Amy Kass was a great reader of George Eliot; she also had the sympathetic imagination so prized by the author of Middlemarch. Even in the difficult, yet beautiful, final weeks in hospice care, Amy found the generous strength to study the novel’s opening pages with her oldest granddaughter, raising with her the penetrating questions that were her teacherly gift to generations of students.
When her granddaughter reaches the last paragraph of that long novel, she will find a few select phrases that could describe the unostentatious but far-reaching influence her grandmother had on “the growing good of the world.” Like Eliot’s heroine Dorothea Brooke, Amy Kass possessed a “finely touched spirit” and a “full nature.” Every speaker at her recent memorial service feelingly confirmed what her friends knew to be true: “[T]he effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive.”
Amy poured herself out liberally to family, friends, and students. She offered her wisdom, her sympathy, her smile, trusting open-heartedly to the result. She was, above all else, a teacher, with the patience and humility that requires—humility before the text and author under consideration, humility in the face of the “mysterious mixture” that is human nature, humility in treating her students as potential equals in philosophic conversation. (The formal presumption of equality was visible in her practice of addressing students as Mr. and Miss, at the same time declining the honorific “Professor” for herself.) The educational force of Mrs. Kass was supreme because she knew how to turn a classroom, or a dinner table, or an elevator ride, into a place where souls were shared and shaped.
Amy’s mode was the seminar, with the entire school quarter devoted to one book, a big one like War and Peace, The Odyssey, Moby Dick, or Middlemarch. In a lecture on George Eliot entitled “Sympathy, Love and Marriage: Effective Reform in Middlemarch,” delivered in 2010 at Bowdoin College, Amy made the case for studying these monsters of the Western canon:
The virtue of a long book is precisely that it occupies us for a really long time: time not merely to visit but also to inhabit a different world; time not merely to meet but also to befriend and understand new kinds of people; time not merely to imagine novel decisions but also to live with their consequences. In a word, reading a long great book enables one to live feelingly outside of oneself. For those who teach as a vocation, not just as a job, there is no better gift one can give one’s students.
“Critical thinking” is the mantra on college campuses these days. All well and good, but for critical thinking to be anything beyond arrogant cleverness, it must be grounded in moral seriousness. That was what Amy brought forth in her students. They already knew they were bright; she took them seriously as moral agents (more seriously than most had ever taken themselves) who longed to figure out the contours of a good life. They rose to the challenge—and challenge it was, for Mrs. Kass’s encouragement had a peculiarly bracing quality. It wasn’t usually approval of what had been said, but rather an invitation to say more and to say it more precisely and more searchingly.
In June 2010, on the occasion of Amy’s receipt of the University of Chicago’s Norman Maclean Award (given by alumni for extraordinary teaching), hundreds of former students gathered to express their gratitude for her abiding influence on their lives. Some notable teachers receive a festschrift, in which a handful of students who have elected to pursue the scholarly life write scholarly essays in recognition of their teacher’s example. A festschrift is a tribute not to be scorned—but how different this testament was. What Amy’s students shared was not a career path (for they had scattered in many directions), but an education—an education of heart and head, an education that was in many cases being passed on to their own children (“incalculably diffusive” indeed!).
Amy Kass taught for 34 years in the College at the University of Chicago. As a graduate student at Chicago in the early 1980s, I studied with Leon Kass, but never with Amy. Yet, long before I met her, she acquired a special status in my imagination. I knew of her solely from the praise of others and the reputation of the core course “Human Being and Citizen” that she and Leon had created. It wasn’t until a quarter-century later that I finally saw this fabled teacher in action—and she did not disappoint.