For several months, people would ask Dr. Edwin Bagley whether he was doing anything different this academic year, since they’d heard it would be his last at Wingate University.
“Not much,” he’d reply with a smile.
We now know that the universe had other plans. Bagley turned in grades for the final time this week, from home, retiring after 39 years of teaching religion and philosophy at Wingate. Because of the coronavirus, Bagley will not get to partake in one final May Commencement ceremony, which was originally scheduled for Saturday morning.
Also because of the virus, Bagley spent the last month and a half of his career teaching philosophy via Zoom, Canvas, Screencast-O-Matic and other technological wonders that were virtually unthinkable when he started at Wingate College in 1981.
Bagley, 73, is far from a technophobe, readily using whatever means necessary to engage with his students before and during the coronavirus crisis. But as an ethics professor, he confronted technology head-on. In his classes, students debated the moral and ethical benefits and ramifications of technological advancements. Third-year students finished off Global Perspectives in Ethics by reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which examines the medical ethics and racial discrimination behind the harvesting of Lacks’s cells. (Lacks died of cancer in 1951, and her cells have been used ever since for research purposes.)
“It's a good, lively way to end up the semester on several critical issues,” Bagley says, “and then tie in some of the things we’ve been studying from the ethical philosophers and theologians.”
Bagley himself has never stopped studying or re-examining his own take on ethics. He grew up in Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, near the statehouse, and as a boy he would sing Christmas carols to George Wallace, the staunch segregationist and four-term governor of the state. Bagley has remained a Southern Baptist his entire life, believing that reform is most effective if it occurs from within.
“The primary sin of Southern Baptists is racism, dating from the breaking away to affirm slavery and oppose abolition,” he said during a presentation at one of the University’s Table Fellowships this year. “But in the 1960s and beyond, the Baptist professors and preachers who influenced me spent their lives deconstructing racism and transforming students and other church members. That is the worthiest cause that I know how to navigate, and it is best done by insiders, because criticizing and reconstructing theologies and institutional practices requires insight and critical thinking, but also love and forgiveness.”
Bagley became an English major at Samford, a Baptist-affiliated university in Birmingham. There, he was required to have a minor, and he thought philosophy might be of interest.
It turned into a career. In the early 1980s, Bagley joined a Wingate religion department that was heavy on Bible courses and preparing students for careers as Baptist ministers. It has evolved over the years as Wingate’s student population has grown more diverse, and Bagley sees some value in that shift.
“If students come from a small place with not that much exposure to other perspectives, Wingate may be the first place they get some of that,” he says. “And if they can hear it from somebody other than just the faculty member, that’s a good thing.”
But in some ways, Bagley misses the old days, when more of his students were headed toward Baptist ministry. “I understood how to talk to them and how to listen to them and work with them,” he says, having grown up a Southern Baptist and graduated from seminary.
Until his first grandchild was born a few years ago, Bagley regularly served as interim pastor at a variety of Baptist churches around Wingate and Union County. That experience helped him in the classroom, especially in the ’80s and ’90s.
“We had 30 to 35 religion majors in those days,” he says. “It gave me more credibility, because I could sympathize with them on the problems they would be facing. They figured if I could survive out there, maybe they should listen to me in class.”
Wingate’s father of ethics
Bagley spent his career striving to learn more about the world and challenge his own way of thinking as well as that of his students. That meant getting out into the world beyond the Southeast. As a student at Samford, Bagley went on a trip to Russia and several other countries with the University choir.
The trip sparked in Bagley a love of both choral music and travel. He is a member of the Charlotte Master Chorale, which is part of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, and he is the all-time W’International champion, having taken students on Wingate’s flagship study-abroad program 12 times. He started off in the more familiar European countries and eventually ventured into Asia, where he accompanied groups of students to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, China, South Korea and Japan. Bagley also attended faculty seminars in several countries, including Australia and China, and he went to India with the Fulbright program one summer.
“He was much more adventurous than I was,” says close colleague and former next-door neighbor Dr. Robert Billinger, another retired Wingate professor. “I pretty much stuck to places like Germany and Austria, and originally England and France. But God bless him, he’s been to Korea and India and I’m not sure where all.
“He’s always been a goer. He’s certainly a guy who introduced the whole interest in ethics on the Wingate College campus and in making that a key component of requirements. He basically created the ethics department.”
Bagley studied a lot of ethics in graduate school, focusing primarily on modern philosophers. But he was always fascinated by how much the ancient Greek philosophers influenced Christianity.
Underpinning Bagley’s teachings were the works of Plato and Aristotle, with a healthy dose of Kant and the modern-day philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre thrown into the mix as well. Between Plato’s idealism and Aristotle’s empiricism, Bagley has leaned more and more over the years toward Aristotle. He went on sabbatical one semester to Notre Dame, where he met MacIntyre, a professor there at the time. Being introduced to MacIntyre’s work helped him “tie up some loose ends” in his thinking.
“Reading MacIntyre and looking for the answers in Aristotle turned out to be very helpful,” Bagley says. “We hear a lot about character ethics. That’s sort of the direction it goes, but as opposed to the notion of unbending moral rules. Focus not, first of all, on what you should do or not do; focus, first of all, on developing excellence in your life.”
Bagley has strived to do just that, with students’ well-being always foremost in mind. It doesn’t hurt that, being a teacher, he’s remained a student his entire life.
“When you teach, you learn a lot more than you do in school, because you have to read the book and be prepared for all kinds of questions,” Bagley says. “You have to be prepared not to stand up there and say ‘I don’t know’ any more than absolutely necessary. So that takes a lot of prep. I’ve regarded that as kind of a good constructive part of my life. In some respects, I think I’m something of a student, only because the University allowed me to be.”
May 8, 2020