The People’s Professor: Community Education Goes Ivy League

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This article is one of several on fixing education. For more, readPutting the Public Back in Public Education,America 101, and the online exclusiveEducational 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.”

Professor Dalton has taught for 38 years in the political science department of Barnard, the all-women’s school of Columbia University in Harlem. Like many Ivy League schools positioned near low-income communities, Columbia has a strained relationship with its neighbors, working-class people who are not only kept out, but are threatened with displacement by the grand vision of the university’s leadership. The school wants to seize property through eminent domain in its plans for a new $6.3 billion expansion into West Harlem.

Columbia says the project will create more than 6,000 jobs over the next 25 years. But Manhattan Community Board No. 9, which is the voice of many West Harlem residents, says it will displace 300 people’s homes and 900 people’s current jobs, not to mention destroy a neighborhood known for its rich history and culture.

Dalton is clearly on the side of the community. In fact, he doesn’t just want Harlem protected from Columbia’s encroachment. He also encourages Harlem to encroach into Columbia.

Many Harlemites have turned Dalton’s courses into a pilgrimage of sorts. Neighborhood residents have been attending his classes, some of them for more than 10 years. They never pay a fee or officially register; they simply slip in. Some are bibliophiles or retirees; others are body builders and taxi drivers. They range in age from 19 to “I’m not telling.”

If Dalton’s lectures took place in a towering cathedral, they could be no more of a spiritual experience to the folks from Harlem. He gives them access to the inaccessible, an elite school that has, in its own posturing, presented itself as sacred but instead come off as segregationist. He adds structure to their lives, motivating them to make the trek up the hill every Tuesday and Thursday, come rain or shine. He sees them not as God’s children but as Plato’s philosopher kings. And they, in turn, give Dalton a gift that few academics will ever receive: a claim to authenticity.

How did a professor at one of the nation’s most exclusive colleges manage to become the people’s professor? As with many grand social experiments, it began with an unlikely friendship.

Ben Armstead, a gregarious entrepreneur in his 70s with caterpillar eyebrows and freckles thrown across his pale brown cheeks, learned about Dalton’s classes in 1994 when he was helping Columbia students move into their dorm rooms for extra money (never mind that he was pushing 60 at the time). As he lugged computers and bean bag chairs, he would ask the students about their favorite courses and teachers. Dalton’s name came up over and over again.

Their eyes alight, students spoke of a political science professor who preached the importance of finding one’s Platonic areté, or calling. They talked about a professor who freely gave out his home phone number and the questions to the final exam prior to administering it–his own little rebellion against grades. They described a man who filled their heads with theory, but no less than he filled their hearts with love.

Ben decided to have a look for himself and slipped into one of Dalton’s lectures. He was immediately hooked and approached the professor after class to introduce himself. Dalton, who had ached to reach across the Ivy League divide for several decades, was honored to have a Harlem elder in attendance and invited Ben to return as often as his schedule would allow. He had no idea just how dedicated his new student would be.

“I knew he was preaching something that my people needed to hear,” Ben explains. He and his wife, Gale Armstead–a Harlem astrologer–started bringing folks with them. They recruited high school dropouts, alternative healers, and aspiring actresses and convinced them to make the trek to Barnard College. Ben used course packets to lure folks up the hill with the promise of a first-rate education. Handing one over with a smirk to a passerby, Ben would shout, “This thing should cost you $4,000 and I’m givin’ it to ya for free!”

Ben and Gale often lingered after class to introduce the professor to their newest recruits and to ask him questions about the day’s lectures–whether they were on Machiavelli, Martin Luther, or Malcolm X. Ben, who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a short time before coming to Harlem and vowing to never “work in the white community” again, wasn’t deferential with the professor, instead challenging him.

He was especially eager to convince Dalton to incorporate astrological charts into his lectures. He and Gale even went so far as to supply them, noting that some of the most famous political philosophers were born under Taurus. “A coincidence?” Ben asks, eyebrows raised and a playful smile on his face. “I think not.”

Professor Dalton hears them out–“just like a Pisces,” Ben says–but remains unconvinced. He believes the answer to the world’s ills lies not in the alignment of the moon, sun, and stars, but between a dedicated teacher and a willing student. He believes that Mahatma Gandhi, the nonviolent radical who advocated social change through daily, hourly, minute-by-minute acts of integrity and kindness, got it right when he left his suit and law degree behind to be of and among the people. Dalton has made an effort every day of his 38 years of teaching at Barnard to follow Gandhi’s advice and “be the change you wish to see in the world.” It hasn’t always been easy.

