Amherst Magazine

Professor Kennick, Remembered

By Emily Gold Boutilier

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A bow-tied William E. Kennick

William E. Kennick, who taught philosophy at Amherst for more than 35 years, died April 12 after a long illness. He was 85 and lived in Amherst.
 
Kennick was the William F. Kenan Jr. Professor from 1978 to 1980 and the G. Henry Whitcomb Professor from 1976 until 1993, when he retired—the last Amherst professor forced to do so because he had turned 70. He served as faculty marshal from 1972 to 1993.

Kennick was born in 1923 in Lebanon, Ill. His parents divorced when he was 5, and his mother settled in Pittsburgh with her two sons. She entered into domestic service in order to make a living and placed her sons in a series of foster homes.

In 1932, she remarried and took her sons to live with her and her new husband. Co-valedictorian of his high school class, Kennick received a full tuition scholarship to Oberlin College, which he supplemented by working in steel mills every summer, eight hours a day, seven days a week.

He graduated from Oberlin in 1945 with honors in philosophy, the only summa cum laude graduate in his class. He entered Cornell University as a Susan Linn Sage Fellow in philosophy but was called up by the Army in 1946. He served for 18 months in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

While recovering from an injury suffered during basic training, Kennick was summoned by a major who asked how he’d like to be a clinical psychologist. “I wouldn’t, sir,” Kennick replied, according to a 1995 interview in Amherst magazine.

“I don’t know anything about clinical psychology.” Undeterred, the major sent Kennick to the neuropsychiatric department at Madigan General Hospital at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Wash., where Kennick found patients suffering from what was then called “shell shock.” When Kennick asked a sergeant, “What am I supposed to do?,” the sergeant replied, “You’re the clinical psychologist. Don’t ask me.”

After the Army, Kennick took a special teaching fellowship at Oberlin, after which he returned to Cornell and was awarded a Ph.D. in philosophy. He taught briefly at Boston University before returning to Oberlin in 1951. Three years later, he was named permanent head of Oberlin’s philosophy department.

He arrived at Amherst in 1956 and began to teach a two-semester course on the history of philosophy. “His seriousness as a teacher, sometimes felt as severity, brought out responsive efforts in his students who wanted to be taken seriously, who looked not just for a degree but an education,” said Henry Clay Folger Professor of English William H. Pritchard ’53, delivering a memorial to Kennick at a faculty meeting last spring. Kennick regularly handed out a four-and-a-half page single-spaced document he compiled, “Some Rules for Writing Presentable English.” He was among those who lamented the demise, in 1966, of the New Curriculum and its program of required core courses.

In 1972, when protestors attempted to disrupt classes around campus, Kennick invited intruders to his classroom to sit down and listen to his lesson on Kant. “During those years when, for some faculty, ‘business as usual’ was used as a sneering phrase directed at those who insisted on keeping on doing what they were doing, Bill never wavered from his business of teaching philosophy,” Pritchard said.

Kennick was acting dean of the faculty in 1979-80. (“The job was hell on wheels,” he said in the 1995 Amherst interview.) He was also the author of 23 papers and numerous reviews. He wrote and edited the textbook Art and Philosophy (1964 and 1979) and co-edited Metaphysics: Readings and Reappraisals (1966). His 1958 essay, “Does Traditional Aesthetics Rest on a Mistake?” was, for decades, one of the more influential and reprinted essays in aesthetics. He inaugurated the aesthetics course at Amherst and also taught courses on metaphysics and the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Kennick is survived by his wife, Anna; two sons; a daughter; three grandchildren; and a great-grandchild. A memorial service will be held on campus Sunday, Sept. 13, at 3:30 p.m. in Johnson Chapel.

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