William Kennick, former professor of Philosophy at Amherst College, was interviewed by Alexander George, also a professor of Philosophy at the college.
George: Hello, my name is Alexander George. I am a Professor of Philosophy at Amherst College. Today, I'm going to be interviewing Professor William E. Kennick. William Kennick did his undergraduate degree at Oberlin, received a PhD in Philosophy from Cornell, and then went to teach at Oberlin. In 1956, he was hired by Amherst College, the Department of Philosophy and Religion, and he retired in 1993 as the G. Henry Whitcomb Professor of Philosophy, although he continued to teach on a sporadic basis for the college until 1999. He served on many important committees in the college during his tenure here, and he was acting dean of the faculty from 1979 to 1980. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your life here and experiences?
George: As we speak, the US is poised to begin a war against Iraq. You came to Amherst in 1956 and taught well into the 1990s, so you're uniquely placed to comment on the effects on the college of the wars that the US waged in Southeast Asia in the '60s and '70s. Could you describe what you found most significant about the college's response to those wars at the level of the faculty, or the student body, or its administration and staff?
Kennick: I was not here during the World War II, of course. I was an undergraduate at Oberlin in those days. I was not here during the Korean War, but the Vietnam War broke out in the '60s while I was here, and it had a very upsetting effect on the college. I can't think of anybody on the faculty, or there may have been a couple of oddball students, who were in favor of this war. But I think everybody was opposed to it. I was one of the first members of the faculty to write, Bill Pritchard and I drafted a letter, which was published in the student newspaper, to Lyndon Johnson opposing the war. This was back in the '60s. This was before people got excited about it. But shortly thereafter, people began to think about this, I think primarily because the institution of the draft. The undergraduates, who were all male in those days, were thinking about possibly being drafted into the services. I don't believe that very many students wanted to enter the Army or the Navy or the Air Force. I'm sure some did, and I think they served honorably. They did what they were required to do. But it was not a popular war by any means. It was not like the Second World War. I can remember as an undergraduate when the Second World War, when Japan attacked the United States, there was a great rush on the part of male students, to the enlistment centers to combat Japan, and eventually Hitler in Europe. This seemed to be an easy case. But in the Vietnam War, there wasn't this. I can remember when Robert McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense, spoke at commencement at Amherst in, oh, when was it? Maybe '64, '65, possibly. President Plimpton invited him, and there was a demonstration against the war right there in front of him. People wore arm bands, I recall the white arm bands, many students. He did not receive a very warm welcome here, either on the part of the faculty, most of whom stood outside the gym. The commencements were held in that well of the gym down there. They no longer are, but the College was small, and we used to be able to get everybody in there. But outside on the lawn in front of the gym, faculty stood, some people holding some signs for protesting the war, and McNamara saw this. There wasn't any rudeness. There wasn't any noise, or shouting, or hissing, or booing, or anything like that. There was just that when he stood to speak, these people stood and he got the message. And I think President Plimpton on that occasion saw what was happening, and I think he wanted to reassure McNamara, and said that he would be happy for his sons to go to the war, which I thought shocking. I would not be happy for my sons to go, although I did have one son who did serve in the Navy during the Vietnam War. That was one of the earliest show of antipathy to the war on the part of both faculty and students. As I say, I can't think of any member of the faculty who was in favor of it. There may have been a few students, I didn't know any who were in favor of it, but there was always this threat of their being taken by draft. I would say that one of the deepest effects that the war had on the college had to do with the grading system, and to this day, it is the reason why grades don't mean very much around here anymore. When I first came here, they had a grading system, no matter what you were grading, you had grades of 0 to 100. 60 was a passing grade. That means you had 59 failing grades that you could use. You now have one, F. And I think you still get some credit for it. I'm not sure what they count, maybe you get one or two points or whatever it is for an F. In those days, you could literally give a zero in a course. And you pump that into a student's average, a course grade of zero, he's taking five courses, and it could destroy him. And in some cases it did. I remember the lowest grade I ever gave in a course was not a zero, but an 18. That's the average that came out. But this kid simply, he simply didn't do very much. He didn't come to classes, he did a couple of little things, and I managed to squeeze 18 out. But with a 0 to 100 grading scale, they really gave I would call honest grades in those days, you look at the work and gave what you thought it was worth. And I remember that people had, you could tell the difference between a student who was an 83 student and a student who was an 82, I swear to God, you could. I remember having conversations with George Kateb and he would say, "Oh, he's merely an 82." I said, "Well, I don't know, George. You don't think he's an 83?" "No, no, he's an 80." I said, "You're right, okay." And this is the way we operated. But when you get into A's and B's, even with pluses and minuses, you can't draw very fine distinctions anymore.
George: And what was the precise connection? Why was one of the wars effects this change in the grading?
Kennick: Because if the students did not do well here, if they flunked out, or if they were not making at least a C average, they were subject to draft, and consequently to make it easier for them to stay here and to keep them here. So as long as they were here in good standing, they could tell their draft boards that they were students in good standing at Amherst College. So some members of the faculty got the idea that you make it easier for them to stay here by changing the grading system. And it certainly made it easier for them. And we still have this situation. It then changed and took on other aspects. You could keep people for other reasons for the draft, simply keep 'em on, keep them from flunking out was basically what it was for. And this was done cynically by the faculty to keep the students from being drafted. We wanted to keep them out of the Army, Navy, and the Air Force. And I think that was probably the most profound effect that it had on a college. To be sure, there were eventually in the late sixties and early seventies, there were demonstrations around, there were calls for moratorium on classes and this kind of thing. But that was, from my point of view, it was largely a kind of political dilettante as far as Amherst College was concerned. What are you gonna protest here? Everybody was so well taken care of, it was painful.
George: And presumably there were no ties to the Defense Department or contractors or anything like that?
Kennick: Oh, no. Before I came here, they had an ROTC unit or unit of some kind, because the house that I moved into on Woodside Avenue had been occupied by Colonel Heber, who was the man who lived in it before I came, and he was head of the unit. But by that time, that was 1956, the whole thing had gone. Now UMass, I think, still did have ROTC, and therefore there was some, they had different reasons for protesting, but we did not have it here. Harvard had it, we didn't have it. We had none of that. But I don't think there was anything defense contract work that I knew anything about. So, we were clean as far as I was concerned. And so the protests that went on against the war, there were demonstrations or marches downtown and things of this sort.
