U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Amy Kass and Me: On Our Shared Scholarly Affinities and Differences

Amy Apfel Kass, undated.

Amy Apfel Kass, undated.

I first learned of Amy Apfel Kass while writing my dissertation. She too had written one on great books promoters, titled “Radical Conservatives for a Liberal Education” and completed in 1973. I finished mine in 2006, just before my 33rd birthday. Kass finished hers when she was 33.

We never met, but we both spent a lot time, albeit in different eras and contexts, thinking about the same historical figures, reading the same dusty tomes, looking for the same forgotten papers and letters, and pondering the roots of liberal education and the humanities, both in higher education and beyond. Based on several reflections I read after her passing, Kass clearly cared a lot about her teaching style and students. I too care a lot about those things. I think that concern arose from reading so much about “great bookies” who worked intensely at the craft of teaching. Late in her life, I learned, Kass exhibited a serious interest in civic education.[1] I too have a great deal of interest in that subject. I’m guessing that too came from studying educators concerned about citizenship and democracy.

That’s where our similarities end.

Our differences are myriad. She did her work in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University. She had been married to her famous spouse, Leon R. Kass, for a dozen years already by the time she finished her dissertation. Amy and Leon Kass were married 54 years at the time of her death in August of this year. Indeed, they both taught on “courtship” together, at the University of Chicago, and discussed their theories on the subject in a piece for First Things. They met working as civil rights activists in Mississippi. At some point, in the mid-1970s, Amy Kass acquired a teaching position at the University of Chicago and was there for many years. When I first found her work she was employed by the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy. That Center was founded in 1984 by Allan Bloom and Nathan Tarcov. After leaving Chicago and the Center in 2005, Kass became a fellow at the Hudson Institute.[2]

William Schambra intriguingly described Kass’s work at the Hudson Institute as follows:

…She quickly lifted her colleagues out of the arid world of public policy analysis and into the vivid world of story. Story in all its forms—compelling short fiction, inspiring historical and biographical tale, soaring poetry, speech and song—lay at the heart of Amy’s imaginative, fruitful and unique work at Hudson. …

Amy understood that if we seek to become or to make better human beings, citizens, or charitable givers, more than cultivation of the mind is required. That work involves an engagement of the heart, as well—something best achieved not through the typical think tank output of policy analysis or political commentary, but through individual and collaborative contemplation of stories: the most thoughtful and artfully conceived stories our fellow men and women have produced as they struggle for purpose and improvement amidst civic turmoil, moral confusion, or spiritual crisis. …

No matter how ingenious a scheme of reform, no matter how clearly delineated its good guys and bad guys might appear, Amy’s writings and seminars reminded us that human nature is by no means so plain, predictable, or pliable. [3]

Amy Kass clearly brought a humanist instinct to the Institute.

I offer this brief rundown of her work and career to underscore, again, our differences. Amy grew comfortable in the world of late twentieth-century conservative humanistic discourse. Her spouse was/is a well-known Straussian. Amy likely mixed with Bloom at the University of Chicago. The Hudson Institute is a conservative policy think tank. William Kristol wrote a brief appreciation when she died. Despite these associations, Kass’s humanist instinct adds a different flavor to my thinking about the intellectual discourse of post-1960s conservatism. I wonder how she changed the conversation in her meetings with powerhouse neoconservatives?

Again, I never met Amy Kass. Despite our differences, I think our shared exploration would have given us a great deal to discuss, and debate. Indeed, one of my first pieces of scholarly reading on the great books idea was Kass’s dissertation. I’ve always wanted to know more about her work and never had the time to explore her writing.

In the end I didn’t use much of Kass’s work in my own research. My focus was Adler, who was a bit player in her narrative. Because her dissertation was produced early (as a work, at the time, of provisional recent history), it was quickly overshadowed by primary and secondary resources that were, frankly, more reliable than her work: Adler’s first autobiography (and later second), a thorough and comprehensive dissertation from nearly ten years before, Benton’s papers, and eventually Adler’s papers. It’s no slight to Kass. All historical narratives, except for the greatest, have maybe a 15-20 year shelf life. It’s the nature of the profession. Even so, I admired her footnotes and mined them for sources. She was clearly the first to have extensively explored, with a great books focus, Hutchins papers at the University of Chicago. And I recall being jealous of her interviews with Richard McKeon (!), Robert Hutchins (!), Scott Buchanan (!), Stringfellow Barr, William Gorman, and host of others. To have heard them talk first hand, and to have felt their passions, likes, dislikes, and loves! Amazing.