Administrators have not always looked favorably on Professor Dalton’s theory of education. After they discovered that he was allowing a group of undocumented students to slip into his lectures semester after semester, he was asked to reconsider his open classroom policy, gently reminded that Columbia University has a formal auditing program and that students pay upwards of $50,000 a year.

The professor smiled and replied without pause, “These are my friends. You wouldn’t tell any other professor that he couldn’t invite his friends to sit in on his class.”

The administration compromised, inviting the professor to hold a weekly evening seminar for the public in the fall of 2004. Though Dalton already had a full course load and a few nagging health issues, he eagerly agreed, inviting his “friends” to a community forum on nonviolence.

Ben Armstead seized on the opportunity with missionary zeal, luring a new batch of folks with the promise of a chance to “finally be heard” on the Columbia campus. And heard they were, often staying well past midnight to discuss human nature, the origins of violence, the presidential election, and, indeed, Columbia’s expansion into Harlem. To his wife’s chagrin, the professor refused to leave, no matter how bleary-eyed, until his friends did.

One evening Dalton lectured for 25 minutes about Malcolm X’s conversion from segregationist to inclusionist, only to be interrupted by a bear of a man who said, “Not to be disrespectful, professor, but you got it all wrong. I was one of X’s bodyguards.”

Another Dalton devotee who attended the forum regularly was Danny White, a friend of Ben. While Ben is all bravado, Danny is humble and reflective. He lingers, like Ben, after class to ask the professor a pressing question or to urge him to look at a political problem from another point of view. The professor listens to Danny’s take–usually economic–with rapt attention, often tenderly putting an arm around one of his bony shoulders. If they were 50 years younger, they’d be drinking buddies or brothers down for the cause, Dalton soaking up the cooler, Kangol-clad Marxist’s every word.

Today it is Danny who is soaking up Dalton’s words. A noose has been found on an African American professor’s office door at Columbia’s world-renowned school of education, Teachers College. The anticipation in the lecture hall is palpable as Dalton picks up a piece of paper off the lab table behind him and quietly begins: “President Bollinger has sent an e-mail to the Columbia community in response to the recent incident on campus. I was struck by one line in particular: ‘An attack on the dignity of any member of our community is an assault on all of us.’ “

He tosses the paper back onto the lab table before going on: “This is not, I hope, to suggest that this kind of attack is new on this campus. Institutional racism is not new to Columbia. When I came here in 1969 the whole place was closed down because of the so-called Columbia riots. A lot of people think that was sparked by Vietnam. It was not. It was sparked by Columbia’s attempt to build a gym that offended Harlem. The Columbia students–Zeus bless them–stood up and brought this university to a standstill!”

Getting louder and louder, he goes on: “Those were the glory days, when injustice was not overlooked so easily, when we identified with a larger community here in Harlem. What might bring us to our senses today?” he asks the students, his voice booming with urgency.

When no one responds, he goes on, “My proposal is that, following the example of Ben and Gale, all of you others who have come”–motioning to the Harlem crew spread out in the back rows–“who have led the cause, that we now turn Columbia into a community college. I’m aware that this will be dismissed as absurd, but I want to tell the president that this is what I propose as a test of how far we value”–and this word he spits out–“diversity on this campus.”

He goes on to explore Plato’s idea of noninjury as the utmost moral virtue and waxes poetic about interconnection and the pursuit of truth in lieu of feigning possession of it. And finally he ends, “We don’t need more intelligence. God knows we’ve got enough on this campus. What we need is more compassion.”

As the class packs up, M.L., a young taxi driver with tiny dreads and a swoon-inducing smile, catches Danny’s eye and says jokingly, “Back to the plantation.”

Wiry and determined, Sharron Dalton is marching all over her husband’s hurricane of an office, wearing a Mao cap she has just found in the clutter and talking about him as if he isn’t there. “He just can’t seem to part with so many of these books. He can’t come to terms with the fact that we’re leaving,” she says. The Daltons will be moving to St. Croix, an island in the Caribbean, where one of their sons has relocated his family–including Dalton’s two young granddaughters.

“Yes, yes, we’re really leaving,” Dalton mumbles as he sorts through books, reading their back covers instead of throwing them into one of the three piles: Harlem, hurricane victims, or trash.

If you ask the professor why he’s retiring, you’ll get different answers. Sometimes he says that he just wants to spend more time with his beloved grandchildren–that he wants to make scrambled eggs with them, dance with them, and be there to answer their amazing questions.

