Learning For Free


Barnard College political science professor Dennis Dalton stands in front of a packed lecture hall with one hand in the pocket of his jeans and one hand holding a tattered copy of John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography. “Would the fulfillment of all of his intellectual goals give him joy?” Dalton asks in a whispery tone.

“Would he be able to feel satisfied with his life despite this failure of the imagination?” he asks slightly louder.

“The answer is an irrepressible no!” he concludes, practically shouting. Now quoting Mill himself: ” ‘The habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings.’ ”

“He read poetry,” Dalton bellowed. “And for the first time, he cried.”

In the last row of seats, a young black student with headphones around his neck leans down close to his notebook and writes an Onyx lyric (“Rip my heart from my chest/Put it right into a rhyme”). To his left, a blonde’s Gucci sunglasses jerk along with her head as she falls asleep. And across the aisle a light-skinned black man with bright silver hair presses Record on a bulky tape player made before most of the students packing the hall were born.

His name is Ben Armstead, and though he is not a Columbia student, nor ever was, he has been attending this same class for almost 10 years.

Armstead, an entrepreneurial bibliophile in his sixties, started a moving business back in 1996, when he realized he could make quick money lugging Columbia students’ furniture up and down dormitory stairs. Ever gregarious, he asked a sweet-faced coed who her favorite professor was and she told him about Dalton. Equipped with dog-eared copies of Plato and Marx, Armstead started attending his lectures. He started bringing friends to come hear, as Armstead put it, “this white guy talking about Malcolm like he was a hero!” At this point, over a dozen Harlem residents of all different professions and educational backgrounds have attended the political theory course at Armstead’s recommendation.

With his trademark Indian hemp shirts and ratty tennis shoes, Dalton’s neo-hippy aesthetic stands out among his tweedy colleagues. And if his appearance is unusual, his pedagogical approach is downright shocking. Not only do his office hours often go into the wee hours of the night, but he also gives all of his 300-plus students his home phone number. And of course, he welcomes residents from the surrounding community with open arms, regardless of the administration’s policy: that auditors apply and pay $1,000 plus facilities fees per semester. There is also the “lifelong learner” program that allows anyone over 65 to attend class for $400 per semester, but even that defines auditors as only “silent participants in class,” according to the school’s website.

Kate Levitt, a recent Barnard alum, said that she never noticed Armstead or his crew but that “they shouldn’t have to pay even the smallest fraction of the exorbitant fees Columbia charges students to simply learn. The education system in this country is already exclusive enough.” Most Ivies don’t make it much easier than Columbia for community members to join classes, though Princeton is the most generous, with a small $100 fee.

Herman Smalls, a Harlem resident in his thirties with his own public-access fitness show, glows when he recounts, “Dalton always talks about finding your arete, what you are really great at.” It might feel strange for a 6-foot-tall physical trainer to use a word like “arete,” but Smalls slips it in naturally. “Dalton trains people’s minds,” he went on. “My arete is to train people’s bodies.”

Dalton has been Smalls’s first real taste of higher education—having never gone further than a high school diploma—and he speaks about the experience with an almost religious reverence. Smalls remembers, “There is some quote in the Bible, something like, ‘Everyone will hear the word.’ Dalton’s class is like that. He thinks, ‘You will not leave here without knowing that you have a responsibility to the world. You can ignore it, but you can’t say you didn’t know it was there.’ ”

Many of the Harlem residents speak about Dalton with a similar zeal. It is as if they hunger for “the word” and have found it in the strangest of places. Columbia has established a reputation for ignoring the Harlem community. Smalls still remembers when Columbia built on the site of the former Audubon Theater (on Broadway between 165th and 166th streets), where Malcolm X was assassinated, despite a strong grassroots movement among Harlem residents to keep it as a site of historical significance. His eyes drop as he explains, “For better or worse, Columbia is an Ivy League school. Does it reinforce white supremacy?” He doesn’t answer his own question, turning instead to his mug of herbal tea.

Armstead, on the other hand, does not shy away from a race/class analysis: “As far as I’m concerned, Columbia is a community college. I tell people from Harlem, ‘Look, this is our campus.’ We’re just leveling the playing field.”

Some of Armstead’s disciples from the Harlem community have not shared his exuberance for Columbia: “One guy I brought, who was raised in the Nation of Islam, nice guy, looks just like Muhammad Ali, he didn’t like it. He said, ‘Naw, ain’t nothin’ a white man can tell me.’ I mean he is hustling leather coats, making money, but his mind isn’t growing. I try to tell him, ‘This is the information that the people around the world have and we could get it.’ ”

Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence is at the core of the way Dalton teaches and lives. Over the years, he has welcomed students to challenge his absolutist belief that violence is unjust in all circumstances, and many have, but he has never changed his mind. His Malcolm X lecture, for example, presents Malcolm’s death as a great tragedy insofar as his burgeoning commitment to nonviolence was cut short, causing many to only remember his days as a more militant follower of Elijah Muhammad. Armstead feels that Dalton’s got Elijah Muhammad “all wrong.” They have discussed the topic every spring—when Malcolm comes up in the syllabus—for the last eight years, but remain at a respectful standstill.

Armstead raises his salt-and-pepper eyebrows high and explains: “The problem is that black men don’t have a chance to mature . . . they die and they die and they die. Being a black man is terrible, mostly because the white community has a continuous culture that it propagates without listening. But Dalton . . . Dalton is in the crack in the world.”