Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Late, Great Joe Katz

I just learned, through the magic of Facebook, that one of my favorite teachers from high school--or ever--has died. His name was Joe Katz, and he taught history at Roslyn High School.

I despised history as a subject in school. I found it dull, and I found its teachers duller. It was all content with no context. And the teachers, by and large, were grey and unwashed and uninteresting.

Strangely, though, I chose to take an honors history class as a senior. It was called "American Thought," and it was the first class I had ever taken that had no textbook. Instead, we had a packet of articles and essays that had been Xeroxed by the teacher. It also had no real syllabus, beyond, "let's talk about stuff."

The teacher, Joe Katz, chewed gum, had wild and untamed eyebrows, and was trying to corner the market on bicentennial-themed quarters (it was 1980 at the time). He didn't teach. Not any way I had been used to. He harassed. He cajoled. He challenged. It was my first seminar, and suddenly, I loved history.

I have forgotten almost everything that my high school teachers forced me to read, outside of novels and stories in English. But I remember the essays I read for Joe Katz--because he wasn't afraid of being controversial and confrontational. We were high school seniors, and we were expected to grapple with the world.

This was serious business for Joe Katz. He had been teaching for long enough, at that point, that he had sent students to Vietnam. The draft had gone away not so long ago. Being 18 was not, necessarily, a guaranteed joyride. In fact, when some of the kids in class came in wearing Hawaiian shirts and sitting in folding lawn chairs in honor of the first day of spring, Joe Katz lashed out at them for being superficial and foolish. "You want to make a statement?" he yelled. "Find something worth saying."

One essay I remember vividly was about a history teacher who secretly started a fascist youth group in his world history class in order to lure his clueless students into behaving thugishly--in response to their blithe criticisms of the Germans under Naziism, and how stupid they must have been to fall under Hitler's spell. Little by little, the teacher ratcheted up the outrageous demands on his new "club," until they were spying on their classmates, threatening them, and even wearing armbands. He then brought them into the auditorium to see a video link-up with the youth group's national convention, whereupon he showed them scenes from the NAzi Nuremburg rally. They got the point. They got the point so well that some of them had complete breakdowns and had to leave school. The teacher, needless to say, was fired, sued, and more.

But it was GREAT reading material. And OH, how we argued about it. For days. And it wasn't just opinionating. We had to defend our opinions with...all of that historical content we had learned and found so boring and useless in other classes.

I've carried that particular story around in my head ever since, and pulled it out on many occasions.

I've done a lot of teacher and curriculum-developer training sessions on "teaching for understanding." Joe Katz is the teacher who taught me what that means.

Rest in Peace, Joe. And if there is a heaven, may be you be arguing gloriously there, with the best and the brightest.


Portia said...

I too was Mr. Katz's student. But American Thought was very different in 1969. The Viet Nam War was current events, not history and we were on the cusp of several cultural revolutions. As a smart and outspoken girl with larval lefty leanings, I was a misfit at Roslyn High School. Mr. Katz gave me an intellectual and moral home and a sense of self that allowed me to survive, if not thrive. After years as an activist-lawyer, I too became an educator - Dean for Social Justice Program at a national law school. I too strive to be half as good a mentor/teacher as Mr. Katz was. I suspect that his immortality lies in the fact that there are many of us out here because of him.

Anonymous said...

I knew Joe as a Mock Trial coach and educator. Could not agree more about his style and personality.

Anonymous said...

I have fond memories of Joe Katz, the only history teacher that I remember from my four years at Roslyn High School. Considering I have difficultly remembering most of my college and law school professors, that should speak volumes for the respect and good will I have for the man.


Lewis Orans said...

Thank you for the wonderful recollections of Joe Katz. His passing (and that of his wife) is a sad time for many of us.. I had read about it online and was truly saddened. He was the most influential teacher of my academic life (as well as a great debate coach). Because of Joe, I turned down Princeton and Yale to attend Columbia, and I never looked back. While at Columbia I had many great teachers, only a few came close to Joe Katz.

I had looked him up on the internet a few years ago and had spoken with him several times ... the last time perhaps a year ago. He was in his 80s and still teaching (why am I not surprised). He holds a very special place in my heart and my mind.

Joe sent me an autographed copy of his last book. It was on the great legal cases of the early 20th century. You may know that he worked Saturdays as a librarian at our mutual Alma Mater, Columbia ... at the Law Library. When I took his senior seminar on American Thought, I would go into town with him every Saturday and do much of my research there.

I still recall the arguments in American Thought. The discussion of Theodore Bilbo, the racist senator from Louisiana. Reading Erich Fromm's, Escape From Freedom in an attempt to understand what had happened in Germany in the 30s and why it could happen here. Reading W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, a Marxist view of post-Civil War events that really seemed to capture so much of the truth of the times (this was in the early 60s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, when the SCLC would hold a rally every year in the RHS Gym with music by Louis Armstrong, Maynard Ferguson and others and the words of Ralph Abernathy). What a startling awakening for all of us somewhat spoiled young kids from Long Island's Gold Coast.

Thank you again for your thoughtful remarks and reflections and for reaching out to recall Mr. Katz, a truky important American.

Lewis Orans said...

Obviously I meant to say a TRULY important American. I might add a truly great teacher and mentor to hundreds of young people.