By Thomas Sugrue, et al
My most valued colleague, Michael B. Katz, just passed away after a long struggle with cancer. I already miss him terribly. He was a model mentor and scholar, someone who fearlessly engaged the world outside the academy. He tackled America’s most pressing social problems—public education, inequality, poverty and welfare, urban policy—with deep passion and real rigor. I first met Michael just after I started working on my dissertation, when he brought me into a group of scholars of urban poverty at the Social Science Research Council. He hired me at Penn, seeing something in me and my work when I was still ABD and untested as a scholar. He unwaveringly supported me throughout my career and in my personal life.
Michael began his career as a historian of education, publishing The Irony of Early School Reform in 1968, a book that set the agenda for the field of the history of education for the next generation.
His emphasis on the relationship of education to bureaucracy and to the demands of industrial capitalism reinvigorated the mostly traditional field of educational history, one that had focused primarily on institutions and ideas, rather than on their social and economic impact. That book is still in print. He turned toward quantitative methods in the late 1960s and 1970s, writing some of the most sophisticated works in the “new urban history,” with an emphasis on class, inequality, and social mobility.
But Michael was not content to continue working in that subfield. Rather, he switched gears, writing on the history of poverty and welfare in the United States, brilliantly combining intellectual history, the history of public policy, and social history. The diversity of his methods are visible in his classic book, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse, a highly acclaimed history of American poverty policy that spans the period from the early Republic through the War on Poverty. In several articles, some published in his collection Poverty and Policy, others in his book, Improving Poor People, Michael used rich individual case records from social service agencies to tell the history of poverty from the perspective of poor people themselves, an approach that gives voice to otherwise anonymous poor people. He carried this approach through his recent essay on the death of “Shorty,” a middle-aged, African-American murder victim in turn-of-the-twenty-first century Philadelphia, whose troubled life he reconstructed through court records, interviews, and on-the-ground detective work.
His book, The Undeserving Poor (1988) offered an intellectual history of the War on Poverty and the emergence of anti-welfare politics in the United States in the 1980s. I read that book on a plane in 1988, and knew then that I needed to meet this guy. Michael’s work on poverty led him to the Social Science Research Council, where he convened a working group of historians to bring a much-needed long-term perspective to the stunted debate on the “urban underclass,” one that resulted in an important collection of essays published in 1993, including an important essay deconstructing the very concept of underclass itself. Michael was also interested in the ideological underpinnings of poverty scholarship and, to that end, he persuaded the SSRC to let him conduct dozens of oral histories with social scientists and foundation executives involved in the “underclass” project, providing future historians with an invaluable archive to explore the relationship between foundation funding, scholarly agenda-setting, and public policy.
Michael’s thinking about poverty evolved through his scholarship: in his most recent work—including his new edition of The Undeserving Poor—he foregrounded work on gender and welfare, building from some of the best work by younger scholars in the profession. His scholarship has had international influence, not just in Canada. He co-edited a comparative volume with German scholars on the welfare state; his books have been translated into several languages, including Chinese and Japanese; and his articles have appeared in Hungarian, Italian, and French.
Michael’s scholarly output was substantive and field defining, but he was no ivory tower academic. Throughout his career he engaged public policy debates head on and has published work intended to shape the direction of policymakers. One of his more interesting efforts in this respect was a project on the history of Chicago school reform in the 1980s and early 1990s, which he saw as one of the few promising moments in post-1960s educational history because of the district’s strong (but short-lived efforts) to give parents a voice in school governance. In the 1990s, he brought a big picture perspective to Pennsylvania’s governor, using his skills as a scholar in an effort to transform Pennsylvania’s right-leaning welfare system (which, in the 1980s, through waivers and workfare experiments in the 1980s, encouraged by the Reagan and Bush administrations, had become a model for conservative welfare reform initiatives nationwide). Michael believed in bringing his research to varied audiences: He published books with university presses and major trade publishers, and in journals as diverse as Journal of American History, the Teachers College Record, and Dissent. He has addressed academic audiences, but also groups of Chicago public school parents and social workers who provide assistance to the homeless.
Michael’s engagement with urban issues led him to take the leadership of the University of Pennsylvania’s Urban Studies Program, which he directed or co-directed for thirteen years. Michael was responsible for turning Penn’s program into a model for other such programs around the country. His version of Urban Studies combined academic rigor and student engagement with the wider community. Michael’s commitment to the city has extended even to his decision to give the royalties from one of his books to the Social Studies Department of a troubled, woefully underfunded public high school near his home in West Philadelphia.
