Michael B. Katz, 1939-2014
Michael B. Katz sadly passed away in August. We knew him as a brilliant writer and a strong champion of the urban poor. Here are some tributes from his friends.
When I was younger and read a book that really got to me, I would find the courage to write the author a letter. Some authors responded, some didn’t—and some of the responses were perfunctory, making me wish I hadn’t written in the first place.
It was in the early 90s when I read Michael Katz’s The Undeserving Poor. I had never read anything quite like it; it was one of those books that change the way you think. Well, what to do but write a letter to this Michael Katz. I got a long and warm letter back, and that reply sparked an enduring friendship.
Several years after that exchange, I was trying to finish a book of mine called Possible Lives. It’s the account of a journey across the United States documenting good public school classrooms, and from those portraits I develop an argument about the place of public education in our country. I was close to the end—and I was stuck. Stone-cold, waking-in-the-middle-of-the-night stuck. I couldn’t figure out how to bring its key ideas together.
As luck would have it, I was scheduled to be in Philadelphia for a meeting, so I contacted Michael—who I had yet to meet in person—and he invited me to stay with him and his wife, Edda.
Before dinner, I told Michael my sad story, and over the course of several hours he ended up understanding the book better than I did and helped me tie it together.
Dinner. More talk with Michael and Edda. Then up to the guest bedroom. Many thank yous. Goodnight. And I fell onto the bed exhausted, somehow dislodging the slats under the mattress and dropping to the floor. “Oh God, this man’s been so good to me,” I thought, “and I wrecked his bed.” Back down the stairs, feeling like an idiot. Michael, for his part, was mortified. Back up to reassemble the bed, both laughing and apologizing—and from it all we gained a story we told and told again over the many years that followed.
I’m telling the story once more, Michael. Keeping you nearby. Wrestling with that damned bed frame. How many times since then you helped me through yet another conceptual tangle. I miss your guidance terribly. Your generosity of spirit. Your stunning brain power. And all of us will miss—oh we will miss—your searing intelligence and sense of justice. We need it now more than ever.
Throughout his astoundinglyprolific career Professor Michael Katz combined two tasks that often prove challenging for historians to interweave. He produced research that was both novel given the scholarly literature and relevant to the alleviation of pressing social problems. Much of Katz’s vast and influential scholarship on education, poverty, cities, social structure, and immigration used the historian’s platform to illuminate the obstacles Americans have faced fighting poverty, conceptualizing justice, and pursuing equality. Katz’s work on common school systems, for example, moved class relations to the center of debate, exposed how bureaucracy obscured educational inequality, and emphasized how the taken-for-granted institutional structures that perplexed twentieth century school reformers emerged from a set of possible alternatives.
This work set the scholarly agenda in the history of education for decades. It also used history to raise questions—which policy-oriented education students find relevant over forty years later—about whose interests our contemporary educational bureaucracies serve. Katz’s work on poverty also made clear that historical rigor and political relevance could be mutually reinforcing. Both the distinctions Katz drew between the deserving and undeserving poor and his emphasis on the ideological separation of public assistance and social insurance represented theoretical innovations in the history of poverty that helped activist scholars defend America’s welfare state against attack. As social scientists perplexed by the divide between “basic” and “applied” research have long recognized, finding ways to be both theoretically innovative and politically useful is no easy task. By showing how history mattered in struggles for educational justice, Katz’s Reconstructing American Education initially inspired me to pursue a Ph.D. This same theme still echoes as I reflect fifteen years later on Katz’s legacy. Perhaps the most important of the many lessons I learned from him is that the academy is and should be a place where historians can use their tools to promote the public good.
I also want to highlight Katz’s great generosity as an advisor. That someone who wrote as many books as he did responded to emails and provided feedback on writing so quickly, and with such care and consistency, has never ceased to amaze me. Professor Katz’s memory inspires me to always consider how the lessons of history matter to the pursuit of social justice and to treat those around me with the overwhelming kindness that he brought to his teaching and advising.
I have been very fortunate to have had two extraordinary mentors in my academic life. One is David B. Tyack, the other is Michael B. Katz. Ironically, they both grew up on the north shore of Massachusetts, both went to Harvard where they studied United States history and literature, and in the early 1970s, both drew on the concept of bureaucratization to understand the historical development of public education in the United States. They were also good friends.
