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Newt Gingrich, “Academic”

One of Newt’s claim to fame is that he is a historian.  A recent example of this is the following explanation for the work he did for Freddie Mac:

“I offered them advice on precisely what they didn’t do,” he said at the debate. “My advice as a historian, when they walked in and said to me, ‘We are now making loans to people who have no credit history and have no record of paying back anything, but that’s what the government wants us to do.’ As I said to them at the time, this is a bubble. This is insane. This is impossible.” (source)

Of course, one of the weird things about that assertion is that Newt’s dissertation was on colonialism in the Congo, not the history of, say, financial crashes.   The notion that they wanted Gingrich as a historian and not as a politician is absurd on its face.  Indeed, I have some historian friends who would love to understand how it is possible to make seven figures doing consultation work!

All of this made me want to revisit Gingrich’s bio in terms of his academic credentials.

Here the basics (source) :

-He earned a BA in history from Emory in 1965.

-He earned a Ph.D. in Modern European History in 1971 from Tulane.  His dissertation was entitled “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945-1960.”  A political scientist at Morehouse College gave the thing a look:  click.  The most damning thing to me from an academic point of view:  no evidence Gingrich did any field work in the Congo.  Another review can be read here.

-He was hired as an assistant professor (a tenure track position) at West Georgia College.  While he clearly thought highly of himself (the timeline linked states that he tried to become department chair in his second year—an odd move for a variety of reasons.  These reasons include:  1)  it is difficult to be in a leadership position like that sans tenure, given that one would have to come into conflict with people who would have direct influence over tenure decisions, including senior faculty, deans, and upper administration, depending on the system in place and, 2) new faculty have a lot of time demands, including preparing a large number of classes from scratch as well as working towards publications.

-Gingrich failed to achieve tenure, meaning that his academic  career at West Georgia College was over.  Of course, from there he goes on to get elected to the House, ending his stint in academia altogether.

The interesting thing about Gingrich rather brief stint in academia is the record suggests he was never especially serious about it.  Not only did he try to become chair in his second year (an indication that he was, at a minimum, confused about how to get tenured) but he ended up running for congress during this period (a time-consuming activity).  Given the time needed to engage in teaching and scholarly output, something had to give and clearly political ambitions overtook academic ones.  Now, this is a legitimate choice for Gingrich to have made (although odd in the sense that getting the Ph.D. in the first place took a lot of work), but clearly he abandoned the academic enterprise almost at the beginning of his career (his first run for Congress was in 1974, at that point in his time at GWC that he should have been focusing intently on the fact that he would be going up for tenure and promotion soon).  As such, his claims to being a historian from a professional point of view are quite dubious.

Yes, he has published a number of books (22, I believe) but they are a  collection of co-authored novels and political/ideological tomes.  Indeed, none of the books written or co-written by Gingrich listed at Amazon would qualify as “scholarly” by actual historians.  And yes, before someone says it, there is little doubt that his books have been read by more people than the typical scholarly book produced by an actual historian, but that’s another issue (and I would readily allow that he is a successful author—but he is no scholar).  Really, he has no credibility claiming the mantle of either scholar or historian at the moment.  I can find, by the way, no evidence of any scholarly output whatsoever during his stint in the academy (I check a couple of databases that cover publications in history, but it is possible I am missing something).

Indeed, I think that the run-down in a column by New York University historian Jonathan Zimmerman (Newt Gingrich, pseudo-historian) is pretty much on target:

here’s what you need to know about Gingrich: He’s not a real historian. Sure, he’s got a Ph.D. in the field, and yes, Gingrich has written more than 20 books. But when he left academia for Congress in 1978, he also left behind the most basic canons of our discipline: rigor and humility. Put simply, we’re supposed to know what we’re talking about. And when we don’t, we’re supposed to say so.

That’s what I learned on my very first day of graduate school, almost a quarter-century ago. The world is infinitely complicated, a professor told us, and we’ll only be able to study a very small slice of it. And even when we think we understand that tiny piece, someone else will come along to prove us wrong.

And:

to Gingrich, history is politics by any other means. In his “Renewing American Civilization” course, he calls history “a resource to be learned from and used.” If you just use history to vilify your opponents, however, you’re not really learning. History should make you critique your own dogmas, which might not be as clear-cut as you’ve assumed.

Indeed.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Newt Gingrich has always believed he’s the smartest guy in the room.

    That alone strikes me as not a good quality in a President.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 4

  2. ponce says:

    Gingrich got his PhD primarily to dodge the Vietnam war.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 2

  3. Wait a minute.

    Gingrich’s dissertation was on the Congo.

