The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Bittersweet goodbye: Professor Ambuel’s retirement from the classics, philosophy and religion department

6 min read
Professor David Ambuel, pictured from the side, smiling in the sun.

David Ambuel has been a part of the UMW classics, philosophy and religion department for over 30 years. | UMW classics, philosophy and religion department


Staff Writer

Many students like myself seek admission to UMW solely for the classics, philosophy and religion department. As one of the smallest and arguably most antiquated areas of study on campus, the fortitude with which students pursue this area of study can be surprising to people outside of the field.

As a philosophy major, however, I know the path of philosophical pursuit is malleable, and it offers endless opportunities. From careers in law to continued pursuit of higher education and everything in between, this field of study has proven itself timeless and invaluable. At UMW, the bountiful lessons taught by the department’s handful of faculty—both inside and outside the classroom—make this fruitful field even more special. 

However, at the end of this spring semester, the department will be facing a change that can only be described as bittersweet: Professor David Ambuel’s retirement. 

“Usually when people hear that you’re pursuing philosophy, they ask what you’re going to do with that,” said Ambuel. “Philosophy can be a useful background for all kinds of things. The whole idea of liberal arts education is, if it’s successful, it makes you into an open-minded, open-hearted, lifelong learner, and that enriches your life.”

Ambuel joined the classics department in the fall of 1992 and has been making a humble and graceful impact ever since. Beyond the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, Ambuel’s impact extends not only to the Center for Asian Studies and teaching contemplative practice, but also to the careful curation and maintenance of the campus zen garden. Having over 30 years of students in and out of James Farmer Hall, he will undeniably leave a felt absence as he enters retirement. His exit will be felt not only by his students but also by the whole department, as only two philosophy professors will remain. 

Because each professor has their own area of expertise, it’s currently unclear who will teach classes like Early Modern Philosophy and Plato.

“His breadth of knowledge is irreplaceable,” said Michael Reno, a classics, philosophy and religion lecturer. 

Ambuel’s understanding and love for philosophy has grown throughout his lifetime in academia.

“Once I got into college, I never got out,” said Ambuel. “The never-ending, enjoyable task is to try to become a better teacher every semester.” 

His quest for constant improvement has not gone unnoticed by his students. 

“He makes difficult philosophies and topics easy to understand and that speaks to his expertise I think, and his passion for what he teaches,” said senior political science and philosophy double major Mary-Elise Alworth, who has taken three of Ambuel’s classes. “He is just a very passionate professor, and it shows in every single lecture.”

Students have shared similar sentiments of the contributions Ambuel has made in their lives that go beyond the confines of the academic world.  

“Being in his classes have given me ways to have philosophical views outside academia and beyond the classroom,” said senior philosophy major Malcolm Gatling. 

Ambuel has left a lasting impression on faculty as well.

“He has a great laugh!” said Reno. “He’s very sympathetic as a philosopher and a human being, which is a good quality for both.” 

Ambuel once gifted Reno homegrown peppers from his garden, and Reno replants the seeds every year. “I’m still planting them,” said Reno “I’m keeping an entire line going of David’s original plant and seeds.” As a philosophy professor himself, Reno remarked on the parallels between the pepper seeds and the seeds of knowledge that have been planted and carried by Ambuel’s students over the years. 

Something that makes the department so wonderful to be a part of is that this admiration among the faculty is not one-sided. “We have a very good department,” Ambuel said. “It is one of few in the world with this combination of disciplines, and nice people.” His favorite part of the department is that it’s “small but friendly.”

In the three classes I have taken with Ambuel, I’ve learned not just from his lectures but also outside of the classroom. Of course, I’ll take away the innumerable connections and dissections of both Plato and Aristotle, but every encounter with Ambuel reminds me to conduct myself with humility and kindness, as he exudes the same.

Within my first few weeks at UMW, I was sitting in one of Ambuel’s classes when my full iced venti matcha latte went flying off my desk in the front row. As an older transfer student, I felt especially embarrassed and insecure at the moment, mopping up my forest green latte with a bundle of paper towels. As all of this was happening, Ambuel continued his lecture completely unphased. Not only had Ambuel cultivated a comfortable learning environment within his classroom, but he unknowingly prevented me from succumbing to my internalized imposter system as a student just beginning their journey into the depths of philosophy. His levels of steadiness and reliability can be seen not only in what he has offered the department but also in his daily interactions with students. 

When met with a question or misconception in one of his courses, I have learned to be fearless and thorough in my pursuit of philosophical understanding. Ambuel has made me feel seen and heard, and I’ve never been afraid to ask a question.

“A quality I admire about Dr. Ambuel is his teaching style and how he’s helped me understand philosophy in different ways,” said Gatling. “He really gave me a foundation for my major.” 

As an author and philosopher, Ambuel plans to continue his studies and work on writing another book during his retirement. 

When asked what he thinks the destination of his philosophy journey will be, Ambuel said, “I don’t think there is a destination. It’s always new in a way. There will always be more to discover, an inexhaustible source for the mind.” 

For both faculty and students who remain in James Farmer Hall, we have ahead of us a period of transition, but we also have consistent hopes for the department going forward. 

“I would like to see the philosophy department be more active and expand,” said Gatling. “I wish more students would have interest in philosophy so it would continue to grow.” 

As fellow students share the same heartbreak at the size of the department dwindling in light of Ambuel’s departure, Alworth said, “I think the philosophy major and discipline is growing and I think more undergraduates are finding philosophy an engaging discipline and are finding interest in taking philosophy classes even if it’s not their major.” 

Reno hopes that the department will find someone who can adequately teach all of the disciplines in which Ambuel specializes, noting that his expertise has been crucial for not only the department but also for the education of present and future students. “As far as the future of the department we need to be sure we can offer the sorts of courses that Ambuel offered and courses that will keep the department relevant,” said Reno. “There seems to be an emphasis on only hiring for the hot and popular majors.”

Even though philosophy classes may seem daunting, the lessons you learn in the classroom are fit to apply in every facet of your life outside the classroom. It’s for this reason that strong faculty members like Ambuel make these lessons all the more accessible and comprehensible for those who dare pursue them. 

“The institution needs philosophy because it is at the heart of liberal arts education,” said Reno. 

For those who have not had the privilege to learn from or interact with our beloved professor, I’ll leave you with some of his sage words that those of us who have learned from him will find comfort in: “My main advice to everybody, whether philosophy or not, is if you have a passion or something you want to do or are interested in doing, follow your passion,” Ambuel said. “You must try and have experience—you won’t be any worse off for that experience.”