One of the oldest active professors in the nation, Dr. Richard I. McKinney, professor emeritus of philosophy at Morgan State University, has spent all of his life on college campuses and plans to keep on going. This semester will see him teaching at least one class.
He enjoys the students reactions when they find out he is 90 years old.
“A couple of years ago I gave an assignment where students had to go to the library to look up some material. And the next time the class met one student said to me, `Is your name Richard I. McKinney and did you write such and such book?’
“I said yes.
“He looked puzzled and later I realized why,” laughed McKinney, “He had apparently seen the my date of birth  on one of the library cards for one of my books.”
McKinney takes the student’s amazement philosophically and says a part of how to stay young is to be around young people. “I like to be around young people and if I stay around just older persons I will tend to think and act that way,” McKinney says. “And seeing me, they learn that age can be just a number.”
Having been born on a college campus 90 years ago and having spent most of his adult life as a professor, it does seem that McKinney has always been around academia and young people. “I’ve spent all my life on a college campus, having been born when my father headed Farmer Institute which later became Florida Memorial college in Florida. Both my parents had been students at the college,” he recalled.
He did veer briefly away from college teaching when he became pastor of a church in Providence RI for a year. “I originally planned to do work in a seminary for four or five years, then go get my terminal degree before starting to teach,” McKinney said.
But an unexpected event thrust him into teaching sooner. He was asked to take a temporary teaching job at Virginia Union University filling in for a professor who was ill. When the professor died, he was asked to stay on permanently and that was the beginning of his college teaching career.
Having taught many generations, McKinney feels that today’s youth don’t seem as focused as earlier generations. “I’ve noticed from my classes that they seem to just want to get a degree and a job without real concern for academics. Of course, there are exceptions. I teach one course at Morgan now where the students are very committed and motivated, but generally today students are not as much as past generations,” he said.
Responding to why there is such a difference today, especially with Black males, he said, “I think there are so many problems impinging on them. For one thing, they do not see much hope for themselves. They see crime all around them and they do not expect too much out of life.
“Two years ago I had the occasion of working with a young man. I talked to him to try to see what his real thinking was. I asked, `What do you expect to be doing ten years from now?’ and he said, `I don’t expect to be living ten years from now,’ And I think the data show that a number of young people have that attitude,” McKinney lamented.
Another problem is that this is a generation of people who want to be entertained and many of the professors have to deal with that. Assignments that require a lot of thinking are not attractive to students.
One of the solutions McKinney sees is for organizations such as sororities and fraternities to create programs that will give youth a different perspective and for there to be more mentoring from childhood through college.
“The Black church can do a lot by providing after school programs that raise aspirations through exposure to Black history and that gives [youth] some vision of what they can become,” instructs McKinney.
“The church reaches more people than any other of our institutions. In my own church we are looking forward to doing that when we get some new facilities, We have retired school teachers who will be available a couple of hours each day to work with the youngsters,” McKinney adds.
“We also need Black businesses to provide opportunities for young people and to prepare them for the world of work. They need to understand that being bright and smart is `cool.'”
McKinney is a member of a relatively new branch of philosophy known as phenomenology, related to existentialism, which has to do with trying to look at and judge things from the past and things around them. “It is looking at things just as they appear,” he says. “The word phenomena means `That which appears,’ so it is looking at something just as it is” without focusing exclusively on hidden meanings.
If he had to advise Black youth today in philosophical terms, McKinney says what he would say “is philosophically called `realism.’ That is, recognizing what is and making the best of what is.” And for African-Americans as a people, he doesn’t recommend any particular philosophy but feels they need to recognize their self worth and potential.
McKinney says the greatest joy he’s gotten from his career is to meet a person years after they have been in one of his classes or heard him speak and have them say that being in his class was an important event in their lives or seeing that they have been successful, He recalls such a time: “A former student who is now in her thirties, came to me while I was attending a concert to say she still had the textbook from when she was in my class and now she is teaching it to her 13-year-old daughter. I think that is the payoff for teachers — seeing the change in people for the better.”
To stay physically alert and active, McKinney says he has a stationary bike and a treadmill. “But a large part of whether one has longevity is due to having the right parents. My mother was from a family of long livers. She died in her 80s,” says McKinney. “I also try to keep mentally alert by reading, keeping up with my discipline and current events.”
His favorite thing, when he is not reading, is to do a crossword puzzle — and he chuckles about taking them to bed at night.
McKinney, who has traveled extensively and lived in France and Africa, says that the experience has taught him that “people generally have similar aspirations with regard to their own well being but that culture plays a large part in what they do, People are interested in their own security and that is pretty much the same the world over.”
Retirement doesn’t seem to be in McKinney’s plans. About his immediate future he says, “I don’t know how much longer I will [teach] but they have…classes planned for me.”
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