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Courtney Martin in Utne Reader writes about Dennis Dalton, a political science professor at Barnard College who opens his class up to the residents of the Harlem neighborhood in which the school is located:

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.

This article has me reeling. I spend my day as a social scientist trying to get people (mostly young people) to wrestle with social issues, to reflect on why they occur and to consider how we might address them. But we do these things within the confines of these tightly consigned boxes. New technology allows us to expand beyond these boxes to bring images and ideas to our students, but even then, their presentation is tightly controlled and structured.

We can bring students the reality of the world “out there” via service learning or study abroad, but the institution remains untouched. We send our students out to gain information about humanity and bring it back to spaces that we tightly control for the purposes of organized, structured learning. They and we are better off for the study abroad experience, but why should we stop there.  A real engagement with the world “out there” requires students to experience it where they live.  I think Martin is on to something when she says writes:

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.

There may be practical reasons for why universities don’t just let anyone enter their campuses to take courses (fear of lawsuit, monetary incentives). But as long as universities see themselves as distinct entities from the publics they serve, they will only partially fulfill their mission.  And I’ll have students looking at their watches when it’s five minutes ’till.