"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


turned into a newt

Surprise, surprise, Newt Gingrich's decade of punditry and self-promotional book writing may result in a 2012 presidential run. That's about the least shocking news since FOX News aligned itself with the crazies and their tea bags, but it's interesting.

What most people don't know about Gingrich is that he's a card-carrying member of the overeducated elite. (My membership card and instructions for buying a navy blue Subaru hatchback and joining an organic food co-op should arrive any day now.) That's right: Newton Leroy Gingrich holds the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Modern European History from Tulane University in New Orleans. The subject of his dissertation? Education policy in the Belgian Congo.

(My adviser discovered the cite. We thought it was a joke.)

Just before handing in the final version of my dissertation, I finally sucked it up and headed to the basement microfilm room in the library to read Gingrich's dissertation. (When I say "read" here, I mean, of course, that I skimmed through until I found something interesting.) I think it's fairly safe to assume that I'm among a rather limited number of people to have actually looked at our possible future president's thoughts, so just in case you're wondering what he had to say, here's a synopsis. What did the young Mr. Gingrich think of Belgium's colonial administration of education in the Congo?
  • He didn't actually go to the Congo. From what I could gather, anyway. There's no evidence in the text suggesting that Gingrich actually went to Kinshasa to see what Belgium hath wrought. That's fair; his Ph.D. was in Modern European history, not African history. But the story about the Congo that's told in Brussels is vastly different from the reality on the ground. That was even more true when Gingrich was conducting his research.
  • He liked paternalism. A lot. Belgium's policy with regards to the vast majority of the Congolese was to deny secondary-level education to all but a very few people. Boys were educated to be laborers and girls were trained as housemaids and for other domestic pursuits. All students (most of whom, it should be noted, were learning in government-subsidized Catholic schools) were taught the virtues of loyalty and obedience to their white masters. Until the post-World War II period, very few Congolese advanced beyond a sixth-grade education. It was the mid-1950's before the Belgian government allowed a Congolese man to attend university in Europe. (This policy stands in sharp contrast to that of the British and the French in particular, who were busy trying to assimilate their African subjects into "Frenchness" pretty much from the get-go.) The policy was known as paternalism; the colonial government saw itself as the protector of and provider for the Congolese, and as the entity who knew what was best for millions of central Africans. Gingrich doesn't seem to have an issue with the paternalistic policies. In fact, in some parts of the dissertation, he seems to embrace it. For example, towards the end, he praises the fact that the Belgians developed "the largest pirimary and vocational school systems in Black Africa" (280).
  • He saw Belgian rule as beneficent. Gingrich argues that the Belgians prepared Congolese women for the challenges of modernity, by which he presumably means that learning to wash the dishes of wealthy white women with water from a faucet was a useful 20th century skill to have in place of, say, being able to critically reason or understand what the natural rights imply about subservience and racism.
  • He viewed the colonial administration of the Belgian government as technocratic. A technocratic government is one in which most of the decisions that actually matter are made by bureaucrats with highly specialized training. Today, most technocratic regimes are in Latin America. That's an interesting way of describing the system, and I think it's a fair analysis.
  • He recognized some of the absurdity of it all. There's a section in Gingrich's dissertation on the debate over bilingual education that took place in the halls of the colonial administration in Brussels. By "bilingual," of course, the Belgian bureaucrats and politicians were arguing over whether Congolese children should be instructed in both French and Flemish, or just in French.
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. Then again, Gingrich finished his Ph.D. just before Mobutu systematically destroyed almost every aspect of Congolese society, including the education system. It's very fair to say that the Congolese were in some ways better off under the Belgians in the post-World War II era than they were in the mid-1980's as Mobutu stole from the public coffers and allowed the state to collapse under the weight of corruption and falling commodity prices on the global market.

