About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.

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Monday, August 25, 2014

A Tribute to Historian Michael B. Katz

            My friend Michael Katz died this weekend. Michael wrote brilliantly about the history of cities, of poverty, and of education. His books are meticulously researched and argued; they sharpen, and often change, the way you think. Among my favorites are: The Irony of Early School Reform, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse, The Undeserving Poor, The Price of Citizenship, One Nation Divisible (with Mark Stern), and there are others, all wonderful.

            He helped me immeasurably over the last twenty years with my work. Immeasurably. And a few years back, we got to collaborate, editing a series of essays on school reform. As I’m sure his many students would verify, Michael’s feedback was something. He was tough-minded and didn’t hold back, though he provided the hard news in a way that made your writing better. And when you got praise—and he was generous with praise—well, you could take it to the bank, for Michael was not a bullshitter. I will always remember and celebrate his intellectual integrity. I am going to miss him very much.

            I reprint below a post I wrote in October, 2013 when a revised edition of The Undeserving Poor came out. It’s a phenomenal book, and it couldn’t be more timely.

***

            Sometime in the early 1990s, I found historian Michael B. Katz’s book The Undeserving Poor, which had been published a few years before. I still remember sitting in my small back bedroom—a makeshift study—scribbling notes all over the pages of the book as Katz described and analyzed the ways Americans have defined and discussed poverty. He had me hooked from the first sentence: “The vocabulary of poverty impoverishes political imagination.”

            The Undeserving Poor was not so much a history of poverty in the United States as a history of ideas about poverty, and the ideas were complex and, for the most part, troubling. I began to understand how it is that poor people are so often categorized and characterized in such one-dimensional and insidious ways: as shirkers, or passive, or morally defective, or stupid—as people responsible for their poverty because of some damning personal or cultural quality. I also began to understand the reasons behind various interventions aimed at poverty—or refusals to intervene. I had never read a book quite like this, one that demonstrated just how much the ideas and language in the air matter in the construction of public policy. As someone who had a background in literature and in psychology, I certainly was trained to appreciate the power of language, but Katz helped me see the intimate connection between words (and the ideas driving those words) and specific social attitudes, political positions, and legislative initiatives. The book was eye-opening, and it would have a profound effect on my own way of understanding social issues and writing about them.

            The Undeserving Poor has just been reissued by Oxford University Press, and Katz has used the occasion to revise the book in major ways, not only updating it but adding a good deal of new material to it. Let me admit that Michael Katz is a friend, and we have recently written together, but my initial impression of The Undeserving Poor was formed years before I met him. I thought it was a hugely important book when I first read it, and I think this new edition is hugely important as well. Especially now. We as a nation pretty much ignore poverty as a public policy issue. The ideas in the air regarding poverty in the U.S. are, to use Katz’s 1989 phrase, “impoverished.” The solutions that have political sway are either market-based (during the last election some conservatives were suggesting that the poor needed to start their own businesses) or involve educational or social-psychological interventions, such as helping the poor develop mental toughness or “grit.” There is no serious talk about jobs programs or housing or expanded social services or restoring the safety net. Within such comprehensive policies, educational and market-based interventions would make more sense and have a chance of succeeding.


            More than any book I know, The Undeserving Poor helps us understand why Americans talk about poverty the way we do and why our public policy—sometimes noble, sometimes mean-spirited—takes the shape it does. It is one of the important social science books of our time.

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2 comments:

Dorothy Petrie said...

I am sorry for the loss of your friend. Thank you for posting this tribute. I just purchased "The Undeserving Poor" and "In the Shadow of the Poorhouse". It was my grandmother's greatest fear that she would die in a poorhouse. She died young, age 51, from a kidney disease that could have been treated had she money and access to a doctor. It seems to me that we are silently watching people, large numbers of people, "fall" into poverty, and are doing nothing to shut off the valve. I will read with great interest!

Silvia Muller said...

I was so happy to find your blog Dr. Rose, and now so sad to read that Dr. Katz had passed away. I'm a doctoral candidate who's been researching the Lancasterian schools and have had occasion to read Irony a couple of times. I'm so sorry for your loss, he sounds like he was a great friend and colleague.