Amy and Leon Kass Transcript
Taped January 17, 2014
Table of Contents
I: Memories of the University of Chicago 0:15 – 16:34
II: Towards Liberal Education 16:35 – 35:50
III: Teaching Great Books 35:58 – 43:48
IV: Men, Women, Courtship 43:48 – 1:07:39
V: Dating, Love, Friendship 1:07:45 – 1:18:51
VI: What So Proudly We Hail 1:18:53 – 1:37:16
KRISTOL: Hi, welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m Bill Kristol. It’s a great pleasure to be joined today by Leon and Amy Kass. Welcome.
AMY KASS: Thank you.
KRISTOL: Let’s begin at the beginning, you both went to the University of Chicago and you both showed up there in the 50s, and you both talked about how this was an important formative experience for you. So I’m curious – as someone who didn’t go to the University of Chicago – and has been, of course, wounded and damaged ever since.
AMY: How did it leave its mark?
KRISTOL: You ended up going back there and teaching there for as very distinguished professors there for many decades, so talk a little bit about the University of Chicago.
LEON KASS: I’m a native of Chicago. I went to the college of the University of Chicago as an early entrant after two years of high school, age 15. Not to be recommend necessarily.
KRISTOL: Wasn’t great for your social life?
LEON: No, in some respects – because there were a lot of us. There was a program – early entrance, left over from the Hutchins College. I majored in the sciences. I was probably too young to really be moved by the books that I now love and teach until my last year in the college.
But it was formative partly because Chicago was still – the Hutchins – Robert Hutchins had left, the climate of learning through great books and through discussion, search, and inquiry was very much the way of the place.
And the professors didn’t lecture. We would sit and read very often short excerpts rather than whole books, but the questions were searching questions, we were forced to defend our opinions, we were forced to look into fundamental assumptions.
And both Amy and I got caught up in the ideology of the Hutchins College, the liberal arts, and the great books.
KRISTOL: So, even as a science major in order to graduate you had to take a full kind of liberal arts, great-books regimen?
LEON: There were 14 – before I got, there were 14 yearlong, what would now be called, common core courses, which everybody took and you got a B.A. in the liberal arts from the college. And if you wanted to specialize, you did it afterwards.
When I got there, it was all sort of half-and-half. Half your time was on a major, and I was in biology, but half the time was full-year courses in humanities, full-year courses in social science, history of western civ., a course on the organization and methods of the sciences and the principles of knowledge, a kind of big philosophical integration –
KRISTOL: And these were required courses for everybody?
LEON: For everybody.
KRISTOL: So, there wasn’t like a “core” where you choose among the ten courses?
LEON: No, everybody took the same things, and you could – anybody you’d bump into had already – was doing these things, had done these things, or would do them. Also, Amy and I were members of an organization called the Student Orientation Board, which was a self-perpetuating group of students who were responsible for orienting the new students every fall and who met during the year to have discussions on the aims of liberal education with invited faculty members.
And we regarded ourselves as the defenders of the faith against the barbarians who had taken over and who wanted to turn the University of Chicago into a place that would be a home for brawn and beauty as well as brains, as one of the deans then put it.
So we were little Hutchins ideologues and – I mean, the idea was, in part, was learning for its own sake, great books for their own sake, but also that this was indispensable for citizenship, and that something like a rich philosophical education in all realms of human knowledge was indispensable for citizenship in a country where the people were sovereign.
KRISTOL: I want to ask Amy about that and to get the truer view of what really – what it was really like at the University of Chicago?
LEON: I gave it the orthodox view.
KRISTOL: Was there any one professor – I’m just curious – as an undergraduate who I don’t know guided you or, really, you became close to?
LEON: My last year of the college – I mean, I had done very well in my science classes, rather mediocre in the humanities, and I couldn’t write to save my neck. It was terrible.
