the dinner table philosopher: Duane Whittier

Li and Whittier share laughs at Harmony Homes in Durham

Duane Whittier, 89, has spent more than half of his life teaching at the University of New Hampshire. Even as a child, Whittier had a love for education and was always an academic. One of the strongest memories from his childhood, one that shaped him the most, was when his father got him a Dartmouth College library card for two dollars. After school got out, he would get on his bike and pedal the seven miles from his hometown in Lebanon, New Hampshire to Hanover. The most exciting part? He could take as many books as he wanted. Whittier even attached a second basket to his bike so he could take out eight or nine at a time.

So, it wasn’t a surprise to find him hidden among the Harmony Homes assisted living facility’s bookshelves when we went to visit him, nose-deep in the daily newspaper. Whittier retired from UNH last year after teaching philosophy here for 49 years.

I was driven to the nursing home by the few people left who still speak with Whittier regular

ly: Elizabeth Webber, Associate Director of the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) and the mother of Tuya Elwy, who was one of Whittier’s favorite students; and Gen Li, a graduate student in the Physics department who came to know Whittier during his final years teaching at UNH.

“He’s a veritable font of 90 years of information, guidance, and wit,” Webber said, but, “he uses colorful language.”

She wasn’t wrong. Whittier’s wit and brilliance were apparent in his speech and conversation. Open up a conversation on politics or current events, and as Whittier puts it, you’ve “uncorked” him and he could talk for hours. While we were only visiting for a little more than an hour, he told stories, explained his philosophy, jabbed, swore, rambled and raved as if we were in the classroom.

“Everything else in my body has stopped working except this,” Whittier said, pointing to his head. Although he was undoubtedly doing better mentally than most at his age, his reason for retirement was his frequent visits to the hospital towards the end of his career. He used a walker to get around, had a hard time hearing my questions, and his hands were shaking as we spoke.

“It has been very difficult to watch a mentor and a person I have come to love decline in health so much this past summer…Whittier, now in his 90th year, is proof that keeping an active and inquisitive mind keeps you going,” said Elwy, who graduated in 2011 with a degree in Philosophy and was Whittier’s mentee and close friend.

Li, who came to the US in 2012 from the Anhui province in China to pursue his master’s degree in Physics at UNH, first met Whittier at Holloway Commons during dinner.

“When I entered the dining hall at that point, I just saw this old man. So I just sat down with him,” Li remembered.

That was all it took. Soon, Li was joining Whittier for dinner at least five times per week at Philbrook or Holloway Commons, along with Elwy, Dana Hull – Whittier’s best friend and a fellow professor at the University who has also recently retired – and a few students. They would discuss current events, politics, philosophy, or whatever was on Whittier’s mind. Because Whittier was so straightforward and “colorful,” to quote Webber, Li said new students who would join a dinner-table conversation would often be “scared away.” But many, like Li and Elwy, were drawn to Whittier and his passion for education as well as his unique approach to philosophy.

“A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still,” Whittier would say. He lives by the Socratic method.

“Socratic method: you keep asking questions but in a very skilled way, until the other person, it dawns on them,” Whittier said, “You don’t tell someone else they’re wrong…What you want to do is get the person thinking, and then he tells himself the right answer. You’ve got to keep him working.”

Another of Whittier’s most prominent memories from his younger days strongly influenced his views on philosophy. Whittier and his father sat in on a town meeting where they were voting on whether or not three teachers would be awarded a pay raise. Whittier, being 16 at the time, watched as the votes of 12 of the wealthiest town members had more influence than the votes of 600 others.

“And my father said to me, ‘son, I want you to take a good look at those 12 people.’ He said, ‘those are the 12 wealthiest people in Lebanon,’” Whittier remembered.

The teachers didn’t get the pay raise.

“I learned about class. If 12 wealthy people don’t want it, they’re not gonna be crossed. No matter what the damn goal was,” he said.

A year later, Whittier found himself sleeping on the floor of New Hampshire Hall at UNH. Englehardt wasn’t quite finished being built yet, but would soon be the residence hall he would make his home for the entirety of his college career.

“Room 230. That’s where I was for four years,” he said.

He didn’t know it yet, but Whittier would spend the rest of his career at UNH.

Back then, he couldn’t major in Philosophy, because there was only one Philosophy professor, Donald Babcock. So, Whittier minored in it and majored in Psychology, pursuing his master’s degree in the same subject. He soon that realized he was tired of studying rats. He wanted to study people.

After serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, he finally began to pursue his doctorate in Philosophy. He spent 11 years teaching at the University of Illinois and Penn State before he saw an open teaching position in UNH’s Philosophy department in 1967 and decided to return to his home state.

In total, that makes 58 years of consecutive teaching experience.

“Some of my colleagues here who retired at age 65 or 70, they would say to me, ‘Whittier, have you retired yet? When are you going to retire and get a life?’ I said hold on, hold on, I’ve been paid a salary for doing what I would do as a hobby. Because I love philosophy and I love being with young people and teaching and all of that. And you want me to retire and get a life? I’ve got one! I don’t want to give the damn thing up until I’m incapacitated and can’t cut the mustard anymore!” Whittier said.

By early 2017, Whittier was no longer teaching. He had been asked to retire do to his declining health. He was constantly in and out of the hospital and had had a major surgery that winter. But, Whittier still studied at the library and ate dinner at the dining halls seven days a week with Li and his other colleagues-- he simply couldn’t stay away from UNH.

His legacy falls not only in his intense passion for teaching, but his unique way of thinking.

“I think the whole way academic philosophy is done is a big mistake,” he said.

In academia, students are taught the history of philosophy and philosophical ideologies, Whittier says, but they’re not taught how to think, and that’s the most important part of philosophy. It can be applied to all disciplines, and Whittier believes it should be a requirement for every major.

“Philosophy is not a subject matter. In fact, we stick our noses into everybody’s business. Philosophy of science, ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophy in the arts, philosophy in history. I mean, what is it that philosophers don’t stick their noses into?” he said.

Whittier ended up in Harmony Homes this past November. Although he is physically in a nursing home, he’s still sharp as a tack. He reads a stack of newspapers every day before moving on to his current area of interest, economics, and he still pays regular visits to UNH’s Dimond Library.

“Giving your life absolutely to helping facilitate and spread the power of education is by far one of the most inspiring things a human can do. He was always outspoken and a little nontraditional,” says Elwy.

The second time I went to visit Whittier with Li, we just listened as the light from the windows poured over him in his wheelchair. Instead of asking interview questions, I asked what he thought about the recent lecturer cuts at UNH, what he thought about the President. He walked us through his Trump-Russia theories and his respect for honest journalism.

He wasn’t optimistic about the current political climate, nor was he happy about where he was in his life. But, even at “89 and five months to 90,” as Whittier puts it, he’s expressive, loud, passionate and strong-willed in all he thinks and does.

“Philosophy teaches you how to be happy in a shitty world,” he says.