George: Did the president not march?
George: At Westover?
Kennick: President Ward, and when he came into office in 1971, he went down with a group of faculty and students and sat down outside the gates of the Westover Air Force Base. It was, I think, an unpopular act in the eyes of many alumni, more conservative alumni. But it made him very popular with the students and faculty to do this. And not that he did it as an act or a show or cynically or anything of the sort. He really was opposed to the war. And he now was in a position, not being merely a faculty member, he was also now president of the College, and he went down there and simply let the world know that he was opposed to the war.
George: Like many all-male academic institutions, Amherst eventually became co-educational.
George: And like some, though not as many institutions, Amherst eventually distanced itself from its fraternities.
George: In your view, was there something distinctively Amherst about the way in which these decisions were taken or the way in which they were implemented?
Kennick: I don't. I don't believe so. I think Williams did these things before we did. The decision to go co-educational was made by John William Ward, and the trustees, he persuaded the trustees that the time had come to do this. And there wasn't much opposition to it. Coming here from a co-educational institution myself, I found it rather bizarre teaching men only.
George: And it had been co-education when you were an undergraduate there?
Kennick: No, Amherst had not been.
Kennick: Oberlin was the first co-educational college in the United States. It went co-educational. It was the first to admit Blacks on an equal standing with women, and it did this way back in the 1820s sometime. And it therefore has a great historic record of co-education. But I went to co-educational elementary school, high school, college, graduate school. I taught in co-educational schools and nothing else until I came here. So it was rather odd for me to walk into a classroom and find nothing but boys or men. I had to make some changes in order to get used to this. But that was in 1956. And so between '56 and '72, I guess it was, when the first woman began being admitted as upperclassmen to try to get a range of them, it was rather odd for me. I got used to it. They're human beings and I teach human beings, not necessarily male or female, but it was-
George: And where did that pressure come from in your view? Was it trustees, the alumni, the faculty, students?
Kennick: I think the pressure came, it was part of the part of the general pressure toward the reform of education that came about as a result of the war. Not merely were people demonstrating against the war, as you know, Columbia had had trouble, much more trouble than we had. University of California-Berkeley had much more trouble, of people protesting against the way in which decisions in general were made, not merely decisions in the federal government or state government, about things like the war, but decisions on the local scene and the colleges and universities. And one of the things that our people were agitating for was a greater representation of Jews, Black people, Hispanics, American Indians, and women here. Now Amherst for a long time, I don't think there ever was a time when they denied admission to Jews altogether. But I am certain that there was a time when they were inhospitable toward admitting Jews. The faculty was non-Jewish, I think until approximately the time that Alan Croft and Joe Epstein came here, they were among the first Jewish members of the faculty.
George: That would've been in the fifties.
Kennick: And that would've been in the fifties, that's right. We're talking about after the war. And so I would say in the late forties, Arnold Arons in physics, and there were others, but it was after the Second World War that the faculty felt that you could hire Jewish people without, I remember one awful moment, I will mention it, in the philosophy department, the fall of '56, my first year here, we had a young man in the department, he merely had a kind of teaching fellowship here, Robischon, and he was leaving, and so there was a question of hiring somebody to take his place so we'd have four people on the faculty rather than just three. And Joe Epstein was associate professor, as I was at the time, and Gail Kennedy said, "Joe, go to the meetings and look around and see if you can find somebody for this place." But he said to him, "But remember, Joe, no Jews." Now he said this to Joe Epstein who was a Jew, and this is about the second week I was teaching here, and I thought, "My God, what is going on here? Can he be serious or is this some kind of an in-joke that I don't understand?" Because Joe took it without any objection. He said, "Yes, Gail." And so I thought, "Is this an act that I am watching?" And I said to him afterward, "Joe, is this really serious? Does he mean this?" And he said, "Yes, he means it." He said, "There haven't been very many Jews on this faculty until relatively recently, and he's worried that the alumni will get upset, or something like this, about infiltrating the philosophy department," something of this effect. I thought, "Oh my God, am I really hearing that?" He said, "Yes, this is the way it goes." So anyhow, there was a lot of student and faculty feeling against this kind of high-handedness, really moral high-handedness, and as a result, people began thinking, ought we even to have all male institutions at all, an all male institution here? And so there was a great swell against remaining a single-sex institution. Now, the fraternity issue went along with this, because of course, when there were no women here, weekends meant that it was all parties, fraternity parties, and the women were imported from Holyoke and Smith or the local suppliers, but they came in from all over the country. And I remember we used to put girls up for the weekends at our house, rent rooms out to them so they could have a place to stay. And they brought in, then they went back again, and so on. And that doesn't happen I guess anymore. Not much, anyhow.
George: In the course of the second half of the 20th century, academic disciplines and training in the US underwent tremendous professionalization.
George: And one gets the impression that one effect of this at Amherst was that the gravitational pull of academic departments came to increase and that members of the faculty became more divided about whether they were first citizens of the college or first citizens of their particular departments. Is this impression correct?
