History Professor Connects Dissenters Past and Present in New Book
Dissenting is all in a day’s work for history professor Ralph Young.
Young was a Martin Luther King Jr.-inspired student protestor in the 1960s and an expatriate and professor in Germany in the 1970s.
More than two decades after returning to the United States, Young landed a job as a Temple instructor, and he now teaches courses and hosts weekly teach-ins on dissent.
He is also the author of a recently published book on the topic.
Young’s book, aptly titled Dissent in America: The Voices that Shaped a Nation, is a collection of more than 200 primary historical documents interspersed with his own explanatory essays.
He included a range of documents from Roger Williams’s 1644 book The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution to writings by Cindy Sheehan.
The documents, Young said, cover stances that are “left-wing, right-wing and no-wing.”
The publication of the updated trade edition of the book is a bit of a second-coming for Dissent in America, which was printed in a two-volume textbook format two years ago. Young conceived the idea when he was unable to find a comprehensive collection of primary sources for his self-developed “Dissent in America” course.
“I could never find a book that contained all the great protest materials in American history,” he said, “so I’d end up finding books here and there and Xeroxing things, distributing handouts and directing students to various Internet sites. It was frustrating.”
Young, who arrived at Temple in 2000, now uses the book as a guide for his history course. “Dissent in America” is offered every semester, and fills up quickly because of high student interest. The course is so popular, in fact, that it has been added to the roster of general education courses.
Young is also the creator of the Dissent in America Teach-Ins, which take place Friday afternoons during the fall and spring semesters and draw anywhere from 10 to 60 participants. The teach-ins feature a lecture followed by a question-and-answer period, and are led by a variety of professors, guest lecturers and students representing a spectrum of viewpoints.
This semester’s teach-in topics have included “Meeting the Nuclear Challenges of Iran and North Korea,” led by Craig Eisendrath, an adjunct professor of American Studies and senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., and “Cuba: With or Without Fidel,” led by Philip Evanson, an associate professor of history.
Young’s own history of dissent began as a graduate student in the 1960s, when he was an opponent of the war in Vietnam as well as the slow progression of the Civil Rights Movement. As the tumultuous decade wound to a close, Young moved to England to work on his dissertation, and decided to stay and teach in Europe throughout the ‘70s. Back in the United States in 1978, he worked in a bookstore before returning to academia, still inspired by dissenters past and present.
“Things will never get changed if the people don’t speak out,” he said. “Dissenters always seem to be vilified by their contemporaries — yet decades later, they are often seen as saints, like [Henry David] Thoreau, [William Lloyd] Garrison and Martin Luther King Jr.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that dissent is a major part of U.S. history. No sooner had the Puritans landed in Massachusetts Bay than Roger Williams was out running afoul of the authorities,” he said. “Of course, the ultimate dissenting action was the American Revolution.”
Young’s creativity and commitment to his students have not gone unnoticed. In 2002, he received the Professor of the Year award from Temple’s Honors Program, and one year later he was named the Intellectual Heritage Professor of the Year.
Continuing his tradition of exploring protest’s many perspectives, Young is currently working on a new book, A Different Drummer, which is a history of the United States as seen through the eyes of dissenters — as well as those against whom their protests were directed.
— Alix Gerz