logical.

“History was never my best subject, but if I had had John as a professor I might have thought otherwise. I really like hearing his perspective on current or historical events because he explains the political and social factors that helped cause them.”

Once past first impressions, John seems to have a warming effect on people even when they disagree with him. That was Theron’s experience.

“I think, like most people who first meet him, I was surprised by his demeanor, personality and appearance,” she says. “However it did not take long for me know that I would like him immensely.”

When it comes to persona, the only thing professorial about him is his spectacles. Trouser suspenders are dapper on some, but on John they really are there to hold his pants up. His wife hates them. He favors a camouflage jacket in cold weather. His gun collection numbers around 30 pistols, shotguns and rifles, including an AK-47.

His wife doesn’t like those, either.

In 1991, at 13, she spent several months in a basement during Croatia’s war for independence from Yugoslavia. Her family escaped on a train running at night with its lights off. Ten years later she met John in the capital, Zagreb, while he was finishing his doctoral dissertation as a Fulbright fellow.

Ironically, he turned down a teaching Fulbright in Croatia for spring 2012. The move isn’t good for a career in academia, he admits, but he did it for his wife and son.

The books on his office shelves share space with portions of his other two collections, model and toy military vehicles and military headwear — real helmets and hats from numerous countries spanning more than 100 years of war.

Militarism is one of John’s lifelong interests and it has fueled his passion for history.

He speaks, often loudly, with the Southern Appalachian dialect of Lebanon, the small coal-mining town in far Southwest Virginia where he grew up. Raised by his mother after his parents split, his father’s family was nonetheless an influence on him.

“My dad’s family was redneck, but I never saw that word as particularly negative,” he says. “They were not really cultured, I guess. My grandfather had been, in his younger years, a semiprofessional thief, a moonshiner, a fighter, and all his friends were like that. I grew up in that circle. It was actually, even though I was from a broken home, it was pretty enjoyable to be around those folks.”

While he appreciated the plainspoken people and their hard-living ways, he wasn’t about to follow his father into the coal mines. He wanted to be a helicopter gunner, but it was 1987 and the Army didn’t need gunners with less than perfect eyesight. So, he went to college.

He enrolled at Radford University where, by his junior year, he suspected he wanted to pursue graduate studies in European history, particularly Germany.

“I had that perception that the German people were sort of militaristic and that appealed to me, since I’ve always had an interest in militarism and war,” he says. “But that was just a stereotype that graduate school soon taught me was something that was not necessarily true.”

John first visited Croatia in 1995 to witness what he thought would be the “last European war of my lifetime,” he says.

From the start, he felt a kinship with the Croats and Serbs. “The hard drinking, hard fighting, easy laughter, and importance of local and regional identities and history as well as the ubiquitous patriotism reminded me of rural Appalachia,” he says.

By then he was at Michigan State working on his master’s in European history. He later went to the University of Florida for his Ph.D. to specialize in modern Eastern European history.

His research eventually focused on how and why Croatian politicians and elites manipulated identity differences between regionalists and nationalists — which manifest as urban versus rural cultures and values — in the debate to join the European Union. His doctoral dissertation led to his first book, “Buying and Selling the Istrian Goat: Istrian Regionalism, Croatian Nationalism and EU Enlargement,” published in 2008.

Seeing how the rural-urban divide emerged in the research, John undertook his current book to examine whether it would apply to a larger political organization, such as the European Union as a whole.

“Initially I came into the project with a very positive opinion of the EU as a primarily economic union,” he says. “However, since I began my research in 2008, the evidence suggests that the EU is an elitist-urbanite project, directed primarily by the more powerful and larger member states to promote a failed European culture, identity, social system, and mixed economy — socialism with some market capitalism — that solely benefits those dominant states and like-minded elites.”

The “urban-elites,” he says, are mostly “wealthy politicians, generally socialists, who view themselves as the purveyors of a superior, urban culture. They juxtapose themselves against a supposedly ignorant, close-minded ‘nationalist’ with low culture, who resists integration of Europe and the ‘creeping nature’ of an elitist European identity. … I know this sounds like a rant. But I think all of it is true. And much of the evidence supports it.”

Gerry, fully aware of John’s vehemence on the subject, was unfazed by his about-face from positive to scathing opinion of the European Union. It’s “typical Ashbrook,” he says.

“John sets his course not by the prevailing winds that blow, but by his own careful research and thinking. He is a rigorous, practicing scholar. He doesn’t simply study history, he does history.”

He says John’s larger question — the extent to which national identity trumps European identity — is a festering problem. Even supporters of the EU admit that its policies don’t reflect the will of the people, Gerry says, a concept the French call the “democracy deficit.”

“History of this sort is as topical as it gets. Only by doing history can one say why things are the way they are. And nowhere is this ‘history’ more widely spoken of than in [the Balkans] where John is doing his research. The region is a seething cauldron of national identities. This was true one hundred years ago and it’s true today.”

It would be natural, by now, to wonder how John’s persona translates in the classroom, especially since history is one of Sweet Briar’s most popular majors. He claims he stole his style from a professor at Radford who “was crude, rude, outspoken, tough as nails” and “got results from his students.”

Cristina Keating, a sophomore from Northern Virginia, agrees with some of that.

“He’s a really good teacher, but he’s not an easy teacher,” she says.

“It’s easy to talk in his class, it’s not scary. He’ll kind of poke fun at people but it’s funny, unless you’re really sensitive. He’ll make fun of himself. That’s kind of the vibe. It’s OK to make a mistake.”

While he is openly opinionated, “he’s even-handed in the classroom, and that’s one of the reasons I like him,” Cristina says.

She describes his courses — and she’s taken several — as interactive and entertaining. He doesn’t distance himself from students, but keeps a “disciplined classroom.” And he’s always helpful.

“I’m a terrible writer and I’m a history major … ,” she says, her words trailing off. “He really is always available, and that’s not [a cliché].”

First-year Rachel Byrd, a Spanish and international affairs major from Mathews, Va., took “Soviet Russia and Beyond” with John because her advisor suggested she take something she’d enjoy.

The small, discussion-style course was a completely new but welcome learning environment for the recent high school grad. Rachel responded to his “unconstrained and gregarious” nature.

“I do like Dr. Ashbrook as a person because, although he can be loud and, well, crazy —it’s Ashbrook, though, most people know this — he was pretty funny and gave us his opinions honestly, which I respect, and taught us without changing the facts to suit what he believed.”

Assistant professor of international affairs Spencer Bakich is not so inclined as John to engage in partisan analysis. Nonetheless, he is unequivocal in his defense of his colleague’s scholarship and classroom presence. The two published a paper together in 2010 and team-taught a course on World War I contrasting the disciplinary approaches of historians versus political scientists to answer critical questions about the conflict.

“When it comes to his work, he’s willing to let the chips fall where they may,” Spencer says.

Further, he says John’s commitment to the intellectual life of the College is evidenced by the quality and quantity of his own research and by how much he obviously cares about the work others are doing.

“It would be easy to caricature John, but it wouldn’t be accurate or fair,” Spencer says. “The guy’s complex and he’s really good. It’s his sophistication that makes this place better.”

Others must agree. John made tenure this year.

Category: Summer 2012