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Deconstructing Newt Gingrich's Dissertation

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It was right around the same time that Marc Lamont Hill (“Professor, Author, Speaker, Public Intellectual,” according to his website) claimed to Bill O’Reilly that conservatives and Republicans are incapable of “performing intellectuality” that I noticed the dissection of Newt Gingrich’s 1971 dissertation, first in the riposte by another public intellectual, Maureen Dowd.

As someone with a Ph.D., I know the travails of writing a dissertation, especially when one needs to replace committee members after the sixth rewrite does not satisfy them. My dissertation defense was filled with motion-picture ready high drama, with a showdown between a dean who expressed his reservations because of my unwillingness to note the fascistic nature of the U.S. government in the 1960s and a comp lit professor who had left Ceausescu’s Romania. I dread the day when my own dissertation comes under scrutiny from the Modern Language Association (I confess to incompletely formatted citations) or from Maureen Dowd.

For Maureen Dowd is able to leap over four decades to do a Toynbee-esque assessment of what the 1971 work by a graduate student can tell us about a 68-year-old presidential candidate. She traces Gingrich’s proposals for reforming Social Security to his "confusion of views on colonialism.” The dissertation, titled “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945-1960,” to her “reveals a mind that "is in love with itself."

She did not disappoint her New York Times fans, for her column popped right up to #1 place in the online poll last Sunday. (I hope not too many I-Pads were ruined by the spilled double mocha lattes as a result of the knee-slapping by the normally even-keeled occupiers of lofts and other gentrified spaces.) Guffaws surely came in waves, as Ms. Dowd then let out a howler: "[Gingrich's brain] has persuaded itself that it is brilliant when it is merely promiscuous. This is not a serious mind. Gingrich is not, to put it mildly, a systematic thinker."

One assumes that Ms. Dowd was reading the work alongside Critique of Pure Reason as she made this assessment.

Indeed, it seems that Gingrich is incapable of any logic, much less following Kantian syllogisms: “His mind is a jumble,” Ms. Dowd proclaims, “an amateurish mess lacking impulse control. He plays air guitar with ideas, producing air ideas. He ejaculates concepts, notions and theories that are as inconsistent as his behavior."

The sign of a true intellectual is the willingness to consult an expert on areas outside of one’s own expertise. Ms. Dowd turned to Morehouse political science professor Laura Seay, who assesses Gingrich's dissertation as a "'kind of glorified white man's burden take on colonial policy that was almost certainly out of vogue in the early 1970s."

She detects other errors in scholarship. At the time, "'Black Consciousness and Black Power movements were approaching their pinnacles,'" so it was "'most decidedly not the time to be arguing that white European masters did a swell job ruling black Africans. . . ."

Professor Seay writes for that highly esteemed journal, Aljazeera.

In the same learned journal that Ms. Dowd writes for, journalism professor Adam Hochschild, presented a more nuanced view on the following day: "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."

Hochschild complains, Gingrich "surveys his subject in a highly pedantic way. . . . Footnotes, statistics and quotes from eminent authorities abound."

Hochschild’s model Ph.D. president is Woodrow Wilson, whose dissertation “boldly asserted that the founding fathers had gotten many things wrong, and advocated for this country something like the British parliamentary system."

This bold claim led to Wilson's dissertation being "argued over for decades” and garnering respect from scholars.

Professor Hochschild, like the counter-culture dean on my committee who blogged about me, seems to regret the fact that a doctorate was ever granted to such a dufus. "Mr. Gingrich may succeed in being elected president," Hochschild concludes; "but it is hard to imagine him, like Wilson after he left the White House, being elected president of the American Historical Association."

True, it would be a letdown, but perhaps such a fall would instill the humility these public intellectuals claim Gingrich lacks.

The intellectual inspiration for Dowd and Hochschild may have come from retired professor Robert Paul Wolff, a public intellectual at the blog, “The Philosopher’s Stone.” Wolff believes that Gingrich simultaneously needs to be taken down a notch, while making a bold turn in his thinking. Although admitting to be “no kind of expert on Belgian colonialism,” Wolff felt compelled to get the dissertation and write about it because “the topic was too hot to ignore.” Wolff’s November 22nd post evaluated “this bit of juvenilia, as it were”; he concluded, it showed “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. . . .”

At a later date, Wolff recommended readers read the article by his friend and “scholar of South African matters,” Professor Hochschild.

As for his own educated opinion: “What caught my attention in the Ginfrich [sic] dissertation was its pedestrian quality, its lack of intellectual curiosity or imagination. I ploughed through many doctoral dissertations over the course of an academic career that lasted just exactly half a century, and I think I can spot a piece of solid mediocrity when I see one.”

What Gingrich lacks is “a sparkling intellect, a genuinely curious mind, a penetrating imagination.”

Alas, “the dissertation is written in a pedantic, serviceable prose, giving no evidence of the Newt that was to emerge as a fully formed Toad.”

Our current president’s writings did not draw such vigorous scrutiny. All on the left were agreed that Obama had the desired “sparkling intellect” and “big-picture” thinking that would “fundamentally transform” the nation.

According to Ann Coulter, more transformation (for the ill) would come with a president Gingrich. This assessment is based on Gingrich’s own history from the 1990s when he was following really “big-picture” thinkers and “futurists” Heidi and Alvin Toffler.

I don’t think Coulter is just performing intellectuality.

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