Ralph Young: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris


imgresRalph Young is a history professor at Temple University. He has done extensive research in the history of protest movements, terrorist organizations, and 17th-century Puritanism. He is the author of Dissent: The History of an American Idea, a narrative history of the United States from the standpoint of dissenters and protest movements that reveals the centrality of dissent to American history, and Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation, an edited compilation of primary documents written by American dissenters over the past four hundred years. Young has won several teaching awards at Temple University and has taught his Dissent in America seminar as a Fulbright Specialist at the University of Rome and at Charles University in Prague. He also writes fiction and has published three thrillers: Crossfire (winner of a Suntory Prize for Suspense Fiction in Japan), Double Exposure, and Hitler’s Children.

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Morris: Before discussing Dissent, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Young: There are a lot of people. I can’t say one person in particular. There were friends, authors, philosophers, famous people I never met, and ordinary people I knew quite well. And not just people. Places too. When I arrived in London in 1969 to do research at the British Museum for my doctoral dissertation I entered a period of immense personal growth. You might say I fell in love with swinging London. And finishing up my doctoral studies at a time when the United States and indeed the world seemed to be poised on a revolutionary precipice I suddenly opened up to infinite possibilities. To be sure I was developing my Weltanschauung for years prior to this. Growing up with a conservative religious background, being a total outsider all through high school, having just a few friends, later going to a Christian college, it seemed I was always searching for some sort of direction. The election of JFK was an important development for me. I began thinking and looking at the world politically. Observing the emergence of the civil rights movement deepened me in ways that I perhaps was unaware of at the time. While reading Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, so many things came together for me. It seemed almost every person I met at this time had an influence on me.

In 1965 I had the privilege of hearing Martin Luther King give a speech and that had a profound effect on me. (In fact being present at that speech during the time of the Selma marches might be considered the single most important event that convinced me of the power of dissent.) After I got my B.A. I wanted, like so many of my generation, to do my part to change the world. I volunteered for the Peace Corps, went through months of intensive training, and then to my great shock and bitter disappointment was “deselected” by some State Department official who said my psychological profile revealed that I was a radical, that if I went to Malaysia I would probably be organizing rebels in the Kampongs of Sarawak. I thought of myself as a young Kennedy liberal and here they were telling me I was some sort of radical. It took me months to get over this great disappointment. And you know what? By the time I got over it I was definitely on my way to becoming a dissenter, if not a radical. So maybe they were right.

By 1966 I was not only a staunch supporter of the civil rights movement, but also taking part in the antiwar movement. It was at this time too when I seriously began questioning middle-class values and becoming more and more of a nonconformist. There were a number of films that had a profound impact on me in the mid-1960s, especially Zorba the Greek, Marat/Sade, and A Thousand Clowns. So all of this was going on when I entered graduate school, which is a good segue into the next question….

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Young: Two of my professors, Bob Wall (who taught Colonial American history) and Doug Miller (who taught American intellectual history) had perhaps the biggest impact on my graduate studies. Especially Wall, whose major professor was Edmund S. Morgan, whose major professor was Perry Miller. So as I began work on my doctoral studies in Puritanism my pedigree was very much part of the Miller/Morgan interpretation of early American history. I learned to empathize with the Puritans. And it was an epiphany to me that the Puritans were very modern, very intellectual, and a much earthier lot than the common perception of them.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Young: As I indicated earlier, my time in London was vital. Because it was there that I began to question the direction I was moving. I realized I had been spending the better part of a decade in formal education, but that I had not been doing enough to educate the right portion of my brain. So I wound up spending five years in London and then another five in Germany developing my creative side: learning to play the guitar, writing songs, playing music in pubs and busking on the streets of Bremen and Hamburg, trying to write a novel, reading C.S. Lewis and Albert Camus and Dostoevsky and Hermann Hesse and Henry Miller and John Cowper Powys and Colin Wilson and Erich Fromm and Alan Watts and Krishnamurti and D.T. Suzuki and Ram Dass. For me at that time, it was a “perfect storm” of influences.

And I always tell my students that just as important as my formal education was for my development, so too was  the decade I spent in Europe pursuing all sorts of personal goals. I was always broke, always living on the edge, and then when I returned to the States I was completely out of the loop insofar as academia was concerned. And so for a number of years I worked in a second-hand bookshop, wrote a couple of thrillers, got into scuba diving, became a scuba instructor, and then finally got back into teaching history, first as an adjunct at Penn State and Widener University, then getting a non-tenure track position at Temple University.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Young: Clearly learning the skills of a historian—how to do research, how to interpret the evidence, how to formulate historical arguments and make sense of the past—all those skills are vital to writing history.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Young: I always have believed in the power of grassroots activism.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Young: So many dissenters were vilified in their time. Later they become icons and highly respected figures. We even have postage stamps for the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Woody Guthrie, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Young: Reminds me of another of his that creative and scientific breakthrough are 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Young: But what we might think today is a useless endeavor might, over the course of time, prove more useful than what we value today.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Young: I think two of the great men of American history, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, were masters of this.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Young: I’m reminded of Henry Miller’s comment in one of his books that whatever happens to you is good for you. Especially the bad things. It’s from the bad things that happen to us that we learn and grow.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Young: A good historian is also a great storyteller. I like to think of myself as a storyteller. But I don’t think anyone is following!

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Young: A dissenter who wants to push for change has the task of convincing others that that change is necessary. When they see that, when they have their own epiphany that something has to be changed, then resistance falls away. It’s not so much that one has to fight against resistance. Resistance ceases when the person resisting changes and does so by his own volition.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Young: If things keep going the way they are….if “Citizens United” is not overturned….if CEOs continue to bank huge bonuses and get away with international theft…people will really start complaining and maybe the privileged position of CEOs might be challenged. But I wouldn’t count on it.

* * *

Ralph cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

New York University Press link

Publishers Weekly link

Kirkus Reviews link

Sound Cloud link

YouTube links

KALW (San Francisco) radio interview link

Dynamics of Dissent (Tumblr) link

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