    Isn’t that a bit anti-colonialist of him?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

  4. @Doug Mataconis: Except that based on what I have read, his position was pro-colonialist.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  5. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Of course it was

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  6. Ron Beasley says:

    Kind of gives Pile it Higher and Deeper new meaning.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  7. michael reynolds says:

    The Belgian experience in the Congo — their vicious, sustained, unbelievably cruel rape of the Congo — is one of the under-reported atrocities of the 20th century. It might not be quite the Holocaust but it’s up there with the Turkish genocide of Armenians and Pol Pot and their ilk.

    Evidently Gingrich was as clueless about that as he has been about everything else in his life.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 2

  8. ponce says:

    Gingrich fails to achieve tenure, meaning that his academic career at West Georgia College was over.

    Wikipedia says Gingrich left the History department and joined the Geography department in 1974.

    Which department was he trying to get tenure in?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  9. @ponce: That does strike me as the most plausible explanation of why he pursued the degree. It doesn’t appear to have been a passion for the study of history.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  10. Hey Norm says:

    Just say it out loud…President Gingrich.
    Couldn’t do it without laughing, could you?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. michael reynolds says:

    Sorry, that should have been late 19th as well as 20th centuries.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  12. ponce says:

    That does strike me as the most plausible explanation of why he pursued the degree. It doesn’t appear to have been a passion for the study of history.

    I suppose it’s possible that Gingrich had enjoyed istory, but just got sick of it in 1974, jumped to the geography department and began running for Congress.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  13. anjin-san says:

    Evidently Gingrich was as clueless about that

    Or he is informed about it and approves.

    As for anti-colonialism, I am pretty sure it is the reason America exists. But perhaps colonialism is only bad when it the oppressed are white people who speak English…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  14. @ponce: Yes, but even with the switch to Geography, he would have still been teaching as a historian (indeed, what little I can find on this indicates such).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. ponce says:

    es, but even with the switch to Geography, he would have still been teaching as a historian

    That seems like a stretch.

    It’s interesting how a guy who was soooo bad at small college politics could do so well in actual politics.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  16. Clovis says:

    Newt Gingrich has always believed he’s the smartest guy in the room.

    As opposed to our current CIC, I suppose.

    Funny how Mr. Taylor chooses to investigate the scholarly history of Gingrich and avoid the other large eared mammal in the room.

    Perhaps it is because he can.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 19

  17. ponce says:

    Here ya go, Clovis:

    http://www.law.uchicago.edu/media

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  18. @ponce:

    That seems like a stretch.

    Not at all. First, as best as I can tell, it was an inter-disciplinary program. Newt’s discipline was history. Second, one cannot change disciplines in any event–it is not like he could have declared himself a geographer.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. mannning says:

    A question re: Gingrich

    How much of a contribution did Gingrich actually make to the Contract With America? Much of that effort was in fact legislated or otherwise implemented in the ensuing years, and Gingrich claims substantial credit for it. It was actually a coherent, consistent, and systemic piece of work, but according to the above comments he couldn’t possibly have been a major contributor to the content, as opposed to the legislative direction as Speaker. Could he?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. @mannning:

    Well, a few quick responses:

    1. Nothing in the post speaks to the question of the Contract or, really, the 1994 elections.

    2. Most of the Contract did pass the House, but failed in the Senate and therefore was not, in fact, implemented.

    3. For what it is worth, Gingrich deserves some credit for tactical politics in the 1990s.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. Console says:

    @Clovis:

    Are you really comparing some dude that worked at West Georgia College to a guy that was head of the Harvard Law Review?

    Your thought process is as barren as the godforsaken city you’re named after.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  22. jan says:

    @Console:

    Are you really comparing some dude that worked at West Georgia College to a guy that was head of the Harvard Law Review?

    Your thought process is as barren as the godforsaken city you’re named after.

    ….and supercilious and condescending describes your thought process, in judging a person, as being below another, simply by one being affiliated with an ivy league institution while the other with a more common college. That is elitism at it’s wildest snootiness. That also goes for downing another’s community…..

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 21

  23. steve says:

    “but according to the above comments he couldn’t possibly have been a major contributor to the content, as opposed to the legislative direction as Speaker. Could he?”

    Political acumen and scholarship are very different skillsets. This does not mean Gingrich is stupid. He was a very successful lobbyist earning millions with the GSEs and with health care lobbying. He certainly played an important role in getting the GOP in power in Congress in the 90s. However, he does not appear to have ever had the mindset to be a real academic. I suspect draft avoidance was a key factor in his choice.

    http://www.nndb.com/event/806/000140386/

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. Hey Norm says:

    @ Jan…
    It’s not so much about the institution…although I bet the president of West Georgia College would love to be president of Harvard…and the opposite, not so much.
    Almost anyone can go to work at WGCollege and not achieve tenure.
    On the other hand being the first black to Head the Harvard Law Review is a milestone achievement.
    I understand that is a complex condition and difficult for you to understand.
    I suggest you research the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

