Edward Fotheringill has taught philosophy at the college level for 40 years. For much of that time, he held the position of senior lecturer of philosophy at Towson University and Goucher College. For the last ten years, he was adjunct professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
I recently talked with Ed to learn more about his background and interest in teaching lifelong learners.
How long have you taught in the Osher at Towson University program? What’s been a favorite memory of teaching at Osher?
I began teaching at Osher in the spring of 2017. I was hired by Tracy’s predecessor, Jackie Gratz, to teach a course on Buddhism. As I was preparing the 8-week course, I began to wonder if anyone would actually sign up—are senior citizens really interested in Buddhism? I let the question and the concern languish until the day of my first class meeting when, as I was driving to class, I was hit with the realization that I may have only a handful of students. My next thought was, “Okay, so be it. It will be an intimate gathering where I can really get to know each student. And if the students are not that interested in Buddhism, we can still have a pleasant time discussing the basic concepts.” As I entered the Osher building for the first time, I was swallowed-up by a hoard of people heading toward a specific classroom on the ground floor. I followed along, hoping I would find the room where I was supposed to lecture. To my amazement, the crowd was entering my classroom. I thought there must be some mistake on my part, so I asked one of the students the name of the course being taught … she said Buddhism. Bottom line: I had about 100 students. They were smart, had a full measure of life-experience, and an insatiable appetite for wisdom. I was in academic heaven. The moral of this story? Life always has the capacity to surprise us.
What were your first impressions when you started teaching at Osher?
When I first began teaching at Osher, I prepared my lectures as I would for the undergraduate students I had been teaching for nearly 4 decades. What I became immediately aware of was how liberating (and fun) it was discussing philosophical issues with senior citizens. They already knew what life was about! They had experienced full lives: working, raising families, enduring hardship and loss, and bathing in those rare and precious moments of true happiness and joy. I didn’t have to explain anything—I could expose them to serious philosophical questions about life, death, and human meaning, and the in-class discussions would take on a life of their own, often going into corridors of thought that challenged me and made me rethink what I believed to be true. The students at Osher have re-energized me, and I hope in the future that I can generate interesting course material that will inspire them to continue in their intellectual and spiritual search.
How does your experience teaching at Osher differ from other teaching experiences you have had?
I began teaching philosophy in 1979 at what was then Towson State College. I taught “night school” where the majority of students were adults, and most of whom were older than me. I didn’t know at the time how blessed I was to be teaching adults. I later went on to teach at Goucher College, which had been a women’s college since its inception in 1885. When I arrived there in 1988, the school had gone co-ed (1986) and there were only a handful of young men on campus. I had no male students in my classes for a couple of years. So, I had transitioned from teaching primarily middle-class working adults to 20 year old women from upper-class families. The novelty was initially stimulating, but I eventually regretted leaving Towson. What I discovered was this: Teaching philosophy to adults is more profound. Plato said that philosophy should not be studied until the age of 50. I think he may be right.
After 15 years at Goucher, I taught at The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). This, my friends, was quite an intellectual trip, and I must say, I loved it. Artists are naturally looking for alternative perspectives on life, so the MICA students were very receptive to “far out” philosophical concepts and world-views. They especially loved Hinduism and Buddhism, which had become my area of expertise. But, alas, all things must pass. After 10 years at MICA, I started to feel like I no longer belonged – the students changed, were far less open-minded, far-less prepared for college academics, and always distracted by social media. My thought: I don’t need this!
So now, I do an occasional lecture for retirement communities and yoga centers, and of course, teach at Osher. What I have come to learn is that Osher is not just a center for intellectual discourse, but also a place of community. The students at Osher have welcomed me as part of their community, and for that, I am grateful.
What are your hobbies or special interests outside of the topics that you teach at Osher?
I don’t think I have ever had a “hobby.” When I become really interested in something, I go all-in. I become obsessive and want to master, to some degree, the object of my interest. Some examples:
In my early 30s, I became interested in the practice of meditation. I studied under the guidance of two meditation masters: Pir Vilayat Inayat Kahn and Sri Swami Satchidananda. I meditated 1 ½ hours a day, every day, for 16 years. Once the practice was grounded, I eased up.
In my late 30s, as a consequence of a series of unexpected events, I became interested in playing the drums. About two years later, after practicing 2 hours a day, I was in a jazz group playing professionally, and another two years later, I was the leader of my own band (Ten Directions Jazz Group).
In my early 50s, I thought I would try my hand at writing novels. I wrote about 4 hours a day for 7 years. The result: I published 5 philosophical novels and a children’s adventure story. So, I really don’t do hobbies. Currently, I’m fully engaged in studying philosophy (as I have been since I was 20), maintaining my spiritual practice, and taking daily hikes in the woods.
Do you have any words of wisdom given our current times?
I think the pandemic is something we all have to deal with in our own way. I, for one, have little confidence in the validity of the data that our government officials and media are expounding. Those who have a voice in the directives (both governmental and medical) are, to some degree, politically compromised. There is no doubt that the virus is nasty, it can cause serious harm to the elderly and medically compromised. But if you do some careful research online, you will see that there are plenty of medical experts that have a very different story to tell. Studies out of Stanford indicate that the mortality rate originally speculated was vastly overestimated. Current evidence indicates that while the virus is highly infectious, it is comparable to seasonal flu. My advice is this: Use common sense and act responsibly, but don’t lose the quality of your life. Swami Satchidananda once said: “If something bad happens to you, that’s one bad thing; if you lose your mind over it, that’s two bad things.”
I think it is important for each of us to maintain quality of life is some way. I have used this period of isolation to read books that I would not ordinarily have time for (The Deniable Darwin, by David Berlinski; a biography of Hans-Georg Gadamer by Jean Grondin; a biography of Martin Heidegger by Rudiger Safranski, On Presence by Ralph Harper; and the works of Ramana Maharshi.) I’m also becoming a YouTube junkie. There are many interesting lectures and interviews available with scholars, writers, and scientists. Check out the episodes of the podcast entitled “The Portal” with Eric Weinstein.
Finally, I think it’s important to go outside and move around. If you are able, take a walk in the woods. Oxygen is good! Take good care, and I hope to see you in the fall.