Kennick: Yes. Yes, it is. When I came here, I was hired as a professor of philosophy and humanities, not just philosophy. During the Second World War, the Amherst faculty, like other faculties, Harvard did the same sort of thing, it was a famous Harvard report that came out approximately the end of the, Conant, I think was the president, and came out at the end of the Second World War. Amherst did the same sort of soul searching about what it's going to do after the war is over. What kind of college are we gonna have? We have a chance to, as it were, start anew, not entirely, but you have a golden opportunity there. And so they got together and dreamt up a curriculum, a required curriculum, which would cover all students, and Gail Kennedy in the philosophy department was one of the prime movers of this motion. And he was the one who edited the book called "Education at Amherst," which was sort of the Bible here in those days. Now, this was a curriculum which required students to take in freshman year a very tough math science course, humanities course, English course, and history course. And in the sophomore year, they had to take your American studies, they had to have a language requirement. They had to take courses in a variety of things, I forget just exactly what they all were. Everybody who's my age who went to this college knows exactly what it was. But anyway, you had to do it. And anyone who failed any of these courses was just out. And the math science course meant that you had to have people who were able to really, do calculus and tough physics in order to survive in the college at all. So, the student body was a very smart student body. You didn't admit people simply 'cause they played the French Horn, or because they'd acted in plays or something of this kind, you had to be able to meet the demands of this curriculum and that was the chief ticket to admission. If you could, then they would look at you. Otherwise, they wouldn't look at you at all. This curriculum was spread over the disciplines, and the courses that I'm talking about, the ones that were required, were staff courses. That meant that the professors had to be drawn not merely from the disciplines in question, like American history or classics or something of this kind, but rather, people had to come together to teach the humanities course from all the humanities disciplines, philosophy, religion, fine arts, music, and the literature courses. Not many people from English, because it was a separate English course, so they were occupied there. But the staff courses meant that I think almost everybody had to teach in one of these courses in addition to teaching in his or her, there were no women in those days until Rose Oliver came along, but in his special discipline. So I was hired to teach in philosophy and the humanities, I could have taught in the English course. Well, I had been invited one time to do so. I could have taught in math physics if they needed it or if I wanted to. You were expected to be a versatile enough so that you can move around like this as well as a course doing your home discipline. Now, this meant that people were actually hired to do this. I remember when being interviewed by President Cole, he was a great believer in the new curriculum, and it was because of his enthusiasm for it that it lasted long as it did, although it went out of existence in the middle of about Plimpton's administration because Plimpton wasn't all that enthusiastic about it. But anyhow, Cole was, and he insisted that if you're going to serve on this faculty, if you're gonna be appointed to this faculty, that you had to be willing, not merely to teach whatever subject it was that you were trained in in graduate school, but you also had to be prepared to teach in one of these other courses that was required of all students. And I had already done some of this at Oberlin, so it was no big deal to me, but he asked me whether I was willing to do this. And I said, "Yes, I was." And I was not only willing to do it, I was in favor of it, I believed in it, and so he was okay. But as long as he was here, there wasn't any trouble because he literally hired people to man this operation. Now, when Plimpton came in 1960, he did not believe in it, at least not with the enthusiasm that Cole did. And consequently, he began to hire people irrespective of their interest in the required program. And gradually, more and more people came in who were simply hired to teach French or chemistry, or math or philosophy, or whatever it may be. The philosophy department was less interested in backing off from this required program than others, but there were departments that were more interested in their departmental programs, and as a result, you began to get this division of the faculty into departments now, and little contact between them. Now, efforts were made to keep the lines of communication open. These problems required courses were set up, freshman seminars, they've tried various things. I don't know whether any of this still exists. Is the freshman seminar program still in existence?
George: There is a freshman seminar program, but it's quite diluted.
Kennick: That's the last of it. Trying to get people to get outside of departments and talk to one another in at an intellectual level that is respectable and that you can actually teach, which you actually teach. But that's the very end of it.
George: Yeah, I was gonna ask you about that curriculum shortly after you arrived at Amherst. The college became famous for having a very distinctive and strict curriculum that you were talking about. But by the time you left Amherst, the college was known for being one of the very few institutions in the US to have a thoroughly open curriculum, virtually no requirements.
Kennick: That's right.
George: In your view, why precisely did this seat change occur?
Kennick: I don't know exactly what all the dynamics were to this. When people began to make inroads into the required curriculum, which was in the mid-sixties, they began to break apart and it got a certain momentum, which carried it farther than I think people wanted to go. There was a lot of sentiment on the part of people like, old mossbacks like me, who wanted to continue doing the kind of thing that we had been doing. And so as I say, they had these problems inquiry courses for a while, and they changed names as you went along, but they were required of freshmen. You no longer required the whole college to take the courses. You simply boil the requirements down to freshmen. And I think there was a language requirement still in place, oddly enough, there was a speech requirement, was one of the last ones to go. Kind of hangover from the 19th century, I think.
George: What did they teach in that?
Kennick: Take a semester of speech, public speaking. And when the professor of public speaking finally retired, I forget when this was, maybe in the seventies, they didn't hire anybody. And consequently the requirement went into . But they tried to keep some of this going, but the momentum got such that they couldn't do it anymore. And they've had committees appointed, a committee on educational policy, of special committees, and they make reports to the faculty urging something, but the faculty votes it down. And I just don't know.
George: So maybe it's something partly internal? A new president came in who wasn't as keen on the idea, but also something external, that people were now being trained in graduate schools to do just philosophy, and that they didn't want to take a job if they were gonna be asked at one point to teach English or public speaking.
Kennick: No, that is true. You see, I say Plimpton was not of all that much interested in the required program. And so he began admitting these more narrowly trained people to come in and do, and they simply said they couldn't do it. Now, you can retool yourself until you can do it, but they simply didn't want to do it.
George: The better candidates just went somewhere else.
Kennick: And at the same time, the question of tenure began to put emphasis upon publication. Now, when I came here, it was understood that, yeah sure, you're a scholar, and therefore since you're a scholar, you do research and you do some writing, but no one paid any attention to the quantity of writing that you produced. I remember a distinguished member of the faculty who's still living, so I won't mention his name, but I was on the committee of six at the time. He came up for tenure, and the only publication he had was a book review that filled about two inches, two or three inches in a learner journal. And that was all. Then the question arose, "What do we do?" Well, he happened to be a very good teacher and so consequently we said, we don't pay any attention to this. He's come around, he'll do some publication when he gets around to it. And he has, he's published a lot, but at the time he came up for tenure, this was literally all there was, and we simply shut our eyes to it and went on ahead anyhow. But there wasn't a great emphasis on that. You didn't have to bring an egg crate full of papers into the committee and have letters written by scholars all over the world about how wonderful you were. For the most part, they didn't pay much attention to outside letters when I first came here. They paid much more attention to the department's opinion of you and to your other colleagues' opinion. If you were teaching in the required curriculum course, you were not merely a member of department, you were also one of the staffs at one of these. And consequently, you were looked at not only by your colleagues in the department, but also by colleagues on the staff of the course you were teaching. So, you had a lot of people to talk about you. But you get letters from people saying yes, if you had written anything. As I say, sometimes they hadn't. People write and say, "Yeah sure, it's fine," or something like this. But a big deal was not made of this. And that got worse and worse until now, God knows, I don't know, I don't think I could get tenure Amherst now. Don't think I could.
