In the fall of 1993, 25-year-old Maury Kennedy enrolled in a new course being offered at Kennesaw State University, located 20 miles north of Atlanta. “Renewing American Civilization” was its title, and its instructor was Newt Gingrich.
“Being new to Atlanta, I wanted to make friends,” Kennedy remembers, and the ten-week course was a practical option. On Saturdays, he and hundreds of other students would gather in a large auditorium to hear the congressman lecture for two hours. Although Gingrich was a notorious firebrand, “nobody dreamed he would become Speaker.”
But Kennesaw was a public school, and Gingrich’s critics griped that he was mixing academics with politics. In 1994, then, the congressman approached Floyd Falany, president of Reinhardt College — a private school in Waleska, Ga. — and asked if he could teach the course there.
“We had just built a state-of-the-art broadcast center,” Falany says, and Gingrich wanted to record his lectures and stream them over the Internet. Falany proposed the idea to the board of trustees, and though the members initially “had mixed emotions about it,” after debating it “for a considerable length of time,” they voted unanimously to approve the course.
It was a hit. For a small school “that didn’t even have a football team,” to nab the Speaker of the House of Representatives was a coup. In the winter of 1995, Gingrich gave ten lectures, while an assistant professor, Kathleen Minnix, handled administrative tasks: writing tests, correcting papers, assigning grades. “It worked beautifully,” Falany says.
Yes, Gingrich caused controversy. His opponents were furious that a college would dignify his pontifications by giving him a course. But Falany shrugged off the complaints. “It’s not unusual for colleges to have politicians teaching courses,” he notes. When Secretary of State Dean Rusk retired in 1969, the University of Georgia hired him to teach a course in international law, despite the fact that he lacked academic credentials.
And Gingrich was nonpartisan, maintains Falany, a registered Democrat. “I have a very, very positive remembrance of the course.”
But why did Gingrich want to teach a course at the same time as serving as Speaker? Longtime friend Tucker Andersen explains: “Part of him was excited about coming up with a course which he thought would have relevance and he would enjoy teaching in an educational setting.” The bigger reason, however, “was to help him refine and articulate the ideas about the uniqueness of American civilization, which is something he passionately believes in.”
A reading of Gingrich’s lectures confirms Andersen’s contention.
In his opening lecture, Gingrich summarized the argument of the course: “America is a great country with good people.” But “from 1965 to 1994 . . . America went off on the wrong track.” His purpose was to determine why, in the past, “America worked” and how, in the future, it could work again. After learning the five pillars of American civilization — historic lessons, personal strength, entrepreneurial free enterprise, the spirit of invention and discovery, and quality — the class would apply them to four areas: the Information Revolution, the economy, the culture, and citizenship in the 21st century.
He brought the argument to the individual level. To be an American was to have a certain lifestyle — “a way of being.” Every American, therefore, had an obligation to learn how to be an American, how to live that lifestyle. And this course would help them learn how to do that. In other words, it was a high-level freshman-skills course.
As Gingrich unfolded his argument, he displayed his verbal tics. He routinely indulged in superlatives. Alcoholics Anonymous was “the single most successful anti-alcoholism operation in the world.” The Milliken Company was “the most successful textile company in the world.” Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive was “the most important single book on effective citizenship and effective entrepreneurship in the 21st century that has ever been written.”
His syllabus was just as eclectic as his lectures: The required reading comprised the Federalist Papers, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave, Don Eberly’s Building a Community of Citizens: Civil Society in the 21st Century, and Drucker’s The Effective Executive.
He approached his subject with the cataloguing fervor of a taxonomist. Yes, there were the five pillars of American civilization. There were also four layers of planning. And four words of effective leadership. Seven key aspects of personal strength. Three big aspects of entrepreneurship. Seven welfare-state cripplers of progress. (The taxonomical bug infected even his homework assignments: “Look at the five most popular sitcoms, and just watch them for two weeks and ask yourself: What were the values I would have learned in those sitcoms?”)
Professor Gingrich was self-referential. “I have studied history for a long time. I actually know a fair amount,” he told his students. But in his defense, his stories about himself were charming. To illustrate his point that your vision and your tactics for achieving that vision must match, he joked: “I have a vision of myself as a thinner person. I have two tactics: I eat ice cream, and I drink beer.”
But what exactly was his point? “This is in the best sense of the old-fashioned word a ‘liberal arts’ course,” Gingrich explained. “This is a course of trying to think through life and trying to think through society and trying to think through culture and whichever discipline we need to borrow from for the purpose of the course, we’ll just borrow it. They can sue us later.”
Today, Kennedy uses many of the management principles he learned in Gingrich’s course. And though he never got involved with Gingrich’s political life, he still appreciates his former professor. “He so wanted to teach young people what made America a great place,” he says. “It’s part of the reason I respect the man.”
— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.