In the January-February issue of Utne Reader, there’s an article about “The People’s Professor.” He’s Dennis Dalton, a political science professor at Barnard College, the all-women’s school at Columbia University. He’s called that because he began encouraging people from Harlem, where Columbia is located, to attend his classes for no charge. The article goes into some detail about the man, his love for his students, and his passion for his teaching. I like what he says: “We don’t need more intelligence. God knows we’ve got enough on this campus. What we need is more compassion.”
Referring to the political theorist Hannah Arendt, Dalton says that she “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.”
I remember a guy who was a senior when I was a freshman at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. (I transferred to Middle Tennessee State University the next year.) He was an Art major, and when he would get the usual question, “what can you do with that major?” he had a great reply. “I can get a job as a janitor anyplace I want!” He was one of the happiest people I’ve ever met.
I’ve often thought about the reasons people give for going to college, or more precisely, the reasons we’re given to seek higher education. Too often, what it boils down to is making more money. Most of the commercials on TV focus on technology and getting a good job. I’m not diminishing the need to study math and science, but there should be some balance. Not so long ago, the liberal arts—the humanities—were valued, not as a ticket to a wealthy career, but as ends in themselves. What’s wrong with learning to become a better person? To expand one’s horizons? Maybe even to learn how to care a little bit more!