Yesterday I read somewhere that Newt Gingrich -- the latest insurgent in the Republican presidential race, and current challenger of Mitt Romney -, who is a historian, wrote his Ph.D. thesis in 1971 about ‘Belgian education policy in the Congo: 1945-1960‘.
I thought that was pretty amusing for a former Speaker of the House, author of the 1994 ‘Republican Revolution’, and possible Republican presidential nominee, so I wanted to look it up and blog something about it.
But lo and behold, someone was there first. Robert Paul Wolff at the blog The Philosopher’s Stone read Newt Gingrich’s Ph.D. thesis, so enjoy his review:
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Edit: Also enjoy this interview of Newt Gingrich by Ali G: