By Zach Muhlbauer
Kenneth Asher graduated from University of California at Berkeley as a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 1969. He now serves as Chairman of Humanities and Professor of English Literature and Philosophy at SUNY College at Geneseo. Cultivating the depth and scope of the liberal arts curriculum at Geneseo for over three decades, Asher models the rare mix of intellectual rigor and freedom of thought unique to Phi Beta Kappa. Following T.S. Eliot and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 1995), his most recent book of critical theory, Literature, Ethics, and the Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 2017), now finds him exploring the ethical value of literature by means of affective knowledge. In particular, Asher investigates the ethics and aesthetics of T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence and George Bernard Shaw, reevaluating their roles in modernist scholarship. In this text, as in his lifelong career as an educator, Asher engages his subject matter with a sense of passion and clarity that reminds us all of the enduring impact a liberal arts education can have on the moral and intellectual growth of students everywhere.
You’ve recently published a book on the interdynamics between emotions and ethics, focusing on literary minds like Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot. How can work such as this inform people as to the value of a liberal arts education?
ASHER: The case I was advancing in the book was that emotions were central to our ethical lives and that literature, which typically concerns itself with the nuanced cross-currents of emotions, could make a significant contribution to our emotional understanding in a way that moral philosophy didn’t; it was important to locate this claim, however, within the rich background of moral philosophy. If ethical education is construed as the ability to detect the morally salient and determine what sort of response, both in kind and degree is appropriate, then literature can help us refresh and refine this set of responses. Thus, a sophisticated work of literature in the hands of an attentive reader becomes equipment for living, and I think this is the best justification for a liberal arts education one can offer. And certainly this claim to an enriched life can be extended to other humanities disciplines each in its own particular way.
Having served as the director of humanities at SUNY Geneseo for some time now, have you noticed student and faculty interest in the field to have changed?
ASHER: I don’t think student interest in the course has changed dramatically over the 35 years I taught the course at Stanford and Geneseo, though economic downturns and increased job anxiety will make students more skeptical and impatient with the course and its relevance. The far more striking change has been in faculty belief in the course’s value. When such a course was instituted, it was widely accepted by faculty that a knowledge of the Western tradition was essential to self-understanding and informed citizenship. Originally, the content of the two courses at Geneseo, was fairly tightly mandated, part of the purpose of which was that students, all reading the same texts, could converse among themselves outside the classroom and in this way, forge a college-wide intellectual community.
I understand SUNY Geneseo has recently decided to remove a second humanities course from its general education requirements. What impact do you think this will have on Geneseo’s relationship to the humanities?
ASHER: In the 90s there was a shift to a “menu” system in which categories of reading would be in common, but the works that would satisfy a category were expanded. By the turn of the century or shortly thereafter, even this struck a significant number of faculty members as too restrictive. The complaint here was on behalf of excluded voices, e.g. the Eastern tradition, to take the largest. From that point of view, to have a two-course sequence devoted to the Western tradition seemed parochial, and according to the more cynical, politically reactionary. The recent dropping of the two-course requirement was a highly divisive one. The reason put forward (in good faith) was that we were being forced more and more to hire adjuncts to teach the sections and their credentials were not always commensurate with the responsibility. A one section requirement was thought to lessen this difficulty. Technically this sidelined from the discussion the earlier debate about the content of the courses, but in actuality it is clear that votes were being cast by some faculty members as a way to dismantle a requirement they no longer believed in. Departments remain free to include in their major requirements that both halves of the sequence be taken and it is unclear at the moment how many will insist on that. In general, though, it is safe to say that the lessening of the college-wide requirement moves Geneseo closer to the other colleges in the system and away from a unique position.
Having been a member of Phi Beta Kappa since 1969, what was it like when Geneseo became the first state college in New York to achieve a Phi Beta Kappa chapter? How has this accomplishment impacted the college and its students?
ASHER: Getting the chapter certainly was, and I think still is, a significant source of pride for the College, and the administration is still very supportive of any opportunity the chapter takes to have Geneseo represented at ΦBK or ΦBK-sponsored events. I think students (and their parents) are pretty aware of the chapter and of the significance of getting elected. Students almost always accept election here, in contrast to many other ΦBK chapters — I think we’re known to some extent within ΦBK for our very high election acceptance rate. Each year at least one student who wasn’t sure about accepting tells me that their parents stepped in and told them that yes, one must accept election to ΦBK, but overall I think there’s very high recognition here of the prestige associated with being elected to ΦBK.
Zach Muhlbauer graduated in May of 2017 having majored in English literature and philosophy at SUNY Geneseo. SUNY Geneseo is home to the Alpha Delta of New York Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.