Amy Kass: Teacher, Truth-Teller, Defender of Dignity
August 21, 2015
The loss of Amy Kass is incalculable. But what cannot be taken from us are the lessons she taught, not only by precept, but by the splendid example of the life she led.
In 1961, Amy Apfel was united in matrimony to Leon Kass, creating one of the most beautiful marriages—and fruitful intellectual partnerships—anyone can imagine. On Tuesday evening, Amy Apfel Kass died after a long and truly valiant struggle against cancer. The loss for Leon is incalculable. But the same can be said for the loss for the rest of us. For Amy Kass, one of the noblest souls God ever created, was a national treasure.
Like her husband, Amy was a fine scholar—careful, subtle, impressively insightful. But her true vocation—her calling, her mission in life—was to teach. And with the possible exception of her husband, no one ever taught more masterfully.
Amy knew that teaching was more than merely imparting information; but she did not disdain the dimensions of teaching that necessarily require the teacher to impart an accurate understanding of the facts. She recognized that sound reflection, analysis, and interpretation presuppose such an understanding, whether the subject is American history, the natural sciences, or Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. Knowing the facts is not sufficient for intellectual achievement, but it is necessary.
What’s more, Amy possessed an infallible radar for cant. She could smell intellectual nonsense a mile away, and she would have none of it. She was among the few whose score in avoiding the foolish fads and fashions that have spread like viruses through the intellectual culture over the past fifty years was perfect. And the Lord alone knows how many students she steered away from the ditches of these fads and fashions.
Amy’s devotion to excellence in teaching was part of a larger moral vision that guided her throughout her life and shaped her character. At the core of that vision was a sense of the profound and equal dignity of the human person.
In the 1960s, the Kasses were among the young northern, often Jewish, activists who traveled to the segregated South to fight for the civil rights of their African-American fellow citizens. In 1965, they spent a month in Mississippi—the very heart of the segregationist Dixie—living with a farm family in a home without a telephone, hot water, or indoor toilet while educating, organizing, and registering black citizens to vote. The moral courage for which she and Leon would become famous in standing for intellectual integrity was foreshadowed by this act of physical courage.
As a young woman, Amy defied the bullying of racists in Mississippi. Later she would defy the bullying of those who sought to impose in the academy and the broader culture those dogmas of the left—including a reflexive anti-Americanism and hostility to the Judeo-Christian tradition—that have come to be known as “political correctness.” She always spoke the truth as she knew it, no matter the personal and professional risks and costs. She honored truth because she recognized that the nobility of human beings has something important to do with our capacities for, and natural orientation to, truth-seeking.
Amy Kass believed that a mind truly was a terrible thing to waste. And that conviction was at the core of her devotion to students—and not just those who sat in her classrooms at Johns Hopkins, St. John’s, and the University of Chicago. Much of her energy, especially in the later decades of her life, was dedicated to educating the general public, especially regarding civic matters. Often in cooperation with gifted younger scholars and protégés, such as Diana Schaub and Yuval Levin, Amy and Leon produced superb materials to help Americans of all ages and stations to understand more fully, and appreciate more deeply, American ideals and institutions. She was the best kind of patriot—one who loved her country not simply because it was hers, but because its principles, however often we Americans as a people have failed to live up to them, are true and good. Her constant endeavor was to inspire us to live up to them more perfectly.
Another of Amy’s central concerns was promoting healthy and fulfilling romantic relationships between young men and women, leading to happy, enduring marriages. She knew from personal experience just how valuable such relationships are, and she was in no doubt about how vital strong marriages are, not only to the spouses themselves, but also to their children and the whole community. She and Leon were grieved by the collapse of the marriage culture in less affluent sectors of American society and appalled by the emergence of the hook-up culture on college campuses and, increasingly, in high schools and even middle schools. Amy had no tolerance for anything coarse or predatory, anything that degraded the human spirit. That is why she could not abide racial segregation or the collapse of courtship into licentiousness.
For young women in particular, Amy Kass was a role model: an impressive thinker and teacher, a loving and devoted wife, mother, and grandmother, a courageous moral witness, a loyal and generous friend, and a patriot. For those of us who knew and loved her, beginning with the husband whose life she so profoundly enriched and whose own virtues so remarkably mirror her own, she is simply irreplaceable. It is hard to imagine life without her. But what cannot be taken from us are the lessons she taught, not only by precept, but by the splendid example of the life she led.