I first worked with Michael when he invited his former student Barbara Brenzel and me to contribute a chapter on class, race, and the history of urban education to a collection he was editing, which eventually became The “Underclass” Debate: Views From History (1993). He subsequently included me in a number of other projects, including an essay co-authored with my colleague Robert Lowe for his last book edited with Mike Rose, Public Education Under Siege (2013). Apart from experiencing first hand his remarkable generosity and fierce intellect, what this work with Michael taught me was to aspire to more from myself. He had an extraordinary capacity to see what was valuable and important in a piece of writing and then help you push your ideas further than you ever imagined you could. This was a true gift.
In a way, however, I feel as if I had actually known Michael from the moment I first read The Irony of Early School Reform (1968) in the summer of 1973. I was teaching then in an alternative high school and for reasons I don’t remember now I picked up a copy of Irony. At the time, I had read many popular accounts that talked about the inequalities and injustices of public schooling. But Irony provided me a context for understanding my own work unlike any other book or essay I had yet read about education. What Irony taught me (and many others) to see was that the inequalities that so troubled us were not accidental but were systemic—deeply rooted in the class origins of schooling—and that reforming that system would require hard and steady work. No one else had written about the history of education like that before. Even more, as with all of Michael’s subsequent writing on the history of poverty and welfare policy, every page of Irony was fueled with a passion and moral commitment that made me and so many who read it realize that studying and writing about history was a worthwhile thing to do and could make a political difference in the world.
Indeed, I think it no exaggeration to say that the field of the history of education would not be what it is today absent Michael’s influence. As Carl Kaestle put it at a recent session held in Michael’s memory at the History of Education Society, Michael’s presence hovered over the the study of the history of education long after he moved on to study the history of poverty and social welfare and continues to influence all those working in the field, whether they knew Michael personally or not. His passing is a huge loss. But I will take solace in remembering his passion, his generosity, his intellect, and, above all, his commitment to education, equality, and economic and social justice.
One of the interesting things about being mentored—especially being mentored by a true scholar—is the extent to which the person’s particular way of thinking becomes a part of you, an engrained “habit of mind.” Unlike many of the doctoral students Michael Katz influenced over his long career, I only came to work with him towards the end of my time at the University of Pennsylvania. He graciously joined my dissertation committee late, after my project was well underway. Yet his impact on me was profound. To this day, and I expect for many years to come, my first instinct upon learning of a new policy development, especially one that is aimed at children or the poor, is to ask myself, “What would Michael Katz think?” And if the policy is ungenerous, if it values some people more than others, if it assumes market forces can fix major social problems, or if it blames the vulnerable for their own vulnerability, then I know Michael would think it is fundamentally misguided.
Michael had an unshakeable moral compass. It was clear in his scholarship, in the urgency with which he shared his ideas about poverty and social policy, in his involvement with the broader public conversation about issues that mattered to him, and in his work on policy and community affairs. While he had many admirable traits—kindness, generosity, endless curiosity, a fierce intelligence, and a commitment to intellectual honesty—it is that moral compass that always struck me the most. So when I ask, What would Michael Katz think?, what I really mean is: Is this idea, policy initiative, proposal or plan something that will make the world a more or less just and democratic place? If the answer is less, then I know that no matter how many interesting arguments could be mustered in its support, we need to find a better solution. I also know that it is not enough for an academic to simply analyze and reflect. As Michael modelled, scholars should be engaged, should take their ideas to the larger world, and should be unafraid of criticism and debate.
When Michael took me under his wing and encouraged me to see myself as a scholar, he changed the trajectory of my career. But it was his moral clarity that made him such a shining light—for me and for so many others.
Michael Katz was prolific; without a large team of co-authors or an army of grad students, he nonetheless wrote three times as many books as what you would often expect from a good historian. Michael was definitely a good historian, and in many ways you could say he had three different careers, writing-wise. His early writings focus on the history of education, and he was one of the most interesting and nuanced of the radical historians of education writing in the late 1960s and 1970s. In the 1970s, he moved into quantitative social-science history, writing about the complexities of class and social structures using what were then cutting-edge statistical methods in social science. In the 1980s, he began writing about urban poverty and public policy, and while he returned occasionally to education or society-wise social-science history, poverty policy was his lasting concern for the last few decades of his life.
Throughout his writing, Michael tried to be as clear as possible about social class as a layered, complex entity that had real consequences. He also wrote about important institutions–schools, welfare–understanding that they were simultaneously public resources and also wedges inside the social structure. He showed me that you could use statistics and still focus on the complex lives of the people that lay behind them. He asked important questions, and his answers remain right a surprising amount given the turmoil of the issues he addressed in his career.
