The People’s Professor: Community Education Goes Ivy League

An Ivy League scholar breaks the rules, waives the fees, and welcomes the workaday residents of Harlem into his politically charged classroom

| January-February 2009

This article is one of several on fixing education. For more, read  Putting the Public Back in Public Education ,  America 101 , and the online exclusive  Educational Success: Stories of Innovation from the Utne Library .

The lecture hall is nearly dark, lit only by the faint glow of a dozen laptop screens. Suddenly, a projector comes alive and a painting appears above the chalkboard. Seventy-year-old professor Dennis Dalton—his bald head, trademark sneakers, baggy jeans, and button-up denim shirt barely discernible at the front of the room—announces with glee, “Ahhh! There it is! The School of Athens!”

Half of the 150 or so Political Theory I students giggle at his zealousness. “My favorite thing to do when I go to Rome is to stand in front of this painting and have all kinds of thoughts and reveries,” he says, stepping back so he can get a better look. “After a few hours, I get kind of diminished from lack of food and drink and I imagine the people, depicted so expertly here by Raphael, talking to one another.”

More giggles.

The professor turns to face the students, whose eyes are directed upward at the great thinkers shown in his favorite painting. “Raphael was trying to capture a community engaged in the philosophy of the mind. Socrates and Plato and Aristotle and all the other philosophers depicted here began a long tradition of street philosophy, a tradition that lives on in the streets of Harlem—the exchange of ideas, a passion for education and idealism, a community of learning and teaching.” Then his tone shifts to disdain. “If only Columbia—the school on the hill—understood the importance of it.”


4/30/2009 1:19:08 PM

How surprised I was to come across this article as I was preparing a report on how to create authentic small groups in a church setting. I had settled down to a break from the work and was excited to see that the role of authenticity in relationships and providing a place to share and appreciate different perspectives was not just some idealistic idea but one that Dennis Dalton put into practice to the benefit of so many. A wonderful piece of wisdom from outside the church walls that we can all learn from. Thanks for sharing this story!

Keith Goetzman_1
1/27/2009 2:16:12 PM

Joanna, Thanks for sharing your personal recollections of Professor Dalton, and for noting the gender imbalance in the sources used. You've helped correct it with your comments. Keith Goetzman Senior editor

1/16/2009 8:56:52 AM

This article captures the beauty that is Dennis Dalton. I attended his Modern Political Movements class in 1979 as a first year student at Barnard and continued to study with him three more times before my graduation from Barnard. I can't get over that Columbia University is once again trying to push into Harlem - has it no institutional memory? My one criticism of this article is that Barnard is a college that has dedicated itself to educating women for over 100 years. Most of the Harlem residents highlighted in this article are male. How is it that Barnard and Dalton's legacy of educating young women can be passed over in the writing and editing of this article? Is it only men in Harlem to have the time to come and take classes at the college? The beauty of a Barnard education was that in the classroom women dominated the discussion - women edited the newspaper, headed the student government and chaired every club. Yes, men from Columbia (in my day there were ONLY men at Columbia) were able to register for our classes and did. But Barnard and Dennis Dalton's classes, seminars and discussion sections (I attended them all!) encouraged young women to think deeply, act consciously and connect with their highest selves. Please, Utne, and everyone, don't suppress the voices of the women!