August 27, 2015

Amy Kass (1940-2015): In Memory of a Great Teacher

Professors Leon and Amy Kass with Dr. Ido Hevroni, Shalem Educational Director

Amy Kass was a greatly admired lecturer in Classics at the University of Chicago, and I had the privilege of meeting her late in her life. She fought a long and heroic battle with cancer, during which her husband, Professor Leon Kass, accompanied her with extraordinary dedication, and by the time I encountered her she had been grappling with this malignant illness for some years.

I met the Kasses while traveling in the United States, prior to the opening of Shalem College, to learn best practices in the teaching of the liberal arts. Gifted thinkers, writers, and teachers, they were in their seventies when I came to see them in October 2012, and they were exceptionally gracious from the outset. On short notice, they agreed to meet with me for lunch in Washington, DC, and I was honored that they found the time. When we sat down, they told me how they had spent the morning reading an article of mine on relationships between couples, which had been published in Azure a number of years earlier, and they proceeded to make a number of wise and thoughtful observations about the piece. The conversation flowed from there and we ended up speaking for around three hours.

I quickly realized why they had chosen to read, in particular, an article on relationships: not only had they co-authored a book on the subject, but it was evident that they were simply in love with each other. I have never seen a couple as loving, respectful, and attentive to one another as Leon and Amy. Throughout the conversation they made a point of being attentive to one another; they listened intently to each other and spoke in the most gentle manner when disagreements arose. They viewed their assistance to me and Shalem College as a team effort.

Their love was so invigorating that it was impossible to remain indifferent to it. From a recorded interview they did as a couple with Bill Kristol, one is struck by their ideas and by their personalities, but above all by the magical chemistry between them.

As the opening of Shalem College neared, I asked Amy to be my mentor for the course in Classic Literature that I was slated to teach. I was delighted when she accepted, and we arranged to speak via Skype once a week. That plan, unfortunately, never materialized, as her health began to deteriorate. Nevertheless, we kept in touch via email, and her wonderful explanations, along with the articles that she wrote about The Odyssey, played a significant role in shaping the way I have taught that course over the past two years.

Much has been written about Amy’s intellectual approach and her commitment to the community and nation, and undoubtedly much more will continue to be said. For my part, I would like to note a few lessons that I learned from Amy about teaching:

  • We read in search of truth.
  • The secret is to learn to read slowly, and to pay attention to the details.
  • As a teacher, you must ask a question that is good, profound, fundamental. A good question is one that no one rushes to answer. Students have to believe that your question warrants thought – that no question you are asking has a simple answer.
  • Your challenge is to create an opportunity for students to think aloud. For that to happen, you must build trust and convey the feeling that it is acceptable to make mistakes or to give an incomplete answer.
  • Any answer that a student provides in a spirit of intellectual honesty has some significance. It is almost always possible to build on it in some way or another. This is the secret of the Socratic Method – each opinion, if offered on the basis of serious inquiry, is important.
  • You must remember that in the classroom setting no answer is entirely correct. All answers are partial. A grain of truth can be found in each and every answer.

A year after I met the Kasses, I asked them to take part in training Shalem’s faculty prior to the opening of the College. Despite Amy’s advanced illness, they readily agreed. They created a small faculty seminar for us, in which we dealt with some of the subjects that were central to our curriculum, but mainly, we thought about teaching. Amy chose to give a seminar on the opening of the Iliad, while Leon led a discussion on the story of the Burning Bush from the Book of Exodus. All of the lessons that Amy had imparted to me were on display in these classes, in a most inspiring manner. She was an attentive teacher, sharp, and wise. She encouraged us to speak our minds, and listened closely and patiently to each idea, even if it was incomplete, and she gently guided the speakers to formulations that were clearer and more coherent.

The feeling at the end of the meeting was that as a team we had achieved a breakthrough; together we had managed to comprehend something from the wonderful world of Homer and arrive at insights relevant to our lives. Although Amy had taught this text for decades, the feeling she conveyed was that she was inviting us to study it together with her for the first time. As I looked today at the twenty or so photographs I took during that session, I was surprised to find that there is not one of her lecturing – in each photograph she is listening. For such was her way of teaching. She did not to establish herself as an all-knowing, authoritative figure, but rather, guided the participants to their own truths.

And this took me back to my first meeting with the couple. It was of course not the first time that I had met with well-known scholars. And usually, it was I that read something that they had written as a basis for our conversation. Not once, however, did my counterparts read something that I had written. But this was exactly what made Leon and Amy so exceptional as teachers. They listened, and paid attention to the student rather than taking center-stage themselves.

This was the lesson that Amy tried to convey to me in our correspondence afterwards, and in her life’s work in general. May this be her legacy, and may her memory be a blessing.

Ido Hevroni
Educational Director, Shalem College

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