I became his student in the University of Pennsylvania history department in the late 1980s. I vividly remember the first class I ever had with Michael, before he agreed to be my advisor. This was a social history course where the assignments were reaction papers, and he explained that in his experience, it was very easy for graduate students to rip a book to shreds. It took more effort to understand what the contribution of a book was.
At the end of each class each semester, where we as students had taken the lead in discussion, and in Young Turk manner had often lit into the book, he would take out his notes on what we had just read and start by describing what he thought the contribution of the book was, its strengths – why he had assigned it. Sometimes, he would then proceed to rip the book to shreds, quietly, in his unassuming style. That was Michael: a sharp intellectual focus, rigorous, but always starting with the positive, always quiet, humane.
He took me on as a student towards the end of my first year. The next year, he sat me down and explained that there was no guarantee that I would win a tenure-track job in a history department, let alone a research-oriented department. That was not a statement about my qualities as a student but about the job market.
He encouraged me to take courses in other departments so that I would have the background and skills to qualify for non-history jobs. With that encouragement, I enrolled in several courses in Penn’s Grad School of Education, began coursework in demography that would later lead to a masters degree, and consciously thought about and later applied to jobs in schools of education and the non-profit world as well as in history. Almost alone among historians at major research universities at the time, Michael not only wanted his students to options on graduation but took concrete steps to help.
When he was on sabbatical one semester, he set up an independent study in the history of education with me, Tim Hacsi, and Debbie Block, and met with us regularly. He was always responsive to my requests for feedback on papers and dissertation chapter drafts, even (and perhaps especially) when they were a horrid mess; that responsiveness was legendary in the Penn history department. When my first job search in 1991-92 was flailing, he suggested me to Bob Taggart as a visiting faculty member at the University of Delaware (Bob was going to be on sabbatical the following year). My wife and I were expecting our first child; that connection and itinerant job saved my career, as I would have taken any full-time job at that point.
In other words, Michael was a real person. I never experienced anything in my interactions with him but a gentle man who treated students with care and concern. I consider myself very lucky to have had Michael as an advisor. I will miss him, as will many others.
One reason it’s hard to accept Michael’s death is that he was stilllearning; indeed he was always learning, and building on the important work he had done; work that transformed a field, such as The Irony of Early School Reform, The Undeserving Poor, or The Price of Citizenship. Through careful historical analysis Michael’s scholarship contributed to the important social and political issues of his day. In the late 1960’s and 1970’s his work on education addressed the failings of the bureaucratic liberal state, and his urban history, the complicated workings of American social mobility. In the 1980’s and beyond, when the welfare state came under attack, he helped us understand the history of America’s welfare institutions, and the vilification of the poor. He then explored the devastating effects of the devolution of the state and the consequent expansion the public/private welfare state.
Michael never viewed any of his studies as the last word. He always opposed the idea that education had ever been the panacea that solved our social inequality, or that it ever could be. But recently, in the wake of attacks on all public institutions, including public education, he wrote passionately about the important role that public schools played in the American commitment to community responsibility. He learned from feminist historians to pay attention to women and the welfare state. He had a genuine interest in and enthusiasm for the work of others, and was always encouraging to other scholars, including myself, whether it was my early work on Italian immigrant women or later scholarship on education and the welfare state. A few years ago, at a Social Science History conference, when he attended a roundtable on Margaret Somer’s work on citizenship, he lit up—he couldn’t wait to meet her, to discuss her work, and recommend her new book to others. He was proud of his students and worked hard on their behalf; he also helped other young scholars, reading and critiquing their work, taking the time to meet with so many.
Many friends have recently touched on his devotion to family; I saw some of these personal qualities as well. Years ago, at a conference, Michael was a commentator on a paper that I co-authored with my spouse, Michael Hanagan. Since this was new work for us, we were anxious about his reaction. My husband and I saw him the day before the panel, when we ducked into—dare I say it—McDonald’s, with our then two young children, and there was Michael, grabbing lunch as well. He was glad to see us, but especially taken with our daughters; he spent the entire time talking with them, mentioning nothing about the paper. I assumed that he truly disliked it and just did not know what to say. The next day, when I discovered that he liked the paper a lot, I realized that Michael spent lunch with my children because he genuinely loved kids. At a conference in The Hague, where Michael participated in many panels, high on his list of priorities was finding a gift for his wife; he spent a morning on the mission, and was very pleased when he found the right scarf. Soon after his mother’s death, in the midst of all his many projects, he found time to publish her writings, including his own reminiscences about her life and the rest of his family. He seemed as proud of that work as anything that he had done.