And why, you might ask, did Gingrich leave the cushy, underpaid halls of academia for the madhouse of modern American politics? He was denied tenure by West Georgia College. (Rumor has it that this was in part because he was spending all his time on politics.) Still, let that be a lesson to us, academics. If the ambitious conservative in your midst won't shut up, at least give him the benefit of the doubt. West Georgia might could have saved the rest of us from a lot of trouble. Then again, at least I only had to read one Newt Gingrich publication on the Congo.


Blogger Charlie Mac said...

TIA, I would think that someone with 26 plus years studying in the American education system could come up with a better word to describe those who disagree with
you politicaly than crazies. This is almost as bad as the words with vulgar sexual connitations used by some reporters in the MSM.
Our government has been on a spending spree that can not be sustained. Taxes are too high on the people who make this country's economy work. We can not continue to "bail out" mis-managed businesses or people who will not work because of some reason or the other. Businesses should be allowed to fail and able bodied people expected to work for food, clothing and shelter.
If Newt Gingrich was a liberal politician, would you see his dissertation on the Congo as a brilliant example of research?
Here I am, still clinging to my religion, my guns and the same woman for 52 years.
Mac (in Alabama who would have joined the 100+ "crazies" here in Mobile, AL but for needing to work)

Friday, April 17, 2009 6:23:00 AM

Anonymous Michael Westmoreland-White said...

It's interesting to contrast Gingrich as academic-turned-working politician with someone like, say, the late Paul Wellstone (D-MN) who made a similar move.


Here's an interesting article on the Congo that I thought I'd run past you for accuracy.

Friday, April 17, 2009 9:44:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Mac, okay, some of the people who participated in those protests have perfectly legitimate arguments. But my sense is that most of the people who were out protesting don't really understand tax policy - and their taxes aren't being changed in the least by the Obama administration, except most are getting a modest tax cut. Meanwhile, many of the protesters said and presented things that are downright offensive. I'm not going to concede that comparing the sitting President of the United States to Hitler and Osama bin Laden is okay. It's not, and the people doing these things on Wednesday are divorced from reality.

Michael, I'm not seeing the link to the Congo article. Mind reposting it?

Friday, April 17, 2009 11:01:00 AM

Blogger Alexis said...


TIA's analysis of Newt Gingrich's dissertation had nothing to do with whether he was liberal or conservative. If you read through her analysis, it has good criticism that is not politically based. This is actually something she knows about. And, I think, as a qualified academician, she should be able to deconstruct an early dissertation on a topic in her particular field.

Were you paying attention, or just upset that she said 'crazies'?
here in Waco- there were DEFINITELY more crazies than not. As well as a lot of Rednecks.

Friday, April 17, 2009 11:08:00 AM

Anonymous kirstin said...

i drive a navy blue subaru.

and you said "might could" in your second to last sentence! i didn't know you used that construction. interesting. :) i'm starting to decide that it's useful.

Friday, April 17, 2009 1:27:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Mac, as is the case with most dissertations (And I don't except mine from this), Gingrich's dissertation is a terrible piece of scholarship. It's poorly written and he makes substantial errors in judgment. That I completely disagree with his view of American politics doesn't mean I can't fairly evaluate his view of Congolese politics. I presented a fair representation of his work and will stand by it.

Kirstin, you and my sister would have a great time together! :)

Friday, April 17, 2009 3:04:00 PM

Anonymous Sister said...

Kirstin, maybe you mean you're "fixin' to decide that it's useful"? :) I noticed the "might could", too! We should be friends...

Friday, April 17, 2009 4:15:00 PM

Anonymous Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Sorry, TiA, I left you the wrong link.


Here's the DRC article. Let me know how accurate it is.

Saturday, April 18, 2009 2:12:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Hey, Michael, it's a good overview of the situation there, with a few minor factual errors (eg, there were 27,000 reported rapes in South Kivu in SIX MONTHS of one year, and I think it was the first half of 2007, not for 2006). The idea that American military intervention is in the least bit an option is laughable. We need 100-200,000 well-equipped peacekeepers on the ground to even begin talking about security and stability. Forget "democracy"; it exists mostly as a figment of the Western states' imaginations and is a big disappointment to the Congolese, who believed that the 2006 elections would bring peace at last.

