Books Obituaries: Theodore Roszak

  • July 20, 2011

An erudite historian, social critic and novelist, Roszak later argued against today's manic reliance on computer technology and promoted what he called "neo-Luddism". In education, for example, he attacked "an excess of information," that "may actually crowd out ideas, leaving young minds distracted by sterile, disconnected facts, lost among the shapeless heaps of data."

He bitterly attacked the American educational system for its uncritical acceptance of technology. As a history professor, he was dismayed by the number of students reaching college without knowing how to read and understand a book: "Computer literacy can wait. But plain old literacy is absolutely necessary to be able to function."

Roszak's own literary output argued in favour of alternative values. His best-known work, The Making of a Counter Culture (1969), offered a rationale for the so-called Summer of Love in 1967 and the eruption of student dissent a year later. He warned middle Americans that their greatest enemy lay not in Red China or Moscow but "sat facing them across the breakfast table". Roszak's thesis held that technology and the pursuit of science – 1969 was the year of the first Moon landings – had alienated the young. Consequently they sought comfort and "meaning" in psychedelic drugs, exotic religions and alternative ways of living.

His "counterculture" neologism defined this "alternative society". Its members, he said, were long-haired young people, many smoking dope or dropping acid, listening to psychedelic rock or protest songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. When they gathered at pop festivals, "love-ins" or student demonstrations, their concerns ranged from racial discrimination to global poverty and included what are now called "green issues". Moreover, they blamed the new technocrats for almost all the troubles in the world.

While most analysts of the movement focused on "flower power", LSD and the emerging culture of psychedelia, Roszak was "convinced there was more to these matters than sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Not that sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll didn't matter..."But," he asked in The Making of a Counter Culture, "could that statement be given a more accessible philosophical translation?" He thought it could.

Theodore Roszak was born in Chicago on November 15 1933, the son of an immigrant cabinetmaker. The family later moved to Los Angeles, where he attended Dorsey High School before earning a bachelor's degree in History from UCLA in 1955. He received a doctorate from Princeton University in 1958 and taught at Stanford University for a year in 1959.

In the early 1960s he moved to London, editing the pacifist journal Peace News before returning to California to join the History department at Cal State Hayward (since 2005, Cal State East Bay).

By 1967 Roszak was back in London carrying out research at the Centre for Group Studies when he read about hippie "happenings" in the run-down Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco during the Summer of Love.

Roszak also became a leading figure in what he called ecopsychology, an American trend towards mixing green issues with psychology. In the movement's bible, The Voice of the Earth (1992), his pioneering work on the relationship between planetary and personal health, Roszak argued that many people saw nature as hostile. "If we don't bring up children with a healthy relationship with real nature – not television documentaries, not Disneyland – they will be brought up in conditions injurious to their sanity," he noted.

In all Roszak wrote or edited more than 17 books. A string of novels included Flicker (1991), acclaimed the best ever written about the filmgoing experience; The Devil and Daniel Silverman (2003); and Bugs (1981).

Theodore Roznak, who died on July 5, is survived by his wife, Betty, and their daughter.

Read the article on the Web site of the Telegraph newspaper of London, England

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