Prospect Magazine: Cool Classes

The Evil Class

Was Nero really such a bad guy? Well, yes, says Professor Rob Butler.

In the College Catalog the class appears as History 212: Great Personalities in History, but that title does scant justice to the novel approach that Professor Rob Butler takes to the course. Butler teaches the class as a study in the role of evil figures in history.

Turning to evil
In the early 1990s, Butler was new to Elmhurst and concerned about the lack of student interest in the Great Personalities class, an uninspiring and outmoded offering that usually attracted seven or eight students per semester. A colleague jokingly suggested he pique interest by renaming the class Great Degenerate Perverts throughout Time. “It was a brilliant idea,” says Butler, “so of course I stole it.”

Reshaping the class
“The next time I taught the class, instead of focusing on the heroes, I looked at the villains. It became its own little liberal arts education in a semester. We get into questions of value: Are there eternal values that all human beings respect? Gender issues come up, too. Ask students for a list of great evil people, nine times out of ten, the list will be all male.” Butler calls the class a “tool for learning about historical methods and the context of past cultures.” As campus buzz about the class spread, up to 30 students were enrolling in the class.

Required reading
The Twelve Caesars, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus; In Search of Dracula, Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally; Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, by Alan Bullock.

A term in evil’s shadow
A term spent pondering evil can take an emotional toll. “There are moments when the class gets to be intense,” Butler says. He screens a French documentary about the Holocaust called Night and Fog, and says it can be “a shattering experience for a lot of students.”

“No Detachment”
“By the end of the semester, there’s a maturing,” says the professor. “Students start this class with this strange fascination—did Nero really do all those things? And it’s easier to romanticize Nero or Dracula, because it was so long ago. But by the time we get to Hitler, it’s much more immediate and visceral. It’s appalling and horrifying and there’s no detachment from it. It’s still close enough you can talk to survivors of the camps. The students realize: this really happened. Look at the suffering. It makes them a little more grown up.”

Historians and evil
“Theologians and philosophers talk about evil all the time, but historians avoid the topic. They’re uncomfortable with it, because it’s a little too relativistic,” Butler says. “Evil is a topic of great fascination to everyone but historians.”

Rob Butler teaches a popular course focusing on history's greatest villains.
Photo by Tom Lindfors

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