The other Mr Motivator

Young at Eighty
November 17, 1995

Happy Birthday, Michael, Lord Young of Dartington! This pleasing set of essays in honour of his 80th birthday has been written by some 30 contributors as a tribute to his "continuing inspiration". Young at Eighty is indeed an apposite title.

Though put together in some haste this book should succeed in bringing to the public's notice the immense range of interests, the unrivalled energy and enterprise, and the solid achievements of someone who has never sought either publicity or personal gain - the cause itself has always been Michael Young's primary motivation for action. This collection of essays also throws an interesting and complimentary light on the diverse people who have helped to bring his energies to life.

Young has been almost obsessed by the need to help individuals and families to make the most of their talents and opportunities at a time when so many feel powerless in relation to government and global commercial concerns. The discussion paper written by Young and published by the Labour Party in 1948, Small Man, Big World, was, as Peter Willmott points out, to prove in its title an augury of what was to follow.

What seems to have differentiated Michael from so many other sociologists has been his more anthropological and humanistic approach to social enquiry, his determination to make social science intelligible to ordinary people and to see that his research is carried through into action. His life has seesawed between the academic and the political. But he has been nothing short of a genius in inventing independent institutions that can voice the needs of individuals and provide them with the knowledge to enhance the way in which they want to live. As Peter Laslett has put it, he has had an immense ability to play on the hopes and ambitions as well as the frustrations of large numbers of people.

If two of the most prestigious institutions Young has helped to create - the Open University and the Consumers Association - are large and of universal application, there are some 50 or more others, most of which are much smaller and serve the needs of particular minorities. To mention a few: the University of the Third Age, the Open College of the Arts, the Advisory Centre for Education, the Open School, the National Association for the Education of Sick Children and, one of his latest, arising out of his experience of Sasha Young's death, the College of Funeral Directors. These and many others have evolved out of three core institutions created mainly by Michael: the Institute of Community Studies in Bethnal Green, the Centre for Mutual Aid, and the National Extension College in Cambridge, out of which has also grown its international counterpart which is now influencing educational development all over the world and particularly in Africa.

Many of his ventures never got off the ground, often because the time was not right. Nevertheless several contributors make the point that it was only Michael's continued support and determination which allowed some of his most original innovations to turn the corner and succeed. Some of his best-known ventures met great scepticism at their launch, including the Consumers Association; most of his small band of supporters were doubtful and pessimistic about the idea but within three or four days of launching the first edition of Which? the Institute of Community Studies was overwhelmed with mail and a team of volunteers had to be found to renovate and transform a neighbouring garage to act as an office and distribution centre.

It was apparently the same with The Rise of the Meritocracy; Michael claims in the preface to the new American edition that he hawked it unsuccessfully round all the publishers he knew and that it was only by accident that he met an old friend, Walter Neurath, on a Welsh beach. He was setting up Thames and Hudson as a fine art publisher and who quixotically took it on. When published by Penguin as a paperback, it became a bestseller.

Having known Michael Young for longer than any of the contributors, I am delighted that his diverse personal qualities have emerged essay by essay. His amazing ability to open up purposeful dialogue with an immense variety of people, often in the most unlikely and unpromising circumstances; his acts of personal kindness and his continuing care and affection for people he has encountered at different times of his life; his frugality - an invitation to lunch may mean sharing a sandwich; his sudden and unexpected perceptions of situations; his surprising pragmatism and rejection of ideologies; his ultimate reliance on individuals and human contact rather than on technology - all these surprise one throughout this book. Thinking back on their experience of being sucked into his web, most contributors remember feelings of irritation, frustration, even exasperation from the demands Michael has made on them, or the situations into which he has put them, but none regrets his or her involvement with him and speaks only of great personal affection for him. I am just sorry that, while Dartington is constantly mentioned as part of his formative background, no one has indicated how much he did to keep it in touch with the needs of the outside world and and how sad many people felt when he resigned as a trustee.

I hope this book will be widely read. We should be grateful that Michael Young is still alive, still perceiving unnoticed human needs, still seeking and inventing practical solutions, still determined to turn research into action, and still as self-effacing, lovable and affectionate as ever.

Peter Cox was founder principal, Dartington College of Arts.

Young at Eighty: The Prolific Public Life of Michael Young

Editor - Geoff Dench, Tony Flower and Kate Gavron
ISBN - 1 85754 243 6
Publisher - Carcanet Press
Price - £18.00
Pages - 256

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