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."

Yes it was. The early days of Congolese independence were fraught with horror, from the wars over secessionist movements to the Mulele Rebellion in the east to the famines that occurred as a result of violence to the assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, the country's many problems were a direct result of Belgium's failure to adequately educate and prepare its citizenry. This would have been obvious when Gingrich wrote in 1971 and it is obvious today.  What is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo has never been well governed by an effective leader who had full control over the territory.

That said, looking back at the April 2009 blog post that became the meat of a recent Maureen Dowd column and subsequent micro-scandal over Gingrich's dissertation, I'm not sure I would write the same post today. Dowd quoted from my post, "The whole thing is kindof a glorified white man's burden take on colonial policy that was almost certainly out of vogue in the early 1970's. Gingrich wrote this as the Black Consciousness and Black Power movements were approaching their pinnacles. It was most decidedly not the time to be arguing that white European masters did a swell job ruling black Africans through a system that ensured that most Congolese would never get a real education." She called his approach "anti-anticolonialism."

Heaven forbid that any of us be judged by our dissertations. The last stage of earning a PhD is a miserable process, fraught with exhaustion, self-doubt, and the abuse of caffeine. By that point, most graduate students have given up on making a unique and brilliant contribution to the academy and are ready to settle for a dissertation that is good enough to get past a committee of scholars and the university's administrative authorities. A dissertation is not necessarily fully reflective of the author's views. Committee members' preferences have to be satisfied, which is one reason most newly minted PhDs significantly revise their dissertations before publishing them as books.

But writing a dissertation is also a process of great intellectual stimulation and freedom. For the right person, digging up source materials from archives or interviews to construct an evidence-based argument no one has ever made before can be exhilarating and provide a sense of accomplishment like few others. While Newt Gingrich's views of colonialism may have been out-of-date even at the time, there's no question that he had the tenacity and sheer will required to write a dissertation. I suspect that skill -- if not necessarily his somewhat soft take on one of the worst colonial regimes in African history -- will serve him well in the months to come.