As an associate professor of philosophy at Western Carolina University, John Whitmire grabs his students’ attention at the start of each semester by telling them that he really doesn’t care what they think.
But, as a part of his overall teaching philosophy, Whitmire is quick to say that statement is not completely true. “I obviously have my own beliefs about what is genuinely important and meaningful in life,” he said. “But, as their philosophy professor, what I primarily care about and what is most central to my own philosophy of teaching is not what my students think and value, but whether they can reasonably defend those things, or are just living out the beliefs and values of their parents, their friends, their religious institutions, popular culture or society – beliefs which they have simply taken over from others but never really thought carefully about or genuinely appropriated as their own.”
A member of the faculty in WCU’s Department of Philosophy and Religion since 2005, Whitmire has been named one of the top teachers in the University of North Carolina System. The resident of Candler is among 17 recipients of the 2019 UNC Board of Governors Awards for Excellence in Teaching.
“From the very beginning of my classes, my approach is to challenge my students to think about whether and why the things that they believe are true and meaningful, genuinely are so – and beyond that, to ask themselves whether they are, in fact, living out those beliefs and values in their own lives,” he said. “This means, for most of my students – and particularly for those in my liberal studies classes – that my courses will be not only intellectually rigorous, but existentially demanding for them in a way that most are not used to encountering. It is also liberating, however, because it allows them to interrogate their own beliefs and values in a way that many of them have never done.”
Whitmire said he doesn’t study philosophy just to know what great thinkers of the past have thought, but he does so because he believes their ideas present a wealth of possible – and possibly conflicting – ways to think about life on Earth. He believes philosophy should “speak in a deeply personal way to students’ minds and hearts, their beliefs and values – in short, to them as whole persons.”
Whitmire regularly wins praise from his colleagues on campus and the students who take his courses. One fellow faculty member noted that in courses ranging from “Western Philosophical Traditions” to a senior seminar for philosophy majors, “John is able to gently draw students into challenging debates about the foundations of religious faith, how work shapes our lives and defines our identities, how we must be responsible for our own education and moral development if we are to flourish, and countless more discussions relevant to all thinking people. In addition to having the warmth, charisma, intelligence and polish required of great teachers in every discipline, John approaches philosophy with such a deep and sincere interest in existential questions – questions about fundamental problems of the human condition – that it is hard not to be inspired by him.”
One former WCU student said Whitmire “was one of the few instructors I’ve ever had who could fearlessly ask difficult questions and firmly engage everyone in critical thinking and focused discussion.” “In doing so, he trained us in professional and respectful debate and forced us to examine our own beliefs while raising our tolerance for and understanding of other perspectives,” she said. “In all his courses, Dr. Whitmire worked to develop students as strong speakers, effective writers, critical thinkers and compassionate, empowered people. I take those skills with me wherever I go, grateful for the opportunity to learn them so well.”
Whitmire was named recipient of the WCU College of Arts and Sciences Teaching Award for 2015-16, and he received the university’s Excellence in Teaching Liberal Studies Award in 2011. He also has been recognized for his work in mentoring undergraduate student research at WCU, with many of those students going on to present their projects at the university’s Undergraduate Expo and at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.
Whitmire served as head of WCU’s Department of Philosophy and Religion from 2013 to 2017. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Wake Forest University and his master’s and doctoral degrees in that discipline at Villanova University. A native of Henderson County, he is a member of a prominent Western North Carolina family with a long history of involvement with and support for WCU. Whitmire’s father, John F. Whitmire Sr., attended the university for several years, and his grandfather, Boyce A. Whitmire, served on the WCU Board of Trustees from 1963 to 1972. Boyce A. Whitmire was a second cousin to E.J. Whitmire, for whom WCU’s football stadium is named, and numerous other family members are listed on the rolls of university alumni.
The Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching will be presented to John Whitmire during WCU’s undergraduate commencement that begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 11. He will be the primary speaker for that ceremony, which will include graduating students from the Department of Philosophy and Religion and the College of Arts and Sciences.
Whitmire and other recipients of the UNC honor, representing an array of academic disciplines, were nominated by special committees on their home campuses and selected by the Board of Governors Committee on Educational Planning, Policies and Programs. Winners receive a commemorative bronze medallion and $12,500 cash prize.
Established by the Board of Governors in 1993 to underscore the importance of teaching and to reward good teaching across the university system, the awards are given annually to a tenured faculty member from each UNC campus. Winners must have taught at their present institution at least seven years, and no one may receive the award more than once.