Michael B. Katz

My advisor was Michael Katz, a social historian who taught and wrote about education, social structure, cities, poverty, and public policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, York University, and the University of Pennsylvania from the late 1960s until his death this past week.

His colleague Tom Sugrue has a wonderful profile of Michael on Facebook (also at the Penn Press’s blog), and his friend Mike Rose reprinted a blog entry about Michael’s work today. [Addendum: Philly.com has a note posted to the web on Wednesday. Also see the comments of René Luis Alvarez, a more recent student of Michael’s.] He was prolific, and without a large team of coauthors 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. (It is a bit of a surprise today to realize that almost half of his career came after I left Penn.) Here is one thing you should know about Michael as an advisor: He sat me down in my second year at Penn and said, “Sherman, there is no guarantee that you will get 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. Almost alone among historians at major research universities at the time, he not only wanted his students to have a broad variety of options on graduation but took concrete steps to help.

He encouraged me to take courses in other departments so that I would have the background and skills to qualify for non-history jobs.1 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. 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 essentially saved my career as I would have taken any full-time job at that point.

In other words, Michael was a real person, a mensch. I never experienced anything in my interactions with him but a gentle man who treated students with care and concern. Since my graduation 22 years ago, we’ve talked and emailed occasionally, as well as crossing paths at conferences. We were not close in a personal sense. That’s not necessary in a good advisor, and I consider myself very lucky to have had Michael as an advisor. I will miss him, as will many others.

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Notes

  1. If I remember correctly, one of the reasons why Michael took his doctorate at Harvard’s Grad School of Ed instead of the history department was that the Harvard history department in the 1960s refused to let its students take courses anywhere else at Harvard. []