Beyond her research, I eventually found Amy Kass’s argument about the history of the great books idea too limiting, especially with regard to shoe-horning R.M. Hutchins and M.J.Adler into her view of traditionalism (i.e. “radical conservatives”). I entered my own work indifferent to the place of great books promoters on the political spectrum. My concern was the nature of liberal education and the philosophy of education–and how the great books idea related to both. I wasn’t invested in whether the promoters’ cultural politics were right or left. But over time I began to see how most (not all) great books advocates were often squarely liberal or left of center (not lefties). By the time I finished my book I was in awe of the large spectrum political views one could associate with the great books idea. I couldn’t reconcile my research and thinking with Kass. I felt she was, at the time of her research, overly invested in a single perspective.

Despite these scholarly differences, I would have loved to have gotten to know Amy Kass. I wish now I had reached out to her to share my work. I wonder if she heard of my book? Perhaps she read some of my work? Would she have liked it, or at least appreciated it? Maybe we could’ve shared an S-USIH conference panel together? I’ll never know. And that’s a shame. – TL


[1] Yuval Levin, “Amy A. Kass, RIP,” National Review: The Corner, August 20, 2015, http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/422870/amy-kass-rip-yuval-levin; William A. Schambra, “Amy A. Kass, 1940-2015,” Hudson Institute, August 20, 2015, http://www.hudson.org/research/11535-amy-a-kass-1940-2015.
[2] Ibid. Kass’s CV is still available online through a zombie Olin Center page. Here’s the citation for the piece piece on coupling: Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass, “Proposing Courtship,” First Things 96 (October 1999): 32-41.
[3] Schambra.

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    “The purpose of the university is nothing less than to procure a moral, intellectual, and spiritual revolution throughout the world.”

    So said Robert Maynard Hutchins, the “almas pater” of our “alma mater”. His and Mortimer Adler’s vision of liberal education forever changed the purpose of undergraduate education at the University of Chicago and has left a powerful intellectual legacy. But in practical terms, his legacy has been neglected and abused.

    Last month, six faculty members, gathered at Ida Noyes Hall to discuss “The Ultimate Concerns of Liberal Education,” a forum sponsored by University Ministries. The Social Sciences and the Humanities were both represented, but the Natural Sciences were absent. The discussion touched upon topics such as positivism, the importance of “caring,” and the oral and written natures of learning. But, in the end, the discussion failed because of the members’ unwillingness to discuss properly the ideas implicit in the title of the colloquium.

    Clash among panel members was nonexistent because, save for Humanities Division Professor Amy Kass, all failed to clearly delineate individual positions on the “Ultimate Concerns” alluded to in the title of the colloquium. Prof. Kass accurately described the nature and purpose of liberal education. She said that liberal education is “not the making, but the discovery of meaning,” and that she encouraged students to become “radical thinkers and inquirers.” It is a process by which “thought can be turned on all of life.”

    According to Prof. Kass, the intrinsic worth of liberal education lies in the intellectual growth and the creation of “good men, good citizens, and good families,” not personal gain or “self-worship.” She linked this “self-worship” to the conflicts between the ultimate concerns of liberal education and “ultimate concerns, period.”

    Kass, unlike the other panelists, was willing to explore the contradictions and tensions inherent in a liberal education, be they between the humanities and the social and natural sciences, or between academic life and life in society at large. The other panelists beat both around and miles away from the bush. They bantered back and forth in a game of academic posturing and the type of intellectual self-worship Prof. Kass execrated. None of the other panelists even legitimately stated what in their eyes was an “ultimate concern,” or even established any criteria or method for applying those concerns.

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