George: Within weeks, the 18th president of the college will be announced. Your tenure at Amherst spanned no fewer than six presidencies. Could you comment on the changing role of the president at Amherst?
Kennick: Okay, yes. When I had my interview with President Cole, who was, in my opinion, the finest college president I've ever known, he said, "Kennick, you're from Oberlin?" "Yes, President Cole." "At Oberlin, the faculty runs the institution, doesn't it?" I said, "Yes, it tries to." And it is true that the faculty had an enormous amount to say about, they even did the budget. And I said it takes an enormous amount of time, however, and I said, "I'll be very glad to be in a place that didn't have quite so much to say about running the place." He said, "At Oberlin, the faculty may run the institution, but here, I do." Just like that. And I said, "Oh, that'll be rather refreshing." And I said, "Okay." So I came on, and he was not quite as autocratic as he allowed, he came a cropper by denying money to the faculty. Faculty presidents who come from the faculty tend to be stingy. From outside, they tend to be generous. There's a rule of thumb.
George: Seems like a paradox.
Kennick: It is. Yes, it is. He was quite stingy, and the faculty began pressing for increased salary, and they wanted to be paid salaries commensurate with those at Wesleyan, University of Virginia, Harvard, places like this, Wellesley. And so the faculty got a committee together and they made a study of faculty salaries and decided that we were being underpaid. And Cole was confronted with this, and he simply refused to do anything about it, and the faculty voted a vote of no confidence in him and he resigned. And it was very sad because there was no need for him to do this. The college had a lot of money. It was in a way richer maybe than it is now. Not in the dollar figure, but in the fact that there was money available. But he just was a kind of a kind of skin flint and didn't wanna pay. Now, when Plimpton came in, Plimpton was again, you could say he was an academic of sorts. He was come from medical school, but he was himself a rich man, and he didn't understand how the faculty could possibly live on the wages were being paid. So, these salaries went up quite dramatically.
George: He also introduced martinis to the faculty.
Kennick: Yes, indeed. It was not a tee-totaling faculty when I first came here, but Cole was very stingy again with the booze. You go to a party at his house and you got maybe this much whiskey in the bottom of a glass. What are you gonna do with that? But any rate, when Plimpton came in, he had wonderful parties. And I can remember the first one with the faculty attended a Christmas party. My God, they were tumbling down the stairs. They were drunk as lords and ladies, knocking the furniture over and so on. It was wonderful. So, we had a very good social life under Plimpton. But he himself was not a educator or scholar really. He kept the place together.
George: For a long time now, Amherst has been widely considered to be the nation's premier liberal arts college. When did it achieve this excellence and what do you think were the changes in the college that were critical to its attaining it and maintaining these heights.
Kennick: It showed up on the educational map of the United States as a first rate college right after the Second World War. It was new curriculum that did it; that made it famous. This was a tough, no-nonsense curriculum, and anyone who graduated from this college was known to be good. Harvard Medical School and Harvard Law School would take C students from Amherst, C students, and they knew that they could do the work. But that's when it did. When I was applying to colleges back at about 1940, I wouldn't have thought of coming to Amherst. It was nothing. It was nowheresville. It was a fraternity college like Williams. Who wants to go to one of those places? And I wouldn't have thought of coming here, but Cole turned the place around, and he put it on the map and it has stayed there ever since. And partly the reputation that it gained then has simply sort of carried over. And I dunno whether the world has not found out what we're really doing here or what, what has gone on. But at any rate, that's when it happened. And to a large extent, we have managed to keep it up pretty much up to where it was. Again, grade inflation, relaxed standards and so on. God knows, eventually, I suppose we're gonna hear about it, but not yet. But that's it.
George: With the extraordinary advances in technologies of communication, the possibilities of making contact with others have never been greater. Has this had the paradoxical effect, however, of loosening the bonds between members of the faculty at Amherst as well as between students and members of the faculty? Could you describe how those relations have changed over your years at the college?
Kennick: Yes. I think it may be a paradox that the more means of communication you have, the less communication you really have. First of all, when I came here, Amherst was a college of a thousand people, a thousand men. The faculty were all male. The faculty all lived in close proximity to the college in college housing, which was subsidized housing. What did I pay, $50 a month rent on a 15-room house. That's the kind of subsidy it was. But they wanted the faculty living close to the place. And the fraternities were there, and they had parties all the time. And you were invited to these things. You could go over, leave it alone as you chose. But there was a kind of tradition of faculty entertaining students, and there was a faculty entertainment allowance that you were given, I forget how many, a hundred dollars semester, something to that effect. And so faculty had students at their houses for dinner, for drinks or evening parties, various things. And the faculty themselves had lots of parties. God, two or three times a week, Nancy and I were out to parties. And it wasn't just close friends or a little circle of friends, it was a wide variety of people that we came into contact with. And at parties, you tend to talk to people in ways in which you don't if you simply are or happen to be colleagues or you simply know who one another are. And so a great deal more social social life between students and faculty and among the faculty themselves. Student social life was in the fraternities and it was beer bashes and things of this sort for the most part. They put on a jacket and tie and cleaned themselves up to have the faculty in every once in a while, but social contact that you had with students was more having them into your house rather than going to their place.
George: Even though I remember, I haven't been at Amherst all that long, and I remember though when I first got here, you used to still participate in Casino Night.
Kennick: Yeah, that's right. We did that.
George: And I just felt that I was actually witnessing the tail-end of this tradition where the faculty were still invited to participate, whereas now, I don't believe any faculty are attended or invited.
Kennick: The faculty had much more to do with the student extracurricular life than it now has. It actually could take an active part in it. You were invited on the Casino Night. My God, they would go around and get, it was kind of a joke, here's Kennick, professor of philosophy, let's get him to run a roulette wheel. Well okay, fine. Kennick's perfectly happy running a roulette wheel. I even know the French for doing it and so on. And we thought it was fun and not only that, but also the faculty did timing at games. I used to time track meets too in addition to doing these other things.