But my last year in the college, a fellow named Joe Schwab, who had also trained as a geneticist and was a brilliant graduate student, starting teaching in college, got very much interested in why it was – he got interested in sort of the transference and counter-transference problems of the classroom and why some people learned under some circumstances and others not.
Became a psychoanalyst, wound up teaching every course in the college except foreign language and Western Civ. All the social sciences, all the humanities, the philosophical integration course, math, everything.
And he was a bit of a bully but a real Socratic. And he showed me – the first day of my senior year – that there were questions to which the answers that I was carrying around in my head were inadequate.
It was a class – the first reading was the discussion of “the Cave” from Book 7 of The Republic, and the question was, “Why did the philosophers return to the cave?” And goody two-shoes over here said, “Well, of course, to improve the lot of all the other people. It’s their duty.”
And by the time the class was over, it was perfectly clear that the text didn’t support such a philanthropic understanding, and it was the first time it occurred to me that, you know, the pursuit of knowledge might be happiness for the seeker and not simply instrumentally good and useful for the larger community.
And the whole rest of the year – I mean, he really woke me up. I took a full-year course with him, I took –
AMY: This was your last year.
LEON: It was my last year.
KRISTOL: I was thinking, too, what Amy said, that in a way you can have a wonderful curriculum on paper, but if you don’t have the teacher to wake you up –
LEON: Well, I –
KRISTOL: You still learned a lot, I’m sure.
LEON: I blame myself because I really was young.
KRISTOL: You were very young.
LEON: And I went to speak to Schwab, and I said you know – I also took some classes from Richard McKeon, who was a bit of a bully and in retrospect a horrible teacher.
KRISTOL: Famous Aristotle scholar, by the way.
LEON: Yeah, but I went to Schwab and said, “Look, I’ve been accepted to medical school.” I said, “I’m thinking maybe – maybe I’d like to go to graduate school in philosophy.” He said, “Kass, go to medical school.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Look, if you’re really interested in these philosophical things you can always do them later, it’ll come out. But in the meantime, you love something, and you’ll be able to do something in the world.”
KRISTOL: And make a living.
LEON: And make living.
KRISTOL: That’s so terrible.
LEON: But it was good advice.
AMY: You don’t think it was a comment on your philosophical ability?
LEON: Maybe that too.
KRISTOL: That’s harsh. And you, you showed up a couple years after Leon?
AMY: Well, I showed up in 1959 and Leon was already in medical school. And, in fact, I met Leon the first day I was at the University of Chicago.
LEON: That was one of the privileges of being on the orientation board.
AMY: He was on the orientation board, and he was one of those selected to orient me to the college.
KRISTOL: If this happened today, there would be all kinds of legal investigations and –
AMY: Well, it was the resident’s head from my floor that introduced us. And she ran – went running up to Leon and said, “At last, we have someone here who went to the University of Chicago for the right reasons.”
And he said to me, “Oh, really, why did you come?” And I said, “Of all the places that tried to send me their brochures and propaganda, I liked Chicago most because its booklet didn’t have any pictures in it.” So, I thought it was a serious place. That’s really what attracted me.
KRISTOL: You were a transfer student?
AMY: I was a transfer student there, yeah. But it was my big act of rebellion. I came from New York City, and I was expected to go to school in the East, and I told my parents if they didn’t – if – I didn’t want to go to school in the East, and I could support myself if I went to Antioch.
So, I went to Antioch the first year and then transferred to – as quickly as I could – there.
KRISTOL: To Chicago?
AMY: To Chicago.
KRISTOL: In terms of your educational experience there –
AMY: Well, there – first of all, I would say, Leon – I quickly, as he said, joined the orientation board, and this teacher that is so touted by Leon – I was also a student of. And I thought he was a big bully. Just as bully – just as much a bully as McKeon.
But the very first course I took at the University of Chicago was a course by a man who subsequently did not get tenure. He was a known socialist and the first reading was the Declaration of Independence. We spent three weeks talking about the Declaration of Independence. And I was blown away.
