Amy Kass, who died yesterday after a long and courageous struggle with cancer, was without a doubt the best teacher I ever saw in action. What she did so masterfully was, in a sense, simple: She would throw a great work of fiction in front of a group of eager, overconfident students, invite them to open it up and turn it over and over together, and then gradually help them discover that it had actually opened them instead. What resulted were some of the most remarkable conversations I’ve ever witnessed—not just among students at the University of Chicago, where she taught for decades, but also among the reading groups of (even more overconfident) adult Washingtonians she led occasionally at the Hudson Institute, where she worked for the last decade of her life.
Amy’s teaching and writing were driven by the conviction that the stories we tell shape our souls and bind us together, and by the worry that we too often now fail to take care about how our souls are shaped and how (or whether at all) we are bound together in community. She tried to help her students realize that what they longed for—intellectually, spiritually, even romantically—but too often felt they were denied by modern life was only denied to them as long as they failed to really understand their longings. They could come to better understand them through the study of great works of literature.
Her prime concern was always for the souls of her students, but she knew that this also required a concern for our collective character as a society. This was part of what drove her (and her husband of 54 years, Leon Kass) to work as civil rights activists in Mississippi after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, what drove her to a decades-long professional interest in philanthropy and the health of our civil society, and what drove her over the last decade in particular to take an intense interest in civic education in our country, and in how we might teach the next generation to love America and to take it seriously. Out of that interest came, among other things, What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song, an invaluable anthology Amy co-edited (coupled with a curriculum for teachers and parents and other resources that you can find here).
Different tributes to Amy today—like this one from Bill Kristol or this one from her colleague William Schambra, both quite wonderful—have especially highlighted different facets of what she brought to our public life. But even more remarkable was what she brought to the lives of her students, and her friends: Like all great teachers, she imparted at least as much by her example as by her instruction. She helped generations of students see that dignity and grace, humor, compassion, and good sense could really be combined and practiced as a way of life. No one who knew her could doubt it.