Thursday, January 26, 2012

New York Times column re: Gingrich's ethnocentric Ph.D. thesis supporting Belgian colonialism

December 4, 2011
What Gingrich Didn’t Learn in Congo

San Francisco

NEWT GINGRICH seldom misses a chance to note that he is a historian. He lards his speeches with references to obscure events in the American past, talks about his time teaching at West Georgia College (not one of those effete Ivies), and has declared that the more than $1.6 million in fees he earned from Freddie Mac was for his work not, heaven forbid, as a lobbyist, but as a historian. And last year he was in the news for saying President Obama exhibited “Kenyan, anticolonial behavior.”

Mr. Gingrich would be our first president with a Ph.D. since Woodrow Wilson. Does his work as a historian tell us anything about him? Or, for that matter, anything about why, despite certain events in 1776, he considers “anticolonial” an epithet? To address these questions, a good place to start is his 1971 Tulane doctoral dissertation: “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo 1945-1960.”

A curious document it is — but not in ways that Mr. Gingrich’s enemies might hope for, since the dissertation is not filled with racism or drum-beating for colonialism’s glories. At the start he asks, “Did the colonial powers perform a painful but positive function in disrupting traditional society and so paving the way for more rapid modernization? Even if they did, was the price of colonial exploitation too high?” Good questions, but he never answers them. Instead, he surveys his subject in a highly pedantic way, dutifully covering rural and urban schools, church and state schools, white and black schools, Protestant and Catholic schools, and education for men and for women. Footnotes, statistics and quotes from eminent authorities abound. The writer who emerges from the text is not the fire-breathing, slash-and-burn partisan attacker Mr. Gingrich’s critics portrayed from his time as House speaker, nor the profound, big-picture thinker Mr. Gingrich the candidate presents himself as. It’s the desk-bound policy wonk.

Part of the wonkery is the absence of any human detail. What did a colonial-era Congolese school look like? What was in the textbooks? How did the teachers treat their students? The reader never learns because Mr. Gingrich never went there — although he did go to Belgium. Perhaps he couldn’t afford a trip to Africa. He cites interviews with one American and seven Belgians — but not a single Congolese, though there were hundreds living in Europe and the United States he could have talked to.

Instead, the future legislator was interested in how educational policy in the Congo reflected tensions in Belgian political life — between Catholics and secularists, and between the French and Flemish halves of the country. Absent Congolese voices and lives, the dissertation is as dry as a stale biscuit.

Despite these limitations, however, Mr. Gingrich is clear-eyed about colonialism. “Belgium ran the Congo as a profitable business,” he writes. “This goal could be achieved only with a passive native population.” He notes that the various “civilizing” efforts the Belgians were so proud of “were commercially motivated. For example, the natives received medical care because it improved their capabilities as a work force. They received enough education to be effective workmen.”

He refers to the “paternalistic” policies of a mining company and the colonial government and to the channeling of blacks into vocational and technical training as “ ‘Uncle Tom’-ish,” though “advanced” for its time. Secondary education for girls was “appalling”; for boys, “also pretty dismal.” School financing was “woefully inadequate” and it was “pathetically unjust” that spending per pupil on the children of white settlers was nearly 10 times what it was for Congolese. He scoffs at Belgian pride in setting up two universities during the final years of colonial rule, pointing out that the students were overwhelmingly white.

Beyond education, Mr. Gingrich has a shrewd politician’s sense of how the colonial system worked. Power was held by a “triumvirate”: an all-white senior civil service, a powerful cartel of corporations and the Catholic Church. The first wanted power, the second profits, the third converts. Could this astute description reflect a hitherto unknown radical phase in Newt’s youth?

Alas, no: his beef is not that there might be anything immoral about one country’s owning and exploiting another, but that the Belgians didn’t create a class of Congolese who could keep the economy functioning efficiently — for whose profit, he never asks. “The Belgians get very low marks for their efforts to develop a political elite and much of the country’s post-independence chaos is due to this Belgian failure.”

Hmmm. If you think this sounds too anticolonial, better alert Fox News. But the bigger question is: does this thesis show an original, creative historian at work? This it does not.

Woodrow Wilson’s Ph.D. dissertation boldly asserted that the founding fathers had gotten many things wrong, and advocated for this country something like the British parliamentary system. Soon published as a book, it was argued over for decades, and even scholars who disagreed with Wilson respected him, and his openness to changing his ideas. Mr. Gingrich may succeed in being elected president, but it is hard to imagine him, like Wilson after he left the White House, being elected president of the American Historical Association.

Adam Hochschild is the author of “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.”

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