I may be the only person on the face of the earth who has read, cover to cover, Immanuel Kant's Inaugural Dissertation, Karl Marx's doctoral dissertation, and Newt Gingrich's doctoral dissertation. I do not think this is sufficient to qualify me as a scholar, but with luck it might get me invited to a dinner party.
[Incidentally, I find it somewhat disorienting to have to refer to the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, third in line to the Presidency, as "Newt." Do you suppose he has a sister nicknamed "Eft?"]
Since I am known as a student of the thought of both Kant and Marx, it will not come as a surprise that I have read the first two documents, but Gingrich's doctoral dissertation? What is that about? Well, I have had some unkind things to say about Newt on this blog -- about his pompous, self-inflating bloviating, his appallingly inappropriate self-satisfaction, the sheer vacuity of his utterances. All by himself, he has given self-esteem a bad name. But then I thought to myself: "Gingrich presents himself to the world as an academic. He has a Ph. D., or so I have heard. He even had a college teaching job. I owe it to him as, in a manner of speaking, a colleague to take a look at his dissertation and see what it has to say."
In the old days, a daunting task, but not in the age of digitization. Wikipedia informed me that Gingrich did his graduate work in the Tulane history department; the Tulane website took me to the university's library catalogue; the Duke University Reference Librarian talked me through the download process over the phone [never easy for old guys like me], and there it was: "Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945-1960 A Dissertation Submitted on the Sixth Day of May, 1971 to the Department of History of the Graduate School of Tulane University in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Newton Leroy Gingrich." Two hundred eighty-three pages of text, typed and double-spaced in standard dissertation format, five pages of tables, five pages of "selected bibliography" and a one-page biographical sketch of the author indicating that he was awarded a B.A. by Emory University.
Since it would appear that we are going to have Newt to kick around for a while, I decided to read the entire blasted thing, which I did yesterday, from Introduction to Bibliography. It may be some while before anyone else undertakes this task, so I think I owe it to my faithful blog-readers and to the wider cyberspace audience to give a reasonably detailed description of the document. I do not imagine it will sway many votes, one way or another, but it may be, in the immortal words of W. S. Gilbert in The Mikado, a "source of innocent merriment."
Why on earth Belgian educational policy in the Congo? Newt was studying Modern European History, to be sure, but the topic seems rather obscure. The dissertation lacks the typical page of acknowledgements that might offer a clue, but a bit more surfing of the web reveals that the dissertation director, Professor Pierre Henri Laurent, whose name appears on the signature page, was the son of "an eminent Belgian historian, who died during the Resistance; his mother was a distinguished teacher and linguist. Pierre and his older sister were brought as children to the United States by their mother when the Second World War broke out." Mystery solved.
I will have more to say about the dissertation [I must wring some benefit from the hours spent reading it, after all], but you will want to know right away whether this bit of juvenilia, as it were, shows signs of the mature Newt in full bellow, bombastic, pleased to the point of ecstasy by the sound of his own voice, a Larry Summers without the becoming modesty, if I may put it that way.
Not a bit of it! The dissertation is written in a pedantic, serviceable prose, giving no evidence of the Newt that was to emerge as a fully formed Toad. Although the dissertation is written entirely in English, the footnotes give evidence that Gingrich had a quite adequate command of written French. [The only word in the entire dissertation not in English or French is misspelled -- Weltanschauung with only one "u" -- page 205, line 2] Gingrich relies heavily on secondary sources, with especial attention to the work of Ruth Slade and Roger Anstey. However, he has clearly made extensive use of Belgian public documents, including reports of Parliamentary debates. There is no evidence in the text that he traveled either to Belgium or to the Congo, and he seems not to have interviewed any of the principal actors, Belgian or Congolese, even though the dissertation was written only a handful of years after the departure of the Belgians from the Congo.
