September 2007 Archives

In Memory of James M. Youngdale by David W. Noble

Below are comments that David Noble's daughter read at Jim Youngdale's memorial on 28 July 2007. As David told me, Jim "was one of the good guys." Youngdale was the author of Populism: A Psychohistorical Perspective (Kennikat Press, 1975).

David's words about Youngdale make a statement about scholarship as well as the responsibility of the scholar to be compassionate and to create work about and for real people. David is also, "one of the good guys," a professor, scholar, friend who knows how to (and wants to) focus on his students; a professor who still wants to focus on actively disturbing traditional social and cultural norms. In the university, where parallel learning is anathema, where professors barely have time to give "good reads" of student work and critical (if any) feedback to their students while attending to their own work, university committee work, university audits, university paperwork--despite all of this, David Noble somehow finds the time and when he gives you his it is never cut short and always genuine.

David W. Noble
Photo Diana Watters, CLA Reach, 2005

David shares his own work and ideas with his students and hungers to know ours. Funny, he might have been in the university for over fifty years, but in his graduate seminar you will read the most recent cultural theory or history (always published within one year of the year of the course). Additionally, David has held onto something professors used to do and be when I was first in undergrad in the early '80s: he listens, really hears you; he reads your work thoroughly; he challenges you to cause revolutions in your own work and in the university; and he pushes you lovingly to seek your best scholarly self.

Thank you David for allowing me to sit at your feet these last few years and the next few, but thank you more for being my dear, dear friend and for bringing Gail into my life as well.

In Memory of James M. Youngdale
by David W. Noble (July 2007)

It was my great good luck when Jim asked me to be his thesis advisor. I had immediately gained a colleague and teacher as well as a student. I found that I could learn more from Jim about the complexities of political culture than I could learn from any of my colleagues in History and American Studies. His thesis was published as a book, Populism: Psychohistorical Perspective. In it he analyzed the dialogue and conflict between several political cultures in the United States from the 1890s into the 1930s. Part of his rich interdisciplinary approach to these cultures was influenced by the psychologist Alfred Adler. Jim was always a severe critic of the concept of the self-made man and used Adler to point out how our individual perspectives are always expressions of our cultural contexts.

He also used perspectives from the physicist and historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, who had published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1961. Here Kuhn had argued that scientists are not autonomous individuals but rather are always members of particular communities. Their research agendas, the puzzles they are trying to solve, are defined by a set of shared paradigms. Periodically, Kuhn Argued, these communities lose their credibility, and another group of scientists use their imaginations to create a new set of shared paradigms that define an alternative research agenda.

In my own research on several generations of historians I had seen such dramatic moments of change as one group of historians rejected the paradigmatic assumptions of another group of historians. I had been disappointed that none of my colleagues in History or American Studies was interested in applying Kuhn’s model to their own projects. So you can see how delighted I was to have Jim as a colleague who not only wanted to discuss Kuhn but also made Kuhn’s model central to his dissertation. And, of course, Jim in his subsequent book wrote eloquently about the whole issue of paradigm revolutions throughout the humanities and social sciences.

Jim was attracted to Kuhn because this historian of science helped explain Jim’s political experience. Kuhn had written that when a new paradigmatic community defeats an old paradigmatic community, the victors repress the memory of the defeated group. They implicitly deny that there had been bitter conflict. They purge the past. They engage in intellectual ethnic cleansing. I admired Jim because he always had known what Kuhn was arguing—that values are central to every scholarly community. Jim knew that those scholars who claimed to transcend values in order to be objective were implicitly giving support to current dominant values. He was using the themes of Adler and Kuhn to challenge the big lie central to the historical scholarship that had become dominant after World War II. This was the lie that American history had always been characterized by consensus, not conflict. Jim, using Adler and Kuhn, was demonstrating how much political conflict had existed in the United States. His powerful scholarship, then, was a labor of love to show there had been many political cultures in the United States that had been critical of corporate capitalism. As someone committed to the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, the dominant party in Minnesota in the 1930s, Jim was a participant in one such political culture. Members of the Farmer-Labor Party knew how corporations created hierarchical anti-democratic workplaces. They knew how corporate executives had no concern for the welfare of working Americans but only concern for their own salaries and profit for their stockholders. They knew how corporations could use their financial support to influence political parties. Farmer Labor members knew that the rich should be taxed so every family could have a minimum income. They knew that they should closel6y regulate and limit the power of corporations.

The Farmer-Labor Party merged with the Democratic Party in 1944, and by 1948 Hubert Humphrey and his lieutenants had purged Jim and other Farmer-Labor leaders from the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party. After 1948 the DFL leaders would permit no criticism of corporate capitalism. And they would work to repress all memories of that critique. Sadly Jim had personally experienced a paradigm revolution in which the democratic political culture that he had participated in had been defeated, and the victorious voices of corporate capitalism sang the song of a political culture of beautiful consensus—a song in which there was no hierarchy, no power, no poverty. Jim’s scholarship fought against this fantasy, this big lie. He would leave a record of the reality of a variety of political voices, many critical of corporate capitalism. But he also left us the scholarly theories of Adler and Kuhn. We can use these models to analyze and deconstruct the dominant culture of corporate capitalism. Adler and Kuhn remind us that corporate capitalism is not a timeless, eternal pattern. It was constructed in time, and it will be deconstructed in time. It is a particular pattern supported by particular groups.

Many young scholars in American Studies accepted the political victory of corporate capitalism as inevitable. Most of this generation stopped analyzing political culture. Many American Studies scholars no longer were interested in diverse political groups, their dialogues and conflicts. They stopped writing about social and economic justice; they stopped writing about power and poverty.

But as Kuhn and Jim remind us, the prophecies of all communities are timebound. I see signs among my younger colleagues that they no longer want to ignore the dominant political culture. Bowing down to corporate America did not transport us to OZ. We look out at an America where millions live in grinding poverty. We look out at an America where the abuse of power is so common it no longer seems obscene. I see younger colleagues who want to end the segregation of past democratic cultures as unclean and unAmerican.

I hear many young voices wanting to bring American Studies scholarship back to the study of political cultures. They also like Jim want to provide a democratic alternative to what in 2007 looks like a nightmare world created by corporate capitalism. Jim’s scholarship, then, provides us a viable past that has much to teach us and much to inspire us. He will always remind us that scholars are human beings and to be human is to be passionate and compassionate, not objective and circumspect. He will always remind us that our scholarship must express our responsibility, our love for our neighbors, our fellow human beings.

Meshell Ndegeocello's The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams


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