    @ All…
    On another topic…I wish the sane people of this nation would contain their glee over Gingrich leading…it’s going to tip off the silly people with tea bags dangling from their tricorns that Gingrich is a loser.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  25. Hey Norm says:

    “…How much of a contribution did Gingrich actually make to the Contract With America?…”

    The question is how much of a contribution did the contract make to America.
    In typical pseudo-conservative rightist fashion the main points were about tax cuts directed mainly at corporations and upper-incomes. It also expanded emntiltements. Today we have massive debts. Can anyone do the math?
    The contract also began the deep partisan divide we enjoy today and set the context for the shut down of the Federal Government and the Impeachment of Clinton.
    In the end 3 contract provisions became law:

    the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 (Pub. L. No. 104-1, 109 Stat. 3), which requires Congress to follow eleven workplace laws; the Unfunded Mandate Reform Act of 1995 (Pub. L. No. 104-4, 109 Stat. 48), which restricts Congress from imposing mandates on states that are not adequately funded; and the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 (Pub. L. No. 104-13, 109 Stat. 163), which reduces federal paperwork requirements.

    So…a huge negative contribution, with very little positive benefit. Pretty typical of the republicans since I’d say.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  26. Hey Norm says:

    My first graph, above is not clear…it intended to expand entitlements.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. mattb says:

    @jan:
    To a degree I agree with the point you are making. It’s a mistake to immediately assume that an education at an Ivy League School is necessarily better than one at a non-ivy league (and I say that having studied at an Ivy League).

    That said, if one is going to draw a conclusion about an individuals accomplishment within a field, it is fair to note that there is a real difference in academic environments, rigor, and prestige between teaching History/Geography at West Georgia College and teaching law at the University of Chicago (even as an Adjunct). No offense, but Obama (or just about anyone at U of C wins this one hands down… and I’d have said the same thing if this had been the reverse situation).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. mattb says:

    @Hey Norm:

    Almost anyone can go to work at WGCollege and not achieve tenure.

    On the other hand being the first black to Head the Harvard Law Review is a milestone achievement.

    I appreciate the point that you are making, but it is important to note that you really are comparing apples and organges. First, only a student at Harvard Law can head the review… so that’s fundamentally different than an open teaching position.

    And as far as “almost anyone can go to work at X college” — clearly (and thankfully for you) you haven’t had to deal with the academic job market in recent years. Right now (at least) getting a tenure track position anywhere is a pretty solid achievement. I can’t really speak to how things were in the 70′s…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  29. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    You do have to give Gingrich credit on one major point, however: obviously he came to realize at a young age that being a useless career academic in a useless discipline is a pretty darn useless way of spending one’s time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 7

  30. Hey Norm says:

    @ mattb…
    Apples and Orabges…perhaps…but there is no doubt that it’s easier to attain a tenure track position than it is to head the Harvard Law Review.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  31. @Hey Norm:

    Apples and Orabges…perhaps…but there is no doubt that it’s easier to attain a tenure track position than it is to head the Harvard Law Review.

    Well, in a pure numbers sense you are correct: there is only 1 law review position and a multitude of tenure-track positions.

    On the other hand, I would concur with everything that Matt said above.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. Hey Norm says:

    Not disagreeing…but the comparison goes back to Clovis and Jan.
    Of course Jan twisted it into the Ivy League elite meme.
    My only point is that as an achievement one is singular…and the other isn’t. And as Matt pointed out…things were far different in the 70′s.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  33. wr says:

    @Tsar Nicholas II: Right. Because as an academic all you can do is educate people and contribute to humanity’s pool of knowledge, while as a politician Newt could make himself rich while working to destroy the middle class while shovelling money to those willing to bribe him.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  34. MBunge says:

    If you really don’t want Newt to be President, you might want to pull back on the hysteria. Some folks are starting to sound like Sean Hannity, who is STILL going on about Obama and Bill Ayers.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  35. anjin-san says:

    describes your thought process

    And yet Jan has not a word to say to Clovis about his casual dismissal of Obama’s sterling academic record. Guess that tells us something about her thought process.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  36. Ben Wolf says:

    Let’s review what we know about Czar Nicky. He like violence. A lot. In fact he wants violence against anyone and everyone who doesn’t submit to government authority. He wants to repeal the Constitution so anyone he dowsn’t like can be imprisoned and beaten without trial and he thinks no one should study history, or remember anything that happened longer than ten seconds ago.

    For his next embarassing utterance, he’ll champion making poverty illegal, i.e. if you’re poor you’ll just go to jail.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  37. Barb Hartwell says:

    It sounds to me his taste for power is the most important to him, He wants it now without earning it or deserving it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  38. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    You forgot that no one should be allowed to vote except him and those who believe exactly what he believes.

    Because that’s true democracy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0