More than a scholar
Published: Thursday, November 8, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 8, 2012 03:11
A junior high school student developed a passion for history and archeology 56 years ago. Today, Gary Ferngren is one of Oregon State University’s most beloved history professors.
“It was a joy being in his class,” said OSU student Blaise Grant. “His lectures have a lot of information in them, and he can give it to his students in a way that makes sense and is interesting.”
Ferngren has been a professor at Oregon State for 43 years, teaching classes on the Ancient Near East, Greece, Rome, the historical relationship between science and religion, and on the writings of C.S. Lewis. Similarly, his research focuses on the history of ancient medicine and the historical relationship between science, medicine and religion.
“What spurred my interest in junior high was reading the Bible and wondering whether or not the stories in it were true,” Ferngren said. “I read a lot of books on ancient history and archeology in my high school years, and by my senior year I had decided that I wanted to be a Greek and Roman historian and teach at the college level.”
Ferngren set forward with this goal and after earning a bachelor’s degree at Western Washington University in 1964, a master’s degree in 1967 and a Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia in 1973. He began teaching Greek and Roman history at OSU in 1970.
“I enjoy teaching here in the history department,” Ferngren said. “I get to work with a very congenial group of colleagues.”
Early on in his career, Ferngren found his interest for ancient medicine and religion, which became a main focus of his research. He has recently written a book on the relationship between medicine and religion dating from prehistoric times until the present, titled “Medicine and Religion: A Historical Introduction.”
Early in Ferngren’s career at OSU, a student recommended him to teach a small discussion class in the honors program. He agreed to do so, and for the past thirty years has offered a reading and discussion class on several books from one of his favorite authors, C.S. Lewis.
“Lewis discusses some of the most engaging topics in philosophy and theology,” Ferngren said. “Honors students generally enjoy discussing these ideas.”
Also inspired by C.S. Lewis, Dr. Ferngren helped found the OSU Socratic Club 10 years ago, which was designed to offer a forum for the debate of Christian ideas.
“[Ferngren] and I are both passionate about having civil but passionate discussions about key issues, so that everyone can see the best in others’ viewpoints and possibly make more informed worldview decisions for themselves,” said Matt Rueben, OSU Socratic Club president.
In these debates, people from a variety of backgrounds, usually a Christian and a non-Christian speaker, have a chance to debate a secular topic. The Socratic Club organizes five to six debates per year, their most recent debate regarding Christianity in politics.
“I was initially surprised at how much interest the debates attracted,” Ferngren said. “I think the people who attend them appreciate, as I do, the free-flowing debate of controversial ideas, something that can be surprisingly rare at public universities.”
Even excluding these commitments, Ferngren is incredibly busy. As a professor, not only does he teach classes, but researches, writes essays, journal articles and books about his field and participates in university committee work.
He also travels frequently to see firsthand the places that he teaches about. In fact, he actually spends every August in northern Italy, exploring new cities he hasn’t been to before to further his firsthand knowledge of Roman historical sites.
“I believe that travel enhances my teaching,” Ferngren said. “I often encourage my students do it as part of their education. I have conducted several trips abroad for alumni.”
Ferngren’s favorite aspect of his career, above all the others, is teaching.
“I like teaching as much as I did 40 years ago, both lecture and discussion forms of class, in which I present my own opinion, and encourage students to present theirs,” Ferngren said. “A friendly dialogue between student and teacher is very important in the educational experience.”
Not only does Ferngren teach and stir up student opinions, he also is willing to advocate and defend them.
“When I had a disagreement with the history department, I went to Ferngren for help,” Grant said. “[Ferngren] not only advocated for me to resolve the conflict, but also gave me instruction and encouragement to go to the right people.”
Ferngren’s rigorous classes, attention to detail and support for his students have contributed to his renown on campus.
“He cares about his students and he wants them to succeed,” Grant said.
Ryan Dawes, news reporter