Not surprisingly, Michael was a magnet for talented graduate students. In the two plus decades since I joined Penn’s faculty, he has advised more students than any other member of our department. Michael’s students have been some of our very best. The vast majority of them have gone onto distinguished careers. It is noteworthy how many of Michael’s students won dissertation or book prizes. Their success owes a lot to Michael’s rigor as a graduate teacher. He has taught seminars in urban history, social history, and the history of education that many of his students describe as formative intellectual experiences. I wish I could be half as conscientious an advisor as Michael was: Students marveled that he returned student papers, dissertation chapters and even whole dissertations, marked up, usually overnight, never later than within a few days of receiving them. Michael also encouraged graduate student collaboration in research and writing (a common practice in the social sciences and sciences but very unusual in history). He treated his students as co-equals, not as research assistants. Michael also introduced graduate students to the process of scholarly research and writing by inviting small groups of graduate students to read and comment on his own work-in-progress, also an unusual practice in the history profession.
The last year or so was very frustrating for Michael as his body gave way to the ravages of cancer. He was someone who—until age 74—took spinning classes several mornings a week, lifted kettle bells, and took long walks almost daily. When I last saw him, in July, during a brief respite in his illness, he insisted on taking a walk around his beloved West Philadelphia neighborhood. He was stubborn, realistic and never dour, even in the face of adversity. While his energy flagged, he set aside time to write autobiographical essays. We had many lively conversations and, even in the last few months, he provided me with indispensable advice.
I will always remember his fierce intellect, his perseverance, his generosity, and especially his commitment, against the odds, to make the world a just place. May his memory be a blessing.
Michael B. Katz,
By Margaret O’Mara, history prof., Univ. of Washington
The marvelous Michael Katz made immense contributions to the field of urban history not only through his scholarship but also through his work as a graduate teacher. Michael supervised more than thirty doctoral dissertations, regularly taught large graduate seminars, and was both a formal and informal advisor and mentor for countless other scholars-in-training. In addition to leaving us in awe of his Herculean work ethic (dissertation chapters marked up within days, rising at 5:00 am to write!), Michael instilled in his students a set of core sensibilities about the responsibilities of the scholar in modern society. These traits were also among those that distinguished Michael as a scholar of broad influence; he mentored as he lived. Although Michael’s style was persuasive rather than didactic, I like to think of these as “the three commandments of Michael B. Katz.”
First, be multidisciplinary. A scholar whose career cuts a bold arc across disciplines, Michael was both a model and an advocate of multidisciplinarity long before it became part of the academic zeitgeist. This carried into his graduate teaching. Among Michael’s many accomplishments at Penn was the creation of its Urban Studies Graduate Certificate program, whose spirit and structure reflected Michael’s commitment to studying complex challenges of the human experience, ones that could neither be explained nor solved by the sources and methods of one field. Michael’s legacy is not the erasure of disciplines but showing historians how to maintain fidelity to our chosen fields while substantively engaging the insights of other disciplines.
Second, engage the public. Michael was always the proud doctor-father, unfailingly supportive of his students. He was equally, if not more, pleased that so many followed his impressive lead in engaging consistently and forcefully with wider publics. He showed us that being a serious academic and a public intellectual was not an either-or proposition, but instead something that historians could—and should—do simultaneously. Michael demonstrated to all of us urban historians how elegantly, and powerfully, this could be achieved.
Third, let your thinking evolve. Michael remained open to new ideas and influences to a degree that can be rare and remarkable in our line of work. “How interesting!” Michael would exclaim when presented with a fresh research question, often underlining his enthusiasm with a clap of his hands. He made it his business to stay on the cutting edge of scholarship and policy, and he was unafraid to admit that he hadn’t quite gotten it right. This is a particularly powerful lesson to impart to scholars-in-training as well as to those with a few more years under their belts. He taught us to be ever-curious, keeping our minds open.
Graduate education was both vocation and avocation for Michael Katz, one that brought him justifiable praise and also tremendous satisfaction. Earlier this year, Michael and I were conversing over email about work, life, and his legacy of advising graduate students. “I look back on the truly great students…with whom it has been my privilege to have worked over the last decades,” he wrote, “and feel that no one could have had a more rewarding and satisfying career.” That career remains an inspiration for all of us with the great good fortune to have come into his orbit.