Sometimes he says it’s his health. After he recovered from prostate cancer a couple of years ago, Sharron, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University who is also retiring, insisted that he slow down and pull back from his students–especially from the exhausting community forum.

Dalton is not good with boundaries, though. He sees them as diametrically opposed to the ideal student-teacher relationship, modeled after Socrates and Plato. Human nature is not fundamentally selfish or violent, Dalton argues passionately day in and day out; it is good and loving. All failures of humanity–war, greed, disconnection–are failures of our education system.

For the past 15 years or so, the students who make Dalton feel effective as a teacher–who allow him to, as his favorite E.M. Forster quotation advises, “Only connect”–are often those who aren’t even supposed to be in his classroom.

David Harris’ little round glasses and messy brown curls have a John Lennon quality. It’s easy to imagine him snuggled up to Yoko Ono in a bed or sitting in the grass with a guitar. It’s not so easy to imagine him dressed in fatigues and carrying a gun, but that’s what he did for years.

David, 34, enrolled at Columbia as part of the general studies program in 2001–an auspicious time for a man seeking a quiet life after years in the Israeli army. The events of 9/11 rocked his already fragile worldview, and he sought refuge in Professor Dalton. Perhaps no one has gotten to know the professor in the last few years better than he.

“When I was most depressed,” David says, “Dalton handed me a key to his office and said, ‘Whenever you need, you are welcome here.'”

For hours on end, David sat in the professor’s old wooden chair, looking at the books that gave Dalton solace (Thoreau’s Walden being his favorite). In the process of trying to live, as Dalton preaches and Plato wrote, “the examined life,” David was coming to terms with the fact that he had murdered people when he was in the army.

David never worried that the professor would reject him because of his violent past. “The idea of ‘the journey’ is so critical to Dalton’s teaching, and he helped me understand my experiences in Israel not as an end, but as a beginning,” says David. “He reopened a door inside me.”

This is the key to Dalton’s profound effect: He invites people to become and to value their truest selves. He takes students like David, who have lost their way, and reinforces their inclinations to be good and gentle creatures. He takes folks like Ben and Danny–men who have often felt invisible–and sees their idiosyncratic wisdom. In Dalton’s world, everyone is deserving. Everyone is capable of becoming the person he or she was supposed to be all along.

Today, every seat in the lecture hall is filled. Danny is here, as are Ben, Gale, David, even Sharron, who rarely attends her husband’s lectures. A group of former students has made a banner for Dalton, on which people are writing notes of gratitude. An older man whose suit screams “lawyer” gives the professor a bear hug and hands him a card. Dalton opens it; it plays “Pomp and Circumstance.” The professor laughs. Finally he begins his final lecture.

“I want to defuse your expectations as much as possible. If I had any special revelations since last Tuesday, I would have immediately shared them with you, as I always do.” The crowd chuckles at his humility.

“Today is not special in terms of my revelations, but it’s special in terms of people here I know that I’ll miss, some of whom I value as my closest friends. Jeff,” he says, pointing at the man who gave him the card, “I forgive you for graduating from Harvard Law School.” The crowd laughs, aware of Dalton’s reputation for pressuring his brightest students to become teachers.

Dalton looks up to the top of the lecture hall, where David sits nodding. “I’ll be on an island far away, but if you want to know what I’m thinking, ask David,” he says. “That is, if he isn’t out in the hills somewhere searching for Thoreau.”

“And Ben and Gale Armstead, it is impossible to conceive of saying good-bye to you. I wish I could stay here with you.”

Just as tears start to well up in more than one pair of eyes, the professor abruptly shifts gears. “As we’ve discussed before, Hannah Arendt saw the diagnosis for our diseased world as thoughtlessness, a lack of moral imagination certainly, and, above all, a lack of caring.

“The remedy? To construct a caring community, to empathize, to connect.” Dalton then invites a senior to discuss her thesis about Danish gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust. When she’s finished, he adds, “The story of the Danes is the story of us if we will have it that way. We must transform the banality of evil into the banality of empathy.”

As the audience chews on his last Arendt invocation, he ends: “This is my last plug: I beg you all to consider teaching as a profession. It’s a profession at which we can join each other and connect at any age. If you have any thought of giving thanks to me, I want to insist, here and now, that it has always been me who should give thanks to you. I owe you so much, and it is for that reason that I can leave with this feeling in my heart that we must,” and again for emphasis, “that we must see that we are all part of one another.”

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