George: Right, that doesn't happen at all.
Kennick: I went out on Saturday afternoon at the track, I never went to away games, but when they had them here, I'd hold a stopwatch on runners and this kind of thing, and other people used to time the swimming meets and so on. So there was much more, there was less of a barrier, a wall between students and faculty then as I think there is now.
George: All those activities seem gone.
Kennick: In a way, it was kind of prep schooly, I suppose you can say it was a hangover from the days when Amherst was really an institution that took care of prep school kids. When I first came here, the student body was divided approximately 60% prep school and 40% public school. And the public schools were in effect, public prep schools. There were like new, New Trier, Shaker Heights and so on. They were these high schools that were in very swell neighborhoods of Cleveland and Chicago and so on, and so consequently, it was a much more prep schooly kind of place. And I suppose that was a hangover for that. But at the same time, you did get to talk to students on a much more informal basis than simply in the office. There was a lot of office hours to be sure. We kept heavy office hours. But that isn't the only place that you saw students. You saw them everywhere.
George: How many office hours per week?
Kennick: Oh, I used to be there every afternoon from Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. We also had Saturday classes, you know?
George: I never knew that.
Kennick: And eight o'clocks.
George: I remember also that when I first got to Amherst, you and other members of the faculty would perform plays for the students. Aristophanes was a specialty.
Kennick: A pick-up cast.
George: And that's gone too.
Kennick: It's fun. I guess it is, I guess I'm sorry. I used to do a Socrates and Aristophanes "The Clouds," it's educational after all. To be sure, you're reading this thing, but the students can come and get a cornball performance of a Greek comedy or tragedy. When Rachel Kissinger was in the classics department, she used to put on plays that involved faculty and students in which they did in Greek, and those were great. That was fine. No, you had theatricals and so you didn't have to get ahold of 'em on the web or whatever it is.
George: The different styles to teaching, I expect there's no such thing as the Amherst style. But have you noticed in your four decades of teaching at the college, changes in the style of teaching that were most common or that were most effective with students?
Kennick: Oh, that's tough.
George: One sometimes gets the impression that nowadays, partly students like more entertainment, more discussion and back and forth.
Kennick: Oh, yes.
George: The lecturing style is not as well received sometimes.
Kennick: That's right. Yes, I don't know that so much as firsthand, but I think students do want more entertainment than they used to. They used to be able to take your subject very seriously and expect them to take it seriously and no nonsense, and no one complained about it. But I think students, the last teaching that I did, they seem to want to want more injecting themselves into it, unprepared though, which drives me up the walls. And I teach a seminar in Wittgenstein, I expect them to have read a section of Wittgenstein that I gave him to read and to have read the secondary material that I asked them to read. Otherwise, what's the point of talking with them? They don't know anything. Had a wonderful conversation with Hannah Arendt once, she came to Oberlin when I was teaching, gave some lectures and was at a party, and I was talking with her an asked how she liked Princeton and she was fine and so on. She taught a seminar on Plato. I said "That must be exciting." I said, "It's all graduate students. There must be a good discussion." She says there's no discussion. I said, "No?" She says, "Of course not. I tell the class at the beginning." I said, "You think that you want to sit here and discuss Plato with me? As soon as you know much about Plato as I do, then we'll discuss it. And not until then." And I thought, "Wow, hey. This is the way to do it." I never quite could come up to that, but they think that they have ideas about what, absolute idealism, without having read any of Hegel or something of this, this is crazy. It's crazy. You can't just sit and talk about Plato.
George: And when you got to the college in the sixties and seventies, was there a lot of discussion in class or was to more lecture?
Kennick: It depended on the size of the class. Some classes were just too large to do it effectively. When I was teaching philosophy, the first of the basic course, which I didn't do very often because I would be doing the history courses, which tend to be fairly heavily enrolled and consequently, was rather hard or hold any discussion there. But I found that even in a class of say, 20, 25 students, maybe five or six of them had anything to say. The rest of 'em were perfectly happy to sit there and listen to the others or get what was going. But I never could manage to get large numbers of them involved. There's always the handful of the articulate and the prepared, the ones who had done the reading and so on. And in seminars of course, it was a different matter. There you really could expect them to have done the reading and to be prepared to talk. Otherwise, you just tell the dean to take their name off the roll. Out.
George: Kick 'em out.
Kennick: Kick him out. That's right.
George: When you came to Amherst, there wasn't even a philosophy department proper, it was a department of philosophy and religion.
Kennick: That's right.
George: It's changed a lot in the time that you were there. Can you describe some of its history and central changes?
