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Awards & Honors: 2010 National Humanities Medalist

Stanley Nider Katz

“I only have one aim in life, to do what I can to improve the quality of democracy in the United States,” says Professor Stanley Katz. He has worked toward this lofty goal through decades of teaching, as well as writing and speaking on ways to make our academic institutions better.

As a young man from Chicago, Katz knew that he didn’t want to run his father’s egg-breaking business, supplying thousands of freshly cracked eggs daily for bakeries such as Sara Lee. Instead, he headed to Harvard College. “I entered college in 1951, right after the war,” he recalls, “the resident tutors were either assistant professors or graduate students who were World War II vets. They were among my closest friends. It was that experience that transformed me; I wanted to be like them.”

One of the young, war-vet professors was Bernard Bailyn. Although Katz was planning a career in English history, a graduate seminar with Bailyn helped ignite a passion for American history. Among his classmates were others on their way to becoming prominent scholars, including Gordon Wood, also one of this year’s medalists. Bailyn “trained the cream of the crop of the next generation of American historians,” says Katz.

Katz followed the path of many a talented academic: a Fulbright, research and teaching fellowships, professorships, law school, deanships, publications. He taught at Harvard until 1965, when he took a position at the University of Wisconsin. “It was one of the top two or three history departments in the country. It was paradise,” says Katz. But with the Vietnam War raging, it was also a tense time to be on American campuses. “Classes were disrupted for weeks at a time. I lectured with tear gas in the room on several occasions,” Katz wrote in his essay “Autobiographical Ramblings.” For a couple of years, Katz says no one turned in term papers. “It was a great time to be a teacher because students were encountering challenges of all kinds, and helping them pull through was my job,” he says.

“The war forced us to think through the relationship of politics to teaching and to higher education,” wrote Katz. “There is a moral quality to great teaching,” he explains. “That’s an aspect of the liberal arts that is sometimes ignored. If we reduce it to content and technique, then it may be great scholarship, but it isn’t great teaching.” He went on to teach American history, legal history, and public policy at the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton. He is editor in chief of the recently published Oxford International Encyclopedia of Legal History and editor of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise History of the United States Supreme Court.

Eventually Katz’s varied academic interests led to a focus on education policy. “At Harvard I was really intrigued by the general education curriculum. What was it about that program that worked? What was it about the structure that made it effective?” Early in his career, he says “I knew that institutions were consequential.” He was president of the Organization of American Historians, and has served as a leader for more than sixty influential American humanities organizations, such as The Papers of the Founding Fathers, Inc. When he became president of the American Council of Learned Societies in 1986, it propelled him onto the national and international stage of higher education. In that role for eleven years, he led the ACLS, a group of organizations devoted to promoting American scholarship in the humanities, through the minefield of the culture wars, a time when funding for the humanities was scarce but intellectual opportunities were opening up all over the world. In his report as president of ACLS in 1997, he wrote “I have taken it as a principle of our international work that scholarship be insulated from politics and that the Council advance academic principles by practical work as well as by advocacy.” Under his leadership, the ACLS led scholarly exchanges with China, Vietnam, and Cuba, and with newly liberated institutions in Eastern Europe. For the bicentennial of the Constitution, the ACLS developed a new focus on the study of constitutionalism, promoting international conferences and exchanges, and supporting new scholarship. This led to the 1993 publication of Constitutionalism and Democracy: Transitions in the Contemporary World, which Katz coedited.

These days Katz uses his public voice to improve undergraduate education in the U.S., speaking all over the country on the subject and publishing a blog for The Chronicle of Higher Education. In this age of benchmarks and vocational training, Katz says, “I think it’s right to worry about what value we add to an undergraduate over four years. But to measure the progress a student makes in a liberal education is hard to do. What’s important is that institutions are now challenged to ask themselves, Are we doing the best we can for our students?”

Certainly, Katz continues to. Although still active in education policy, as director of the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School, Katz makes sure that he teaches at least one undergraduate class each fall, such as Civil Society and Public Policy. Which sounds rather wonkish, but for Katz the overriding goal remains the same: the improvement of our civic culture.

“What I’m concerned about with the undergraduates is not what they’re going to do when they are forty,” he says, “but that they acquire the tools so they can be generally good citizens when they grow up.”

By Amy Lifson
Amy Lifson is the assistant editor of Humanities.