I feel something is generally being overlooked in the rise of Newt Gingrich in the polls and talk about his background. Newt is an academic who became a historian and is interested in running against a president who was once a self-described “constitutional law professor.” Let’s start with Newt’s background on Wikipedia:
Gingrich received a B.A. in history from Emory University in Atlanta in 1965, a M.A. in 1968, and a PhD in modern European history from Tulane University in New Orleans in 1971.His dissertation was entitled “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945–1960”. While at Tulane, Gingrich joined the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church and was baptized by the Rev. G. Avery Lee.In 1970, Gingrich joined the history department at West Georgia College as an assistant professor. In 1974 he moved to the geography department and was instrumental in establishing an inter-disciplinary environmental studies program. Denied tenure, he left the college in 1978.
He has written a number of books, according to the biography at Gingrich Productions:
As an author, Newt has published twenty-three books including 13 fiction and non-fiction New York Times best-sellers. Non-fiction books include his latest, A Nation Like No Other, in addition to Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny, To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine, Rediscovering God in America (newly revised featuring the photography of Callista Gingrich), 5 Principles for a Successful Life, Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less, Real Change, A Contract with the Earth, Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America, To Renew America, Lessons Learned the Hard Way, Saving Lives & Saving Money, Window of Opportunity, The Art of Transformation, and Rediscovering God in America. He is also the author of a series of historical fiction books: Gettysburg, Grant Comes East, Never Call Retreat: Lee and Grant the Final Victory, 1945, Pearl Harbor, A Novel of December the 8, Days of Infamy, To Try Men’s Souls, and his latest, Valley Forge. These novels are active history studies in the lessons of warfare based on fictional accounts of historical wartime battles and their aftermaths.
He is 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—and 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 fails 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…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).
A historian has similar thoughts:
But 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.
Some of my own thoughts on this:
1. While Gingrich may not have been in academia for long, he did complete a dissertation and taught for 8 years (as far as I can tell). Both President Obama and Gingrich spent some time in academia before moving onto more success in politics. Did this background help each of them in politics?
2. I imagine many or even most historians and other academics would not support Gingrich. Since academia tends to lean away from Gingrich’s positions, I assume Gingrich would not be the favorite candidate of college professors.
2a. If this is the case, would this lead to more critical comments regarding his academic background and charges that he was just dabbling in the academy?
3. Obama and Gingrich are just two data points but could there be more academics rising to high ranks in the American political scene? How about Elizabeth Warren, Harvard law professor for over 20 years? Could a sociologist ever run for and win a higher office and how would their sociological background inform their campaign and governing strategy?
4. On the whole, is being an academic a positive thing for voters? American culture has an anti-intellectual streak as well as some negative ideas about the “educated elite.” Of course, this background might appeal to some people.