Amy Kass, inspirational teacher who treasured a humanistic education, 1940–2015

During a teaching career that spanned 34 years at the University of Chicago, Amy Kass designed courses that addressed both the enduring questions of human existence and the urgent questions facing today’s young people by helping them see the relevance of classic texts to their everyday lives.

Among these was the “Ethics of Everyday Life: Courtship” course, which she co-created with her husband, Leon Kass, SB’58, MD’62. In the course she encouraged students to explore “inarticulate longings” and discover the purposes and virtues of courtship, love, sex and marriage through texts by such writers as Homer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, Allan Bloom and even Miss Manners.

Amy Apfel Kass, AB'62, senior lecturer emerita in humanities, died on Aug. 19 at her home in Washington, D.C., after a 10-year battle with ovarian cancer and a short battle with leukemia. She was 74.


“Amy Kass was a wonderfully generous and engaged teacher of the humanities, who profoundly influenced and enriched the lives of several generations of students in the College,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College and the Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of History. “Her contributions to the theory and practice of liberal education were manifold and outstanding. She left an extraordinary legacy of excellence and dedication to the highest educational ideals of the College.”

In an article published in the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens, AB'95, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, noted that Kass was one of the best teachers he ever had. “Mrs. Kass believed that at least one aim of a higher education is to provide students with a sextant of sorts, by which they might better discover what it is they should know about life, what they might hope for it and how they might go about getting it,” he wrote.

Born Amy Judith Apfel in 1940, Kass grew up in New York City and chose, against her parents' wishes, to attend the University of Chicago because the recruitment catalogue focused on ideas and contained no pictures. "But really what was distinctive about Chicago—it was a place where you didn’t have to apologize for being serious," she often said. She met her future husband on her first day on campus. Leon Kass, a student at what is now the Pritzker School of Medicine, happened to be on the Orientation Board, responsible for orienting new students. The two were married two years later, in 1961.

During a video interview in January 2014 with Bill Kristol, founder and editor of the Weekly Standard, Amy Kass spoke fondly of her experience at UChicago. “We spent the first three weeks discussing the Declaration of Independence,” she recalled. “And I was blown away. The conversations that it generated … really converted me to a way of thinking, a way of reading and a way of speaking,” she added.  

After graduating from UChicago, Kass took a teaching job at a high school in Lincoln-Sudbury, Mass. She took time off in the summer of 1965, following the passage of the Voting Rights Act, to put her strong beliefs in civil rights into action. She and her husband traveled to Mississippi, where they spent a month mobilizing African Americans in rural Holmes County to register to vote, encouraging them to organize and defend their civil rights.

“Amy’s devotion to excellence in teaching was part of a larger moral vision that guided her throughout her life and shaped her character,” said Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, and the Herbert W. Vaughan fellow at the Witherspoon Institute. At the core of that vision was a sense of the profound and equal dignity of the human person.”

Re-inventing the rituals of courtship

Kass joined the UChicago faculty in 1976 as a lecturer in the Humanities Collegiate Division. Her husband Leon also joined the faculty for what would be a long and distinguished tenure; he currently is the Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus of Social Thought and the College. Amy and Leon Kass co-founded the “Human Being and Citizen” Common Core course devoted to the questions, “what is an excellent human being and what is an excellent citizen?” Amy Kass also was a stalwart teacher and advisor in the Fundamentals: Issues and Texts undergraduate major.

“Amy was an inspirational teacher for students and staff, believing so vehemently as she did in the value of a humanistic education,” said David Bevington, the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus. “She was no less dear and wonderful as a human being and colleague.”

Nathan Tarcov, professor of social thought and political science, agreed. “Amy was a rare and beloved teacher who inspired her students not only to respect the great books she taught but to respect themselves and each other,” said Tarcov.

At UChicago, Kass and her husband learned from their observations and through conversations that many young people went along from one unsatisfactory relationship to the next, often becoming “jaded and embittered.”

“There was a lot of talk about the failure of marriage, the divorce culture, the problems of single parenthood,” said Leon Kass during an interview with the Weekly Standard’s Kristol. “But there was absolutely no discussion whatsoever about how you get married and how you go about finding and winning the right one with whom you could make a life. And there were no cultural norms, there were no teachings.”

The Kasses decided to address the problem, both in writing and teaching. In 2000, the efforts led to the creation of a course, “Ethics of Everyday Life: Courtship,” which was based on an anthology the couple edited, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying. The book promotes what they called a higher kind of sex education designed to prepare hearts and minds for romance leading to lasting marriage.

Through the book, the Kasses sought to inspire young people to rediscover the blessings of marriage by reading classic and modern works on the subject, and re-inventing new forms of courting based on improved respect between men and women.

“Amy 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,” wrote journalist Yuval Levin, who earned his PhD from the Committee on Social Thought at UChicago. “They could come to better understand them through the study of great works of literature.”  

In 1980, after only four years of teaching in the College, Amy Kass won a Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. In 2010, Kass received the Norman Maclean Faculty Award, and the University subsequently created the Leon and Amy Kass Odyssey Scholarship Fund.

“Amy Kass was keenly interested in young people’s development as thoughtful human beings,” said Ralph Lerner, the Benjamin Franklin Professor Emeritus in Social Thought and the College, who co-taught several courses with Kass. “Her welcoming manner and easy smile never got the better of her intellectual rigor. Her success as a teacher may be measured by her many College students who strove to adopt for themselves the standard she held up before them: that when it comes to thinking, half-done is not well done.”

Kass retired in June 2010, and she discussed Herman Melville's Moby-Dick in her last class. When summarizing her UChicago career, she wrote that her lifelong mission was to teach people to “read great books slowly and critically, to refine their ideas, to enlarge their sympathies, and to aspire to a richer life beyond self-centered quests for gain, fame or power.”

Kass served on the National Council on the Humanities for the National Endowment for the Humanities, as a consultant to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Corporation for National and Community Service, and as a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

She authored numerous articles and edited anthologies on American autobiography, and on the idea and practice of philanthropy. In addition to Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, she and her husband also produced the anthology, What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song. They also produced e-curricula on The Meaning of America and The American Calendar.

Amy Kass is survived by her husband of 54 years, Leon Kass; her daughters, Sarah Kass and Miriam R. Kass; son-in-law, Robert Hochman; her granddaughters, Polly, Hannah, Naomi and Abigail; and her siblings, Dr. Roberta J. Apfel, Dr. Franklin J. Apfel and David J. Apfel.