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The Colonial Sympathies of Newt Gingrich

How my foray into the University of Texas microfiche collection helped spark, nearly three years later, a small scandal over the GOP primary leader's 1971 dissertation

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In April 2009, two days after defending my PhD dissertation, I sat down to write a blog post about one of the strangest experiences I'd had while writing it: reading Newt Gingrich's dissertation. We'd covered similar topics and I had to be sure that I had reviewed all the literature in the field: my research is on health care and education provision in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gingrich's 40-year-old Tulane dissertation is about education policy under the country's Belgian colonizers. At the time, Gingrich was still a largely forgotten figure in U.S. politics, and his bizarre paper seemed like little more than an odd little relic.

Two and a half years later, with Gingrich leading polls in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, his once-obscure project has since become a hot topic. My 32-month-old blog post has gone along for the ride, attracting several thousand hits in the last few weeks, thanks to mentions in the opinion pages of the New York Times, Salon, and other outlets that have discovered his dissertation.

I read Gingrich's dissertation in the last month or so of doing research for my own, and the experience was not pleasant. The University of Texas at Austin library had the work among its microfiche holdings, so I trudged over one afternoon to sit in the basement and scroll through Gingrich's research on an ancient microfiche reader. 

What I read was, for the most part, interesting, although I had already encountered many of the topics Gingrich discussed in articles from the Journal of Negro Education, in which scholars like Ellsworth Faris and Morris Siegel took a special interest in education policy in central Africa in the early 20th century. One issue of which I had not been aware was the absurd debate among Belgian colonial authorities as to whether education in Congo should be bilingual -- that is, in French and Flemish -- which Gingrich covered in great detail.

My initial sense of Gingrich's work was fairly negative. He'd expressed a positive view of the colonial project in general and in Congo particularly, both of which surprised me. Gingrich tried to evaluate Belgian colonial education policy on its own terms, without, as historian Adam Hochschild recently noted, referencing the actual experiences of Congolese people under Belgian rule. 

While Gingrich did acknowledge that Belgian colonial education policy was largely a failure, he saw their stated goal -- primarily, that of bringing the Congolese into the modern era -- as noble.  This policy, however, severely restricted the educational opportunities of the vast majority of the Congo's residents. Most were only allowed to attain a fourth-to-sixth grade education, and none were allowed to become medical doctors or to prepare for similarly important professions. Gingrich acknowledged that this system left the country unprepared for independence. But he also understated the extent to which that failure doomed the country. He wrote in his conclusion, "If the Congo was not the model colony Belgian publicists pretended, neither was it the disaster news reports from 1960 to 1965 suggested."

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Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. She blogs at Texas in Africa.

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