Sunday, April 19, 2009 9:34:00 PM

Anonymous Warren Terra said...

All sorts of questions immediately present them to my admittedly idle curiosity:
Does Newt speak French? I don't recall hearing of such back when he was hailed as the Republican genius of 1994, and I didn't see it in his Wikipedia page.
Similarly, does he speak Flemish? (Any indigenous languages would I assume be a forlorn hope).
You note no evidence that Newt visited the former Belgian Congo; did he visit Belgium, and do primary research in any archives there?
The site that linked me here (Lawyers, Guns, And Money) said that Newt didn't cite any Congolese sources, a claim that I think goes slightly beyond what you say in your post; nonetheless, is it an accurate claim, to your knowledge?

Monday, April 20, 2009 10:48:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Warren, thanks for stopping by. As far as I could tell, he relied on archival sources available in the U.S. and Belgium. That doesn't mean he didn't use Congolese sources (I didn't read his bibliography enough to be able to answer, unfortunately. The whole experience was painful and I tried to move through it quickly.), but it's reasonable to think he could have. For example, there were a number of publications from the Catholic church on its schools that should have been available in Belgium at that time. I've read some of those sources in the Library of Congress as well.

As for the language issue, it would have been impossible to write that dissertation if he didn't speak French. There's just no way. My understanding is that most of the colonial ministry's employees were French-speakers, therefore most of the documents he needed would have been in French, not Flemish. In addition, I can't imagine that a PhD program in Modern European History wouldn't require competence in at least one continental European language. If Gingrich speaks (or spoke) French and doesn't claim it, I could see why - his base wouldn't be too happy with it, would they?

Monday, April 20, 2009 11:12:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

If one has access to Proquest's dissertation database the entire text is online at:


Happy reading!

Saturday, April 25, 2009 2:57:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

... since FOX News aligned itself with the crazies and their tea bags...

While this is of course your own blog, you seem to violate your own debate policy:

Please use good manners and be respectful of those with whom you disagree. It's not a crime to have opinions and preferences. That someone's views are different from your own does not make them a bad or stupid person.

Friday, November 05, 2010 7:19:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

It's not disrespectful to state a fact.

Friday, November 05, 2010 9:16:00 PM

Anonymous Catherine said...

As much as I'd love to gang up on Newt Gingrich, I find it hard to disparage his dissertation without knowing what his argument was? You give us a few controversial tidbits but they're taken out of context so it's really not fair for us to judge to the validity of the argument. Could you at least tell us what his thesis was? What was he trying to say about education and the Belgian Congo?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011 10:45:00 PM

Anonymous chris k said...

I know this is old but I just found out about this thesis and it shocks me that Newt Gingrich is an actual successful politician. There is no word for anyone who supports colonialism in Africa other than crazy. Especially when they support the Congolese colonialism, which was one of the more brutal campaigns in modern history. It ranks up there with the Holocaust imo. The paternalism, the violence, the literal hostage-taking, head-hunting, handcutting, covering up of violence, more violence, slavery, etc. all committed by the Belgians were some of the most inhuman actions ever. Newt Gingrich is an insane person or a sociopath and those people defending him are severely misguided. Colonialism and its still very extant legacy (as well as neocolonialism) have done nothing but harm to Africa and it seems like so few people understand the real causes of violence and strife, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 2:36:00 PM

Anonymous Captain Obvious said...

If you want to know the whole argument of the dissertation, Catherine, then read it. That is generally how we learn all of the details of a book. What TIA has done here is draw to our attention some of the most intriguing and/or problematic parts of the dissertation.