By Lynn Hollen Lees, emeritus history prof., Univ. of Penn.
My first conversation with Michael Katz was at Yale in 1968, where Steve Thernstrom and Richard Sennett drew many young scholars into discussions of the “new urban history.” He framed his astute comments with a wide smile and hearty laughs. We continued such conversations after both of us moved to Penn and joined its History Department. But Michael did more than just talk about and research cities. For years, Michael combined his work as a historian with effective leadership of Penn’s Urban Studies program, encouraging students to take on internships in Philadelphia where they would learn practical and political skills. His energy was impressive: before the sun rose, he had already exercised and begun to write. He returned student papers within a day or so, and went far out of his way to mentor younger colleagues. Michael was an optimist. He believed in the great potential of his students and spent hours writing recommendations and connecting them to other scholars in the field. His interest in them was genuine and continuing.
Michael and I lived a few blocks apart and within walking distance of the university, and we shared a passionate commitment to our neighborhood—especially during decades when colleagues and the press attacked it as seedy and crime-ridden. We, however, saw it as a beautiful, integrated, multi-cultural “streetcar suburb.” Michael was a stalwart supporter of various local reform efforts and lobbying campaigns, which eventually convinced the University to become actively involved in the upgrading of West Philadelphia. Michael’s political values and love of cities came together in his many contributions to the community in which he lived.
His amazing scholarly productivity was coupled with a talent for administration and a willingness to give time to his colleagues. In several terms as Chair of the History Department, he helped the it to expand, hiring superb scholars and helping them get necessary research time. He launched new seminar series and raised the profile of urban history among our graduate students. One of his major legacies is the large number of scholars whom he guided into the study of cities.
What I admired most about Michael Katz was his combination of persuasive scholarship with political engagement, which gave rise to brilliant social analyses and studies of American public policy. Yet these were grounded in his strong personal loyalties and enthusiasms, which tied him to his many friends and family. He will be greatly missed.
Michael B. Katz:
By Michael Frisch, history prof., Univ. of Buffalo
With the passing of Michael Katz, urban history has lost a former UHA President and field-shaping colleague; generations of students have lost a model mentor, program-builder and teacher; the world has lost an enormously productive scholar and engaged public intellectual; we all have lost a very special friend. Katz’ impact on urban history has been instantly recognized: the UHA meeting this fall was dedicated to his memory, and his last paper—appropriately, a trenchant reflection on emerging directions in the field—is at the center of a soon-forthcoming Journal of Urban History symposium.
But what makes him and his work really special is how unbounded he was by this or any other rubric. He was an urban historian in the broadest imaginable sense of the term—tracking historical, moral, ethical, and political issues wherever they led, through whatever means and methods—a point amply demonstrated through the sequence of landmark major books among the 21 volumes he wrote or edited over a long career.
I have been privileged to share a special vantage on this remarkable corpus and its roots in urban history: Just starting out, Michael and Ted Hershberg were among the young urban historians I met at the landmark 1968 Yale Conference on the 19th Century City that launched the (then) New Urban History. Having become friends, some years later the three of us partnered in a cluster of old log camps in the mountains of Western Maine. We combined the local town name—Oquossoc—with Clio, the Muse of History, to call our summer community Clioquossia. Attentive readers will have noticed the importance of this retreat for Michael’s scholarship through the Clioquossian acknowledgements in his many books since the early 1980s. Until his illness this year, we and our families had been there together over more than thirty summers, perhaps the only downside being having to watch Michael complete yet another book in most of them.
The view from Clioquossia spotlights distinctive qualities that propelled Katz’s scholarship, teaching, professional, and public presence. He was a quiet, modest, and disciplined scholar, yet infinitely curious, inventive, and even playful, with a deep core of ethical and moral concern of about social justice and community. In his solitary study cabin in the Maine woods, these qualities propelled him steadily through a topical and methodological trajectory few could ever have anticipated recognizing as consistent, much less followed. Yet, in the telescoped stop-action memories of each summer’s dock or porch reports from Michael, these dazzling turns came to seem as logical, straightforward, and natural as the steady smooth rhythm of Katz in his kayak on Mooselookmeguntic Lake. For so long, his was a clear, steady intelligence that set a morally-grounded course and followed it powerfully, patiently, steadily, carefully, relentlessly, and inspirationally.