An evening with Danielle Allen
Harvard University professor. Political theorist. Classicist. Author. Director of a center for ethics. Scholar on democracy, ancient Athenian and modern.
By Jacki Levine
Featured image above: Photographed here for a 2016 profile for Harvard Magazine, Danielle Allen is currently on leave from Harvard as she pursues the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts. Her book, Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus, is due out in December.
Danielle Allen’s head-turning list of titles evokes a woman of deep scholarly thought and achievement — and more than a little acclaim:
MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner at age 29. 2020 winner of the John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity, the field’s highest honor.
And now, as of June, this: Candidate for governor of Massachusetts.
But there’s a title missing from this weighty list, and it’s the one Danielle Allen will tell you animates and drives all the others:
“For me, scholarship on democracy has always been an assist to my role as a citizen of a democracy,” says the author of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.
“My citizen role comes first, but I believe one of the beautiful things about democracy is that it’s an invitation to all of us to engage intellectually in thinking about the future of our communities,” Allen says. “So in that regard, for me being a scholar of democracy, that is just an extension of being a citizen. ….because I so deeply believe in the importance of participation in democracy. ”
Allen is responding to the inevitable question about her decision to run for governor of her state, careful, for this interview, to steer clear of politics. But she could just as easily be talking about the driving passion of her work – promoting civic education and participation, not just in theory, but with step-by-step advice, and with a plan to make it happen.
That combination of rigorous scholarship delivered with down-to-earth, put-it-to-use pragmatism will be on display during the free virtual event, “Our Declaration: An Evening with Danielle Allen,” on Thursday, September 30, at 7 p.m. EST, through Zoom and Facebook Live. Sponsored by Florida Humanities and The Village Square, with funding from a grant from the Mellon Foundation, it will kick off a series of ongoing collaborative programming by The Village Square and Florida Humanities.
“I’m looking forward to having a dialogue with Professor Allen on her perspective about how the American social contract has withstood the pandemic,” says Florida Humanities’ Executive Director Nashid Madyun, who will interview Allen after her talk, including questions by The Village Square and online attendees. “The government has responsibilities and the citizens have responsibilities and how do we reconcile that in the world we live in today?”
That very question is woven into Allen’s work, which calls for a more engaged citizenship and offers a toolkit of sorts for achieving it — not only what we as individuals can learn from history, but how we can, must, use it.
“She loves America as much as any grand and soaring ballad of our traditions, but doesn’t flinch when that love requires us to face the hardest of truths about where we have failed,” says Liz Joyner, president and founder of The Village Square.
“She’s part democracy’s orator and part its master mechanic,” adds Joyner. “We’re going to need both of those skills to get to the other side of our crisis of faith in democracy.”
Allen’s writings have tackled everything from punishment in the world of ancient Athens to the role of education in battling inequality. Her book, Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus, out in December, offers an analysis of our government’s response to the pandemic — and our own. As director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Allen led a collaboration of scientists and researchers to develop Key Metrics For COVID Suppression. (She is currently on leave from Harvard during her campaign.)
Our Declaration: An Evening with Danielle Allen
Free Virtual Event
Thursday, Sept 30, at 7 p.m. EST
Sponsored by Florida Humanities and The Village Square, with funding from a grant from the Mellon Foundation. For more information on this and other upcoming events cosponsored by Florida Humanities and The Village Square, click below.
And through the Center for Ethics, Allen directs the Democratic Knowledge Project, which promotes civic and ethics education by creating curriculum and other resources for public schools, universities, and for lifelong learning, by supporting faculty projects, and a number of other initiatives.
The home page of its website offers the key to its rationale:
“Why We’re Here, Fewer than 30 percent of people under the age of 40 consider it essential to live in a democracy, compared to 70 percent for generations born before World War II.”
After the Massachusetts legislature passed education reform in 2018, the DKP collaborated with the Cambridge school district to design a year-long course for 8th-graders on civic engagement in democracy. The program has grown to include 15 state school districts.
