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Amy Kass, Friend and Teacher

Friday, August 21st, 2015

August 21, 2015 | AEIdeas

This week saw the passing of Amy Kass, longtime friend to AEI, wife of AEI scholar Leon Kass, and advocate for civic and American history education. We  pause to remember her and her inspiring and loving teaching. 

https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/AmyKassIrvingKristolAwardDinner-e1440178556333.pngKarlyn Bowman, Senior Fellow and Research Coordinator: 

Though Amy Kass was not formally affiliated with AEI,  she was always a part of the AEI family. We mourn her loss on Wednesday from a long battle with ovarian cancer. A colleague and friend to many here, a teacher to legions of young people, she had a presence that graced many AEI forums. Her contributions, with her husband AEI scholar Leon Kass, have been gifts to us all.

Their most recent AEI collaboration, written with Diana Schaub, What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song, discusses American identity, character, and citizenship through story and song. Their American Calendar project, a series of nine e-anthologies for different national holidays, helps us to understand the true meaning of each occasion. Yet another treasure is their collection of readings on courtship Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar. Examining old and new texts, they look at the ingredients that lead to marital success, something Amy and Leon achieved in their own marriage. Theirs was undoubtedly a marriage of true minds, and one from which we all benefit.


Gary J. Schmitt, Resident Scholar, Co-Director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies and Director of the Program on American Citizenship: 

Amy Apfel Kass, wife of our AEI colleague Leon Kass, died this past week after a long fight against cancer.  I knew of Amy from afar through friends who knew her and Leon from their days at the University of Chicago and St. John’s College in Annapolis.  It wasn’t until I joined AEI ten years ago, however, that I began to know Amy a bit more.  And it wasn’t until I began the Citizenship Program here a few years back, which coincided with the publication of her, Leon’s, and Diana Schaub’s volume, What So Proudly We Hail, and the subsequent (and very successful) program to make that volume come alive for teachers and students through new media, that I saw Amy, the teacher, “in action.”

Leon’s and Amy’s reputation as seminar teachers, of course, was well known among their former students and colleagues.  But, as the saying goes, one had to see it to believe it.

Perhaps the first time I truly saw them in action was at a conference the Citizenship Program held at Montpelier, the home of James Madison, with a wide variety of professional development programs for high school civic teachers. Over a lunch, Leon and Amy led the group through a discussion of the fictional short story, “The Man without a Country,” by Edward Everett Hale, showing in practice how, when properly led, such a seminar could raise for students understandable but still profound questions about citizenship and attachment to one’s country.

Particularly striking was their capacity to so smoothly but quickly get even the most skeptical of the educators around the table to fully engage, put forward their ideas about the story, and then watch their excitement grow as new insights about what they had recently read popped into their heads. But, like the great teachers they were, Amy and Leon did not let the discussion become a free-for-all. Subtly, with a sure hand, they guided the participants down the most productive paths by asking the right questions and by picking out the substantive points to be pursued from comments that, at first blush, were less than insightful.  In the end, not only had the conference participants been fed lunch. They also had been nourished in a fashion they almost certainly had not anticipated.

The seminar was a “tag team” to be sure, with both Leon and Amy contributing and directing the substance of the discussion.  But Amy’s role was especially revealing. She, on more than one occasion, would show particular pleasure in some new insight being generated by the discussion — a delight to the others at the table who now found themselves not only students being taught but, in some modest fashion, teachers themselves. Add to that Amy’s willingness at times to offer a different opinion than Leon did on some interpretative point, and, ever so gently, Amy would create an impression of equality around the table: a sense that, in a true seminar, we’re all in this together to hear and learn from each other.  As the great teacher she was, Amy understood the need for students to feel like they had discovered some new land themselves… even when she had slipped them the map and compass to get them there.  It was a lesson Amy taught me.