So, we remember Michael for the great work and for his kindness and decency. I cannot imagine a better legacy.
When anyone asks me about Michael Katz, I tell them that Michael was my pathmaker. I met Michael in the spring of 2005, my first year of graduate school at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, when I enrolled in his history of education course.
As a teacher, Michael demanded that his students think critically about the course materials, to find the good in the work that we read, find ways to constructively criticize them, and imagine how we might change them. He had the rare ability to push his students to think deeply about the history of schooling and education in the United States and to apply that knowledge to our nation’s current challenges. He made space in his course for his students to voice their opinions and ideas and he gently encouraged and pushed us to consider alternatives when he disagreed with what had been said. Michael wanted his students to use own our historical knowledge to push for a more just social order.
Several years later, I felt increasingly frustrated with the School of Education’s emphasis on interdisciplinary research, I approached Michael about the possibility of doing a joint Ph.D. in Education and History. Even though I was a fourth year student, Michael immediately said that he would help me to do this and contacted several professors to ask if I could enroll in their class. Within a few months, I ran out of the department fearing that a disciplinary degree might compromise my own commitment to educational practice.
And then, a few months later, I changed my mind. I emailed him and told him that, in my fifth year in graduate school, I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in history. Most people probably thought that I was crazy. Not Michael. Michael didn’t ask any questions; he just welcomed me back into the history department. As a graduate student, I was really struggling to find my way, to find a topic that I felt mattered, that I hoped might make a difference. I had been conducting ethnographic research at Germantown High School, a struggling urban high school in Philadelphia, and wanted to study its history. When I discussed this topic with my colleagues at Penn, almost everyone thought the topic was too narrow and irrelevant to make a good dissertation. Everyone except Michael. Michael listened to my passion about the topic, my deep desire to know more. He told me that he thought the topic had merit and encouraged me to go to the archives to see what I could find.
As all of his students have said, Michael represents the kind of dissertation advisor that everyone should have. The kind of advisor that we all aspire to be. He challenged me to think deeply, honestly pushed me when he thought I wasn’t saying enough, gave me pages of feedback (always within 24 hours—once from the airport in Paris on his annual trip to Romania to visit his son). But, most importantly, Michael knew me. He knew that I needed to be in schools doing ethnographic work attending rallies to improve education as much as I needed to be in the archive because he knew that these connections between activism and research mattered. I felt protected to take risks and by his example to say what I wanted when I wanted.
In June 2014, I saw Michael with my then 10-month-old son, Luke, just after I finished a year as a fellow at Harvard’s Du Bois Center. As Luke ran around Michael’s house, hitting his television and pounding on his couch pillows, I witnessed why Michael remained so committed to educational history and the idea that the world could be a more equitable place. With the same intensity that he brought to his research, Michael was mesmerized by Luke’s curiosity about the world around him, a young child’s need to make sense of the world. It was that curiosity and engagement that Michael always believed that schools could and should cultivate and throughout his life. As a researcher and teacher, he remained steadfast in his convictions about the possibilities and limitations of education to do just that.
Kathryn M. Neckerman
As a sociologist, I know I represent many people from outside history who’ve been inspired by Michael Katz’s work. For me and others, his books opened a new dimension to our study of present-day poverty and inequality. And beyond that, I relished the clarity and grace of his writer’s voice and the moral current that runs through his writing. These books have a tonic effect on the reader. Certainly they did on me.
Those of us fortunate enough to work with Michael will also remember the humanity and the eager curiosity with which he encountered the work of junior scholars. I met him when I wrote a chapter for his underclass book (The “Underclass” Debate: Views from History), and later on he reviewed my own book manuscript. As editor and critic, he had the rare gift of prodding through generosity: he gave me credit for much more subtlety and insight than I actually possessed, and I worked to try to deserve his kind words. It was only later, whenI did my own turn as editor and critic that I learned just how hard it is to pull that off.
Like all good historians, Michael brought us to the past – but also, with rising urgency, he brought history to the present, threading the institutions and rhetorics of poverty through the decades of our century. He travelled with us as the crisis of inequality deepened; as moments of political possibility were seized, or not; as long-familiar tropes were repeated or inverted or abandoned. His last book, Why Don’t American Cities Burn?, left us both question and challenge: to make new mental maps of these transforming cities, and to forge paths of collective action across this shifting terrain.
We have work to do.