Posted April 17, 2009

CLA’s Young shows the flip side of patriotism

Provost’s Award for Innovative Teaching in General Education

Ralph Young
Photo by Ryan S. Brandenberg/Temple University
Over the years, there have been different ways to dissent. John and Yoko fashioned a bed-in for peace. Timothy Leary invited others to tune-in to their spiritual nature. And now, Temple history professor Ralph Young hosts teach-ins to stimulate debate on differing points of view.

The teach-ins aren’t even a required course in the General Education program and yet, every Friday, the lounge in Anderson 821 is packed with students eager to learn how history plays a role in their present lives.

“The ultimate goal of the teach-ins is that we deepen our understanding of the historical background of recent events and that we achieve a balanced view of conflicting viewpoints,” says Young, Ph.D., associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts. “It is only from such intellectual strivings that we can have informed opinions.”

Such creativity has earned Young a 2009 Provost’s Award for Innovative Teaching in General Education. Young developed the “Dissent in America” course, which examines dissent as a central theme of American history. He initiated the Open Note Quiz, essentially turning students into their own historians as they sift through a difficult text, with their notes as a guide on the quiz. He compiled the songs, speeches and works of other dissenters to write the 800-page book Dissent in America as an accompaniment to his course.


On any given class day, Young’s classroom reverberates with the sounds of recorded protest poetry or songs he strums on his guitar.

“Rather than read a speech to us by Martin Luther King Jr., Professor Young spent an entire class describing what it was like to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak in person,” said former student Sierra Gladfelter. “Ralph Young is a living testimony to his class, a more valuable resource than his book, which I devoured from cover to cover.”

The course even attracted national attention last April, when the United States Department of State sent a film crew to capture the give and take between Young and his students.

“Ralph’s disarming manner generates an atmosphere of mutual confidence and respect, even under conditions where the topic at hand may produce passionate controversy,” says fellow professor of history, Arthur Schmidt.

Finding his voice as a protestor during the '60s, Young dissented against the Vietnam War, exchanged letters with Allen Ginsberg and rubbed shoulders with Pete Seeger. After earning his bachelor’s degree in history at Houghton College, he received his master’s and doctoral degrees from Michigan State University. Dissertation research would take him to Germany and London, where he lived as an expatriate and taught for a decade. But a visit to his uncle’s grave in Normandy, France some 10 years ago revealed a truth even he didn’t fully realize: the study of history is one of the surest paths to self-knowledge.

“As I looked out over Omaha Beach, it struck me that as a teacher, I am using the discipline of history as a means to teach students about themselves,” says Young.

Since arriving at Temple in 2000, Young has made it his job to take students on that same voyage of self-discovery, a trip harmonious at times, perhaps unpleasant at others as they encounter points of view they don’t agree with, and dissent when they do.

Ralph Young wouldn’t have it any other way.