Kennick: Yes. It was a department of philosophy and religion; had been psychology, but that had been shaken off. And this didn't mean a great deal, except when it came to making appointments. When it came to making appointments, this meant that our colleagues in religion had to interview all the candidates as well as the people in philosophy and vote on 'em. Now, I don't remember any case in which the religion members of the department vetoed an appointment in philosophy. Usually, we let one another do as they pleased on that. We did not veto appointments in religion and they didn't in philosophy, but it did give 'em a chance to talk to candidates and to discuss the their feelings of the pros and cons, the strengths and weaknesses of candidates, which was actually fine as far as I was concerned. You sometimes learned things about the candidates that you might not have found out otherwise. But apart from that, we didn't have any difficulty. There were no strain between the two of us. It was just simply an oddity; a kind of administrative oddity. And there seemed to be no purpose to it at all. Furthermore, when the college began to grow larger, that meant that the departments were going to increase, not double or anything like that, but they're gonna increase in size. There were only three when I first came here, and then went to four, and then then eventually to five. And religion simply had two or three people, and it now has a full compliment I guess. The departments then could grow independently without having to worry about even talking about the matter with another department. It was simply, you talked with the dean of the faculty and that was it. So that was a change, but not a monumental change. The big change had to do with the demise of the so-called new curriculum, and then the fact that almost all of your time was in the philosophy department. When I came here, Epstein and Kennedy were the two more senior people. I took Sterling Lamprecht's place and took over pretty much the courses that he had been teaching. Epstein and Kennedy were both from Columbia. I was from Cornell. I was sort of the first non-Cornellian, or first non-Columbia person to come into the department. And there was a little trepidation on my part about this, but also I think doctrinally, there was also a difference. Kennedy and Epstein were a pretty thorough-going pragmatists of one sort or another. I was not. And I represented to them what is loosely called analytic philosophy, which they distrusted and therefore, to some extent, they distrusted me. And I realized this, I was actually warned of this before I came here. There was an Amherst graduate who said, "You're walking into a hornets nest to take this job." I asked him about it and I said, "I can't believe it's that bad." He said, "I don't know. They're pretty set in their ways as far as philosophical thinking goes, and you may find it troublesome." I did not find it very troublesome. There was some troublesomeness. They would make cracks about analytic philosophy and I would just have to keep my mouth shut. But I don't think I was ever really worried that I would not get tenure. I had tenured over and gave it up in order to come here. I was pretty sure that I was good enough to get it again and I did. But was there's a little uneasiness about this, but again, it didn't add up to a great deal. Kennedy was, I thought, an unpleasant person. I got along with him, alright. There was never any clash of wills or any shouting at one another or anything, but which did happen in some departments here, which I could name, but that never happened. We treated one another as gentlemen and we got along okay, though I know he did not particularly care for me nor I for him. Joe, I got along with okay. But I had no trouble with him. But with Kennedy, I did. But then the department, you can see from the history of the departments, which you have read, there was a lot of coming and going in the sixties. And this is because of this tension between us that is Kai Nielsen, for example, is an analytic philosopher again, so were most of them. But then they didn't stay. So we finally, I think the Kerns, was the first one who we hired-
George: Could agree on.
Kennick: Who lasted. And it was fine. Now, whether you call him analytic philosopher or not, I don't know, he can do it, he can leave it alone, I suppose. But he wasn't sort of obnoxiously analytic, if I can put it that way, the way some English philosophers tended to be in those days. But that was a tension in the department, which showed up on comprehensive exam days or on examinations of theses and so on. But again, we all were sensible enough not to let it ever get out of hand. And no student was ever vetoed or turned down or given a lower degree of honors or anything like that simply because he was doing kind of analytic philosophy or a non-analytic philosophy as the case may be. I never did.
George: Does the philosophy department have a special role at Amherst? Back then, was philosophy considered more essentially one of the liberal arts than it might be today, where now it's just one of many different departments?
Kennick: Yes, that's right. Kennedy, like many Deweyites, pragmatists I guess in general, tended to think of philosophy as much closer to the sciences and social sciences than, for example, I do. I think they're logically independent of one another altogether. But they did not. And Kennedy tended to think of philosophy as a kind of social science. He also thought that therefore, we should have closer ties with departments outside of philosophy than simply among ourselves. We're close enough, but that we should reach out and have ties. He had it with American history and with the social sciences, generally economics and so on, Epstein with physicists primarily, and to some extent with the mathematicians, and I with the humanities people, and this was fine. This was the way he liked to see a department and we were all very happy with it. And this was one reason why the department never had offices together. We were scattered all over the campus. I had office first down in Grovner house, then I had over in Chapin, Joe Epstein had it first up in the library, then when the new science building was built, he was over there. Kennedy was here, there and everywhere. And so we never had a home. We did not have a secretary until fairly late in the game.
George: Was that true for other departments too? That they were scattered and-
Kennick: Not as much as we were, no. I can't think of anyone that was. English was moved into Johnson Chapel by Plimpton when he moved out and moved down to Converse. No, the other ones all seem to have homes, even the buildings were of their own. But we were the last, we were the last to get together. In fact, it was your day, I think, you came.
George: It's the very fall I came in 1998 when we moved to Wilson.
Kennick: When we moved up into the top floor of Wilson, that's because the mathematicians had moved out because they got a building of their own. And I asked for the space. I thought it was time for us to get together. And so I think we're the last to do that. But no, it was in part theoretically grounded that philosophy should be in contact with other disciplines more than it is now. Whereas now, you don't feel the need of that so much. Although you have good working relations with a mathematician, but that's because it's in logic, which is the same thing. But, and I think Jonathan does in physics, but apart from that, I don't think we do much. No, that was a change. Big change.
George: Amherst has one of the best libraries of the small liberal arts colleges in the United States, and it serves not only the needs of education in the classroom, but strives magnificently to satisfy the research and scholar needs on the part of the faculty. Has the library changed in its size or function or goals in the 40 years that you've been at Amherst?
Kennick: The library used to be of course located over in Converse and Plimpton built the present library. John Kennedy came, dug a shovel of dirt and so on, but it was a big to-do, and he hired the architecture, I think an unfortunate architect, but anyhow, hired the architect to build this building. But I think the functional library has not changed all that much, except that in the old days, there used to be much more reliance on reserve reading rooms than there is now. I don't even know if we have one, but over in Converse, and when we first moved into this building, there was a reserve reading room where you could put books on reserve and students could, I guess they still have a reserve behind the counter there, but this was a room in which you had to use the book in the room. You could check it out after certain hours, I forget what the hours were. But anyhow, there was much more use of that than there is now. Over in Converse, there used to be the seminar rooms were in the library. I don't think we have any of those anymore here. But apart from that, no, I think the library was wonderful when I first came here, and it has maintained its standing. It was a first-rate library. I was never denied anything that I wanted here. I guess people tended to use their common sense anyhow, but I never asked for the world, but whenever you wanted something, like a full set of new edition of Wittgenstein or something like that, fine, they get it. No questions asked. Ancient philosophy, Greek texts, Latin texts and so on. It's just a wonderful, wonderful library.
George: I know the faculty now is very proud of the library and very eager to make sure it's properly funded. Has that always been true at Amherst? Strong faculty support?
Kennick: I don't think the faculty were ever told you have to cut back on ordering books. The library budget would be discussed, of course, in faculty and things like that. And people realize that there are certain stringencies. But no, I don't think we ever had the sense that you couldn't get the materials that you wanted. It's always been very generous in that respect.
George: During the Vietnam War, there were allegedly student threats to Widener Library at Harvard. And Kwine famously said that he would stand on the steps and make sure nobody passes through the doors of Widener. Was it ever a target of any kind of students or protesting?