As part of the Kluge Prize from the Library of Congress, Allen has also been working with the library on her initiative “Our Common Purpose — A Campaign for Civic Strength at the Library of Congress” to promote civic engagement — our common purpose — by engaging schools, universities, political leaders, and the American public.
Allen’s mix of deep scholarly research coupled with a prescription for action may be unusual, but perhaps not unexpected.
“I’m from a family that has always been committed to participation and to the power and value of democracy to improve people’s lives,” Allen says.
Her mother, Susan, is a librarian; her father, William, born in Fernandina Beach, is a renowned professor of political philosophy, who served on the faculty of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, where Danielle Allen grew up, at Michigan State University, and is an emeritus dean at James Madison College. He was also chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and member of the National Council on the Humanities.
“So on both sides of my family, my great-grandmother was president of the League of Women Voters in Michigan, and I had a grandad who helped found one of the first NAACP chapters in northern Florida and was an advocate for voting rights. And my dad and my aunt both ran for office, so I grew up in a community of people who were steeped in a belief that the empowerment that democracy brings is the path to human well being.”
And then, in college “I wandered into a class on Athenian democracy by one of the best teachers I ever had, and I just fell in love with this study of democracy.”
Reaching beyond the walls of academia toward a life of civic engagement has been a constant for Allen from the beginning of her academic journey.
As a young professor at the University of Chicago, she taught a night class for low-income adults in the community through the Odyssey project, sponsored by Illinois Humanities.
She describes the experience as eye-opening and “miraculous,” and most certainly as life-changing for her as it was for her students.
In fact, you might think of those night-school students when you pick up Allen’s acclaimed 2014 to me on the Declaration of Independence, in which she carefully holds our revered founding document up to the light, analyzing it semantically, in a historical context, and in the ways it can be understood today. Without those Chicago students, the book may not have been written, and Allen’s own work may have taken a different course.
“The goal of the class,” remembers Allen, “was to ensure that those low-income students, who had perhaps fallen out of an educational pathway, would have the opportunity to reconnect with the same quality of education available to them as students in the most elite schools, like the University of Chicago.”
But how to deliver the same high standard to students grappling with issues of childcare, jobs, transportation, and without the same educational background as the university students “was a conundrum,” says Allen.
“The solution… was to insist on teaching texts of the highest caliber — but teach short, short texts. So I picked the Declaration of Independence as my teaching text because it was short, literally. I could use it for history, I could use it for philosophy, I could use it for writing and rhetoric, but above all it was only 1,337 words.
“And then I had this just sort of miraculous experience of discovering how powerfully my students reacted to the text. This was very eye-opening because it was this recognition that my low-income night students were people who were trying to change their lives and so the Declaration spoke to them, because the Declaration was written by people who were trying to change their lives.
“And there was just this powerful and human-to-human connection around that drive that human beings have to make tomorrow better than yesterday,” she says.
And in that Chicago classroom, the scholar found something rare and worth keeping.
“Well, that just stayed with me ever since, that just has been my permanent companion, my thinking tool, my touchstone, my reference place for understanding democracy,” she says.
How to be a civic agent: Some tips by Danielle Allen
You talk about the importance of civic agency and describe three types of civic agents in the digital age: engaged citizens, activists, and politicians. How can those of us who may not aspire to be politicians, or even activists, become more engaged citizens?
I think there are starting points: Know what matters to you and why.
What are your anchor values? How can you make sure that when you think about those values you’re thinking about a big “we” that includes all of us.
- Hear other people’s values. Listen to them, let them tell you what they care about and then see where you can find points of connection.
- I think in order for us to do our work as citizens, we actually start by stepping away from politics and reminding ourselves of who we are as human beings, what anchors us as human beings, and where we can see points of connection to one another, right in this day.
- We need to build those human connections in order to step into the space of doing problem solving together, and when we face the decisions that affect our communities – whether those are municipal-level policymaking or state-level or federal-level policymaking. To succeed as an engaged citizen, you’ve got to step back and reestablish human connection to the other human beings around you.
- Step away from the ruleless spaces of social media and step into spaces where we structure our interactions with each other in order to bring focus to the quality of our relationship.
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