Friday, June 10, 2011 3:10:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's the actual abstract of the dissertation:

This study concluded that the Belgians had never understood the realities of change in postwar Africa. Even more significantly, they never understood the relationship between economic modernization, which they favored, and social and political modernization, which they opposed. They designed plans based on European nutured 'common sense' rather than African realities. However they did not intend simply to create an exploited body of native helots. Belgian policy assumed that eventually the Congolese would govern themselves. The Belgians simply would not have begun withdrawing until the turn of the century or later. Consequently they developed a very slowly maturing education system. Neither Congolese nor neighboring developments permitted an agonizingly gradual pace of political and social modernization. Evidence of growing dissatisfaction was ignored by the Belgian leaders until it was too late to devise education programs (in either the formal or informal sense) to develop a leadership elite.

The Belgian colonial elite failed precisely because it was an elite. The lack of popular interest led to parliamentary indifference toward colonial affairs. This tied in with the colony's insulation from external scrutiny to guarantee the colonial bureaucracy's security. Therefore the colonial leaders were able to ignore independent critiques which might have led them to reassess basic assumptions. This comfortable security led to the perpetuation of education and other programs designed in the 1920s. The result was an archaic colonial system unable to deal with the crisis of modernization which its original successes had helped initiate.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011 11:53:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks, Anon. That's interesting, because there's definitely a disconnect between the abstract and the actual text of the dissertation.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011 5:20:00 PM

Anonymous Dan goor said...

It is interesting to note that Gingrich keep saying that he was hired (for big $$$$) as a historian by housing authorities. What does education in the Congo have to do with the United States housing market?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011 4:48:00 PM

Anonymous Dan Goor said...

It is amazing how Newt Gingrich can parlay a dissertation about education in the Congo to millions in fees as an adviser to the United States housing business. Claiming not to be a lobbyist, Gongrich says that his LARGE pay was to give advice as a historian, how does education in the Congo help the US housing sector?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011 4:53:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your critique and commentary until I got to the last line: "If the ambitious conservative in your midst won't shut up..."

Not that I am either ambitious or conservative, but why is it that all conservatives, especially in academe, are relegated to just chattery morons?

I'm often confounded by the attitudes of the people I have worked with in universities who, by their own admission, are supposed to be liberal (and by that I mean tolerant and unprejudiced) and are many times the most narrow-minded and disparaging of the group, especially if any one should even hint at being conservative.

It seems that the liberal tolerance is not spent all all people and all narratives. Liberals are guilty of being exclusive and selective, a characteristic probably borrowed from fellow conservatives. I think Baudelaire is best here: "Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!"

Sunday, December 04, 2011 1:58:00 AM

Blogger Nichol Brummer said...

The education story reminds me of what I heard in Malawi, where Catholic missions brought education to the north, less open to poor people, and more oriented to the elite, especially the sons of chiefs. South african dutch reformed church missions brought education to the south, where are said to have tried to give education to everybody, which went to the expense of developing an elite. The story continues that the higher educated elite of today is drawn more from the northern tribe than the southern majority. This causes some ethnic tensions now.

This blogpost suggests to me that the belgians education system may have been more like the one meant to be more egalitarian, in southern parts of Malawi. And maybe it could have helped if they had done more to also create an academic & trained elite.

It should also be added the the most cruel times in the Congo are usually said to have been at the start, as 'private property' of the belgian king, under the reign of Stanley. When if became a belgian colony after that .. it wasn't easy to fix, the colony wasn't all that profitable, and maybe belgians themselves were not so interested, leaving it to the technocrats. (This from somebody that read a book or two, but is far from expert on the Congo.)

Sunday, December 04, 2011 1:04:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am in the process of reading Newt's thesis, and am curious whether any people have done so and reported their findings. In trying to be objective, I am not assuming the he actually wrote the thesis, as most academics naturally assume that a thesis was actually written by the putative author and properly vetted by the advisor.. Where did the abstract sent in by anon come from?

Friday, January 27, 2012 10:17:00 PM


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