Kennick: No, not that I recall. It would be purely a nuisance, but I don't recall any threats against the library. They would occupy buildings, Converse, for example, would periodically get occupied, the Revolutionary Army or whatever it is, is in there, but so called. But they'd be in there for a couple of days and then they'd come out, but the library, no, they never did that. No, I'd be in the front lines if they did that. But they never did. And they never threatened, for example, to burn it or anything like that, not here.
George: There couldn't be such a thing as the typical Amherst student, but have you noticed any changes over the years that you were here in the kind of students that Amherst attracted and accepted?
Kennick: Well, when I first came here, the admission of a student depended upon the Dean of Admissions conviction that this student could actually do the required courses, the required program. If you could do the required program, you could do anything else.
George: Did the Dean of Students meet face to face with every person who was accepted?
Kennick: As far as I know, yes. He used to travel around the country interviewing people. He would interview people who came here, but he had to be confident. His name is Wilson. He had to be confident that the student could actually do the work. And if he didn't do it, then everybody was quite certain that the kid didn't belong here, and he was let go. Now, they were much more ready to kick you out when I first came here than they have been lately. And now, my God, once you get in, I guess you can't even get out without being taken out in a coffin or something like that. But anyhow, it's hard to get thrown out now. But in those days, no, you could. The curriculum simply told you who could and who could not come. After that, then it was a kind of catch-as-catch-can. They were opening it up to, of course, they began to get worry about, do we have enough representation of blacks, of this minority, American Indians, for example. And I did have an American Indian once in a class, but I don't know that we have very many, but there was a worry about other groups in society, disadvantaged groups who should have more representation. So there was a great much more of an effort to bring them in, and one felt that sometimes standards had to be relaxed in order to get the right mix. And that did change things. I think you sometimes felt as though you couldn't make as many demands as you used to be able to. Back in the days of the so-called new curriculum, which was the required one, you felt you could ask anything and expect them to do it. I began to feel though, toward the end of my career here, that there were certain things that I just couldn't ask them to do. It was too much. But some students do. So, it has changed.
George: And when you first got to Amherst, what was the size of the student body?
Kennick: The student body was about a thousand students. So, it increased. Plimpton added a couple hundred, I think it was. And then when we went co-educational, they raised it up to 1600 or 1600-plus.
George: So that's a big difference, 50, 60% increase.
Kennick: Oh, indeed. And that made a big change. The faculty had to increase, that meant the faculty did not know one another personally as well as they used to when it was much smaller. There were people on the faculty whom you'd never seen. Maybe as faculty, you say to somebody, "Who is that?" And they would tell you. "Oh, really? They just come this year?" "Oh no, they've been around here for 10 years," or something like this. There was more of that than there used to be. When I first came here, I forget what they exactly what the size of the faculty was, There were only a thousand students. And so you knew everybody and everybody knew who you were. And it could be a little, maybe too clubby, but it went to the other extreme later on. And now to be sure, I don't keep in touch with the faculty anymore the way I used to, but there may be people whom you have never spoken to on the faculty. But that wasn't the case when I first came. But when you increase the faculty, it's almost doubled. It changes a lot of things.
George: How many faculty were there when you came to Amherst?
Kennick: I've forgotten what the number was. I can't recall. I don't know.
George: I wanted to ask you one or two last questions which is about low points and high points in the life of the college while you were there. So some event or series of events that sticks in your mind as a particularly lower point in the college's life, or a sad moment in the college's life when you were there?
Kennick: Well, the Vietnam War the nadir. That just demoralized the place. It encouraged all kinds of wackiness on the part of students and of colleagues. They would get on a moral high horse and become very difficult to deal with. And I found it very unpleasant at times. The most unpleasant time, the absolute nadir of my career at Amherst, was the day that I had a class invaded by a group of students. Six guys marched into my "History of Philosophy" class, and I was discussing the transcendental deduction of the categories, the Vietnam transcendental deduction of the categories and the critique of Puria, and these guys stationed themselves around the classroom, put their arms up like some Nazi thugs or something like this, and I felt that way having lived through the Second World War, to be sure not in Germany or Italy, but I felt that this very distinct pressure was being put on me. And the reason was that the faculty was constantly being petitioned to cancel classes for a moratorium to discuss the moral enormities of the Vietnam War. Well, my God, it was so obvious. There seemed to be we had to have a separate day to discuss these things. But anyway, usually what happened was that the faculty voted to make it optional that you could cancel your classes if you wanted to, and I found that, okay. That's acceptable to me because I'm not for forcing people to do things if they don't wanna do it. So I would ask my class, I said, "Now look, there's gonna be a day of," they called them "Days of Concern." "There's gonna be a Day of Concern on such and such a day." I said, "I will be here. I will be here and I will be doing my job. If you want cut, you're free to cut. You can cut anyhow, you know that. But I certainly won't penalize you for it. Rest assured of that. And you decide to do what you wanna do." Well, I had a hundred percent turnout anyhow, nobody in the class stayed away. Normally, there'll be some normal cuts, but even the people who normally cut were there. And I don't know how, this may have outraged somebody. And anyway, these six bravos march into the room and stationed themselves. 1-2-3-4-5-6, 'round there, with their arms like this, and one of them, but I kept on talking. I told them they were welcome to stay and listen, I was lecturing on the transcendental deduction of the category. I said, "Gentlemen, you don't have the preparation to understand this, but if you want to stand and listen to this, that is fine by me, but I'm gonna go ahead." And so I started down the avenue, and one of 'em decided, "What is this shit?" And I said, "I beg your pardon?" "What is this shit?" And that, I was trying to keep my cool and managed to do so, but the students did not take this at all. And some of them stood up and told, ordered these guys to get out of the room or they were gonna take them on. And I said, "Now, wait a minute. We're not gonna have any fights in here. If necessary, I'll simply cancel the class. But we're not going to have fist fights." And I said to the guy, "Now, you guys came in here uninvited. You're obviously not interested in standing and hearing about the transcendental deductions of category of all things, and I don't blame you, you're not in any position to understand it. Now I'm gonna ask you now to please leave." And thank God they did; otherwise, I don't know what would've happened. That was the utter nadir of my career at Amherst. I did not believe this could happen. And I went to the Dean of the Faculty, and I knew who the guys were, I knew there knew at least the names of at least three of them. And I said, "These guys invaded my classroom and made me stop teaching and upset the students in the class." And I said, "I think some disciplinary action should be taken against them." And the Dean of the Faculty said to me, "There is no rule against this." I said, "What in God's name do you mean, 'There is no rule against this.' Is it against all civilized behavior in college and universities the world 'round. You don't have to specify rules against interruptions of classes. My God, man, that goes without saying." "Well, we don't have a rule." I said, "Okay, I get it. I get the message." And nothing was done. Nothing was done about it. And of course, a short time later, somebody did propose a rule against invading classrooms. Imagine, I think the rule is probably still in the book, although, thank God, I don't think it's ever had to be used again. But that was perfectly awful. It was just that the war got people's nerves keyed up. And they were at log heads on the campus, although everybody was opposed to this damn war. And so it was just, how opposed were you or what form your opposition took. It must have been something like that. Some minor difference.