The structure of the dissertation is straightforward: an Introduction, three chapters on the political and historical background of Belgium's colonization of the Congo, nine chapters on various aspects of the educational institutions introduced by the Belgians into the Congo -- religious education, secular education for the Congolese, secular education for Belgians living in the Congo, education for women, agricultural education, technical education, higher education for the Congolese, etc. -- and a Conclusion.
The political or ideological orientation of the dissertation, if I may put it this way, is roughly that of a Cold War member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Colonization is seen almost entirely from the perspective of the colonial power, not from that of the indigenous population. The rule of King Leopold II, who literally owned the colony as his private property until, at his death, he willed it to Belgium, is widely understood to have been the most horrifyingly brutal colonial regime in Africa. Gingrich acknowledges this fact once in the dissertation. Speaking of the financial pressures placed by the Congo on King Leopold's coffers, Gingrich reports that a "state official told a missionary in 1899 that each time a corporal 'goes out to get rubber he is given cartridges. He must return all those that are not used; and for every one used he must bring back a right hand.'" [p. 15]
But with this sole exception, Gingrich's picture of the Belgian colonial administration is reasonably favorable. As I read his account of the struggles by dedicated Belgian colonial administrators to provide some measure of formal education to the Congolese, in the face of a generally uninterested and neglectful government in Brussels, I was reminded of nothing so much as the writings of John Stuart Mill on India, and the responsibility of cultivated, enlightened Englishmen to bear the heavy burden of stewardship until the non-European peoples are ready for self-rule.
As I have observed, the dissertation is written entirely in English, with quotations from French writers or documentary courses translated in the text, but there is one exception, "évolué," which appears dozens of times in the dissertation. évolué is the past participle of the French verb évoluer, "to evolve." It is the term that was used by the Belgians to refer to those Congolese who learned French, adopted Western dress and styles of social behavior, and became Europeanized. There are several occasions in the dissertation where Gingrich refers to events or statements as "ironic," but he seems not to have been aware of any tingle of irony in his own use of évolué.
Although he makes no effort at all to consult the colonized and give voice to their view of the Belgian rule, Gingrich does at one point, rather surprisingly, quote Father Placide Tempels quite favorably and at some length. [pages 100-101.] Tempels was a missionary priest who wrote an important book called Bantu Philosophy. It is the first acknowledgement by a European author that the indigenous peoples of Africa have complex, philosophically sophisticated conceptions of the world and their place in it. I confess that I was surprised and impressed to see Tempels put in an appearance in Gingrich's dissertation. I was a good deal less pleased by Gingrich's reliance on the always questionable Colin Turnbull.
Gingrich's summary evaluation of the Belgian colonial performance is quite positive, on the whole, and I cannot help but wonder whether this reflects the point of view of his Belgian dissertation director. To give you some sense of Gingrich's perspective, here is a paragraph from the short Concluding chapter:
"The Belgian colonial record left no one guilty and no one innocent. The Belgian leaders had virtually absolute power. By 20th century standards they used it benevolently although without foresight. The Belgian public had abandoned a responsibility which it did not desire in the first place and which had to compete for attention with pressing and far more obvious domestic problems. The only people who suffered were the Congolese and they had suffered far more under Leopold II (and their neighbors still suffer far more under Portuguese and South African rule). That guilt which the Belgians bear is for neglect, oversight, and relatively mild exploitation. If the Congo was not the model colony Belgian publicists pretended, neither was it the disaster news reports from 1960 to 1965 suggested. To have developed a semi-modernized, semi-educated but politically innocent colony was one of the Twentieth Century's lesser sins." [p. 283]
In the academic year in which he submitted his dissertation, Gingrich took a teaching job as an Assistant Professor in the History Department at West Georgia College. I have been unable to find any scholarly publications coming from his dissertation, but my ability to search the databases on the web is rather rudimentary, and someone more skilled may be able to enlighten me. While teaching at West Georgia, Gingrich ran unsuccessfully for the U. S. House of Representatives in the 6th district, first in 1974 and again in 1976. Finally, having been denied tenure at West Georgia, he won the seat in 1978.
The rest, as they say, is farce.