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Professor Dennis Dalton, Barnard College: Living an “Examined” Life

By Joy Resmovits

Within the ranks of Columbia University’s renowned faculty, it is a rarity to stumble upon an educator who has been teaching the same course for 38 years. It is also not commonplace to find a professor as interested in his students as his subject material.

Professor Dennis Dalton is an anomaly within Barnard College’s cloistered campus. He has been teaching Political Theory I and II—courses on political thinkers ranging from Plato and Machiavelli to Hitler and Gandhi—to generations of students since his arrival in 1969. What is most remarkable about Dalton, however, is the way in which his teaching reflects and shapes his own life.

Dalton said that he considers himself “lucky” to have found a job as rewarding as teaching in Barnard. In Political Theory I, a major lesson is the concept of arête, one’s special gift or calling, as elucidated in Plato’s The Republic. “When one is searching for a job … one should strive to find not merely what we call a job or even contemplate a career, but seek a calling,” Dalton said. “A calling comes about when you find your arête.”

But Dalton’s own arête was unclear to him as a high school student in Morristown, New Jersey’s public school system.

 “I had had a public high school experience in Morristown that was … gruesome,” Dalton said. “I felt that I often didn’t fit in … I didn’t have the excellence of education that I should have had to prepare me for college. When I arrived in college I was not sure what I would do.”

In 1956, Dalton entered Rutgers University, where he encountered role models that helped him demystify his arête. “Those role models, as it happened, were in political theory,” Dalton said. “When I would get out of a lecture my thoughts would be on the theory but equally they would be on myself in thinking I really wanted to do that.” He said political theory “uplifted” him most because “it spoke to the question: what course of life is best?”

After graduating Rutgers with a degree in political science, Dalton enrolled in a Masters program at the University of Chicago. He was especially interested in studying Gandhi because of his influence on Henry Thoreau’s work and theories of nonviolence, a major tenet of Dalton’s work. Through UChicago, Dalton enrolled in an exchange program in Nepal and India.

Dalton’s arête, in this case, lead him to more than his vocational calling. “I found in India not only the particular aspect of political theory … but I also found my life partner,” Dalton said. He met his wife, Sharon, an Idaho native whose cooking he raves about in class.

When Dalton attained his masters degree in Indian Studies, he matriculated in University of London to get his PhD because “they had the best on Gandhi.” Dalton spent his last year in London teaching a pilot Political Theory course to graduate students. In addition to teaching, Dalton has contributed to and edited numerous publications, as well as writing Indian Idea of Freedom, and Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action.

Dalton found his dream job teaching undergraduate students at Barnard, where he received tenure after only two years, as opposed to the standard seven-year tenure track. “People ask me over and again why I’ve been teaching the same class from 1969 until now … The feedback I get from the students makes it impossible to get bored,” Dalton said.

Once when Dalton was sick, he tried to record a lecture to an empty room. “I couldn’t get into it,” Dalton said. “The interaction between the teacher and the students explains the source of my own inspiration,” he added. He said he uses the expressions in the eyes of his students to gauge the effectiveness of his lectures. “You can tell so much about how far you’re reaching into a person by looking into their eyes.”

Despite Dalton’s profound mastery of the subject matter, he makes it a top priority to be accessible to all of his students—by putting his home address, home phone number, and e-mail on the cover page of the course packets. “The best teachers are high school teachers because … they’ve got accessibility plus command of the subject and they don’t have this pretentiousness [of professors.]”

Emulating his Rutgers professors, Dalton extends himself as a role model outside the classroom. In response to sexual violence, Dalton organized Columbia Men Against Violence, the male counterpart to Take Back the Night. After a series of suicides in 2000, including one of his students, Dalton organized Students Against Silence, a support group for students. “When I spoke about it, I still remember, there were students in the class who were sobbing,” Dalton said.

During one of his sabbaticals, Dalton went to Nepal on a Senior Fulbright Scholarship to teach kindergarten. “Their minds are like sponges. When I look into their eyes, wide eyes, it’s the essence of teaching,” Dalton said.

Although Dalton plans to retire from Barnard after the 2007-2008 academic year, his role as a leader and educator is far from its nadir. He hopes to teach a modified version of Political Theory to high school students in Manhattan and spend time with his grandchildren. “I didn’t anticipate that the grandchildren would have anything like the impact they’ve had on me,” he said.

Dalton may have much to be hubristic about—but he makes sure to preach and practice Socrates’ grand maxim: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”#



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