George: Did the faculty ever take a formal vote on its opposition to the war?
Kennick: Oh, I think a number of votes. Oh, yes. I think letters were sent to President Johnson.
George: And the issue came up in faculty meetings?
Kennick: I wrote President Johnson.
George: But the faculty as a whole officially took positions in faculty meetings?
Kennick: Yes, yes.
George: And did you yourself find it difficult just teaching about these matters knowing what was going on outside? Or do you think other members of the faculty just found it very stressful?
Kennick: My position was that the reason why the world is in such a God-awful state is that these things are not being paid attention to. And that therefore, philosophy was very important. It didn't have to do simply with idle questions. It was a question of how civilized are we gonna be? And I felt it was a matter of civilization being at stake here. And it can be at stake in Vietnam, it can also be at stake at the hands of some yahoos who, for I think frivolous reasons wanted to turn this place into a turmoil and sort of raise hell around here. And I was absolutely opposed to that. I am not in favor of the Vietnam War, everybody knew that and nobody ever accused me of being for the war. I wasn't, but I was for continuing with the education here, because it is education. I believe education is one of the things that can keep people from coming to that kind of state of affairs in which they acted irrationally in that way. We were the voice of reason. And if you can't hold up your voice in conditions of that sort, then forget about it. And what you're doing. What you doing? Playing idle games of some kind? Oh, I believe with Wittgenstein that it makes a difference. It should make a difference in how you and how you act and how you behave and how you conduct your own life, even though it doesn't provide you with recipes for doing so or anything like that. We're not Epicurus or somebody like this, telling people how to live, but it should have its effect. And this was yahooism that I was confronting, and therefore, that that's the enemy. That's the enemy.
George: What about a high point? Was there some particular moment in the life of the college, while you were here, that stays in your mind as a particularly proud moment or-
Kennick: Yes. Yes. My proudest moment was the day I was publicly attacked on the commencement platform by an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. And he attacked me by name and in person. And accusing me of being a proto-Nazi because I had written a piece, which was published in the student newspaper, saying that the basic purpose of colleges like this is to develop the intellectual life of the students. That this is the main thing that we are here to do. And he, for some reason, took this to mean that I did not believe the students should have anything to do with the overall life of the country or something. God, I didn't say anything about that. I assumed that the best way to make good citizens is to make intelligent citizens, learned citizens, and that therefore, our first job here is the intellectual life of the students who come here. It's not the athletic program, it's not the extracurricular program, anything of that sort. It's the intellectual life. And that is the thing that should be emphasized overwhelmingly, although it wasn't always because this was a much more of a junky institution than Oberlin, for example, where I came from, where at Oberlin, oh my God, we had bonfires when the football team lost, not when they won, whereas here, it was the opposite.
George: So the high point and the low point are really two sides of the same coin in a way.
Kennick: I think yes, I would say they were. Yes. Because here was this, in public, attacked by a Justice of the Supreme Court who didn't understand what I was saying. I had said something about the disinterested life of the mind. I could tell, and Joe Epstein was sitting next to me on the platform, I could tell when Justice Goldberg got launched in this thing, Joe Epstein nudged me and he said, "Oh, God. He is taking disinterested to mean uninterested." I said, "Yep, here we go." What do you wanna do? He's supposed to be an educated man, and there is a difference between those words. And so he started going at me as if I claimed that you ought to be uninterested in anything except books, which of course was not what I said at all. And after this charade of his, we were again having the commencement out in the courtyard of the gym. And I went with going out and the president of the college was leading Justice Goldberg out, and he said, "Oh, Justice Goldberg, I want you to meet Professor Kennick." And I shook his hand and I said, "Justice Goldberg, I am afraid I have to say something to you now, which you may find unpleasant. You should realize that there is a difference between being uninterested and being disinterested. I believe in the disinterested life of the mind, but I certainly do not believe in uninterested," and I said, "And I believe you as a justice of the Supreme Court should sit there and hear these cases disinterestedly, but I hope to God you never sit there and listen to them uninterestedly." "Oh, oh." And I walked away.
George: Every day, new lesson.
Kennick: I was a hero the day, but unwinning hero of the day, because I never intended anything like this. It was just his ignorance that led him to open his mouth and say the wrong thing. But it set me up for a while. Sure.
William E. Kennick, the college's G. Henry Whitcomb Professor of Philosophy, emeritus, retired from the faculty in 1993 after 37 years of teaching at Amherst. He taught the standard courses in the history of philosophy, as well as aesthetics, metaphysics, and a seminar on Wittgenstein. In 2005, a reading room in the Philosophy Department was named in his honor.
Alexander George, professor of philosophy, came to Amherst College in 1988. He teaches classes in logic and philosophy of science, as well as philosophy of language and mathematics. In 2006, working with the library, he was a leader in establishing the Amherst Lecture in Philosophy which brings a distinguished philosopher to campus and publishes the lecture and related materials on the internet.
Educational, not-for-profit use is permitted without the owner’s permission if the participants and publisher are acknowledged.
For publication and citation information, please see the catalog record for this recording.
For further information contact Archives & Special Collections at firstname.lastname@example.org.