Stops on the first sentence, “When in the course of human events . . .” He says, “Do human events have courses?,” and it was going through that carefully and the conversations that it generated outside of the classroom as well as inside of the classroom that really converted me to a way of thinking, a way of reading, a way of speaking, and so on.
So, I wouldn’t say he was the most influential teacher I had, the most influential teacher was a man named Jack Weintraub, who was a legend at the college, and he was in history. But that experience was really formative for me.
KRISTOL: And was it the experience more of sort of reading the text closely and thinking about the philosophic or implicitly philosophic questions, or was it the experience of sort of America and what America stood for so to speak?
AMY: Well, I had a long-standing interest in citizenship. I graduated high school shortly after Sputnik and the National Defense Education Act was passed, and everybody was promoting science education. And I thought that both citizenship and the humanities were getting short shrift. And, so I was really very interested in this and promoting that, and this just fed into that interest.
KRISTOL: And then you graduated from Chicago?
AMY: I graduated from Chicago and – well, I did basically what was left of the old Hutchins College and more. I didn’t – insofar as I had any major at all you would call it “towards history.” But I really majored in this man, Jack Weintraub. I took every course he offered and then I did – I got a degree in tutorial studies, which meant I spent my last year writing a long paper basically on historiography.
KRISTOL: So, in both your cases actually that – some individual professors were key, the overall climate presumably helped make it possible, I suppose, for those professors to teach the way they did.
LEON: And I think that’s really very important. In retrospect, I think one would say a lot of the teachers weren’t so great. The curriculum could have done with reading whole books rather than, you know, short selections.
But what was key was they had a separate college faculty that did not get tenure on the basis of publication, but on the basis of their commitment to this curriculum of liberal education. They believed in the enterprise. They made us believe in the enterprise and its importance, and there was a kind of spirit of Chicago, a fundamental inquiry argument, disputation, and asking really basic questions just about everything, including about the sciences.
And that – and for years, I would – much later in professional life, I would go to a meeting, and there would be conversations in the meeting, and I would find somebody whose way of thinking or habit of thought I really liked, and I was always both pleased and disappointed to discover that they came from Chicago.
Because you’d like to think that what you learned there is not idiosyncratic and just peculiar but is sort of universally an appropriate way. Chicago placed its mark on people.
KRISTOL: Yeah, I was going to ask about that. Because I mean – I guess other people I’ve spoken with who went to college in the late 50s, early 60s – and I think Sputnik was such a formative moment. I’m a little too young – I remember it vaguely, but, I mean, a little bit young for it to have been formative for me, I think – I was going to say this was true beyond Chicago. Maybe there was a moment here where people, both from the point of view of liberal education and civic education, had a kind of both openness and sense of urgency about it that went away or diminished a lot in later decades. Or maybe it was more just a Chicago tradition or some combination of the two, I suppose?
AMY: I think when I was in the college, that was true. There was more of an urgency about it. But really what was distinctive about Chicago – and I think remained distinctive throughout the 34 years that we ended up teaching there, it was a place that you really didn’t have to apologize for being serious.
It’s a – it was for us a place as undergraduates, a place where the conversations in the classroom really were taken outside the classroom and continued in the cafeteria and in your dormitory, and so on.
So, Chicago was known as the place where fun comes to die.
AMY: Well, I – when the newspapers published that story, I thought they should be proud of it. They thought I was perverse, but that was a different time.
LEON: In 1957, three friends and I got into a car and went Spring Break traveling to the East and visited Harvard, where I had a friend, now a rather infamous of the left and we went to classes with him. We went to a big lecture class with Arthur Schlesinger Jr., as I recall. He was raving about all of this.
And we thought, what a waste. I mean you, know, here were 300-400 people packed into the Sanders Theater, whatever it was; the fellow was probably doing the same thing he’s done year in and year out; one can read this, and where was the activity of sort of challenging people and how they thought?
So, I remember we were – we were snobs, at least, about the kind of education we were getting even compared with what was going on in more respectable and elite places.
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