Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Danielle Allen on equality, education and the Declaration of Independence

As we enter the hall for Danielle Allen’s W. Allison Davis and John A. Davis lecture, the launch event for the dedication of the Davis Center, Williams College’s new multicultural center, ushers pass out copies of the text of the Declaration of Independence.

Allen is a political philosopher and theorist best known for her scholarship on ancient Greek political philosophy, but her work often connects to contemporary politics and power. Her lecture, titled “Education and Equality”, focuses on “participatory readiness”, preparation to participate in the political life of a democracy. The Davis lecture honors scholars focused on race, social justice and education in the United States, and Allen is well qualified on all fronts, as someone who’s written on a broad range of topics in classics, politics, education and studies of race.

Allen notes her connection to the Davis brothers: when she was a dean at the University of Chicago, she was asked to help design a garden in honor of W. Allison Davis, the first tenured African American faculty member at the University. She quotes Davis’s scholarship on interculturalism, and notes that Davis used language as a metaphor, suggesting we need to learn each other’s language, not assimilate into a single monoculture. The garden was a space Davis passed through each day, walking from a historically black neighborhood into the space of the University.

Her new book focuses on the Declaration of Independence – hence our handout – and she notes that in the October 6, 2012 presidential debate, President Obama and Governor Romney stood in front of text of the declaration. Romney quoted, in part, from the second sentence on the declaration, drawing out points about liberty and limited government. Allen notes that this sentence focuses on equality, and Romney didn’t mention it, nor did anyone in the media.

Allen suggests we’ve lost track of our ability to read the Declaration of Independence, and of the demands the document puts upon us. She points us to the first sentence: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

Equality comes up in the first sentence, not just in the famous second sentence. This sentence gives us a helpful framing of equality – the equality of nations, allowing the new nation to claim equality of status with Britain, France and other states. The authors wanted freedom from the uncertainty that comes from domination from another individual or entity: our first freedom is a freedom from domination. She skips over the second – “We hold these truths to be self evident”, for the moment, and brings us onto a long list of grievances.

These grievances were generated through a form of crowdsourcing – in Massachusetts and Georgia, communities came together in fields, led by organizers in the Saul Alinsky tradition, and listed their grievances with the king. Those grievances came together in Philadelphia, in the hands of the legal experts who framed the document, but the grievances are a product of “epistemic egalitarianism”, the idea that everyone, everywhere has something to contribute to knowledge, based on where we are and what we experience. The Declaration’s central portion is a product of this epistemic egalitarianism, an opportunity for everyone to contribute to a picture of grievance and injustice.

She points us to a section near the end of the document: “Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” The structure of this sentence is egalitarian – two clauses that balance one another. The complaint of the colonists deserves a reasonable and equal response, and it’s not receiving it. A basic, human element of reciprocity is missing. Reciprocal relationships like friendship include both the emotional connection and the habits of friendship. As humans, we can detach the two, and engage in the habits of friendship even if we lack the emotional content. We honor these norms of reciprocity so we can interact in society.

The final mention of equality appears with “we mutually pledge…” This last sentence invokes co-creation or co-ownership. These men, representing themselves and their colonies, commit to building a new world together. This communitarian shift commits resources to this shared world.

With these four ideas about equality, we can reconsider a sentence that begins, “we hold these truths to be self-evident”. Allen believes we don’t read the Declaration for insight on equality because we dismiss the idea of self-evidence, or the notion that “all men are created equal”, which seems too simple, and easily disproven. She unpacks these phrases for us. A logical argument that takes the form of a syllogism leads us to a conclusion that is self-evident. Allen offers us Socratic logic:

Bill Gates is a human being
All human beings are mortal
Logically, it follows, Bill Gates is mortal.

The three phrases that follow in this three part sentence are the arguments within a syllogism. The first phrase introduces the idea that men are equal in terms of being rights bearers. In the second phrase, there’s a low-level claim that people, over and over again, produce governments in the hopes of securing these rights. The final phrase notes that when a government is destructive to these ends, we need to seek another form of government. When Mitt Romney used this sentence to challenge the role of government, he was missing the point that this sentence is about the power and importance of government, and the need for a whole polity to have access to that tool.

The Declaration, therefore, gives us these egalitarian goals: non-domination, reciprocity and co-creation. And it offers these three tools: government, epistemic egalitarianism and the practices of citizenship.

How does this connect to education? If we’re going to be participants in the democratic policy, we need basic economic capability to avoid domination. We need understanding of the human norms we need to achieve the egalitarian norm of reciprocity. And we need to know how to participate as owners of our shared culture and world to participate in co-creation. But Allen’s talk focuses on the need to prepare for the practice of citizenship.

Allen quotes from W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk: “This, then, is the end of [the Negro's] striving; to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius”. To be this coworker, students need to prepare to earn, to interact and to take ownership.

She shows us information on the “civic empowerment” gap – the difference in voting rates between high school and college graduates. How do we ensure that everyone has the ownership of political agency at age 18 that college graduates appear to develop through higher education? There’s a stark class divide in how we are preparing young people for civic participation.

How would we work on empowering people? Allen suggests we start by preparing high school students to register and to vote. North Carolina now requires every public high school to make voter registration available – it’s the only state to do so. It seems to be having an effect on participation rates. We ask college students to vote, and we need to start asking high school students to do so as well.

What would systematic high school voter registration mean for the curriculum? Allen closes with this question, and a quiet suggestion that it seems like this would be a useful, simple step towards empowerment.

A student asks whether restrictions on the age that people can serve as senators or representatives leads to lack of participation. Allen notes that the average age of US senators has crept up from 45 to 65, and may well be connected to a divide between youth and the political process.

Allen is asked about correlations between socioeconomic status and voting – there’s a strong correlation aside from the educational correlation. But she notes that people need to be asked to vote, and that this is an issue with groups marginalized by socioeconomic and educational status.

A student wonders whether there’s a downside to increased participation, suggesting that the founding fathers didn’t want widespread participation, but only participation from educated elites. Allen explains that this isn’t a worry of hers – egalitarian epistemology suggests that everyone has space to participate. And while levels of education can be unequal, participation in the democratic process tends to lead to a common level of civic education.

Another student points out that a high school education doesn’t necessarily educate you to participate in politics. Can we safely assume that people will educate themselves on who they should vote for? Allen suggests that asking people to vote will lead to other changes. It won’t be a complete effect – we need to reconsider our civic curriculum and the broader sphere of education.

Allen notes that when she was teaching at Chicago, she taught two groups of students, elite students and adult students trying to re-enter education. Roughly half the elite students had read the Declaration, and none of the adult students had. If there was a second suggestion beyond helping high school students to vote, it would be getting them to read the Declaration and the Constitution.

A question about social media leads Allen to mention a group she works with, the Youth and Participatory Politics Network, which is studying the ways in which participatory culture and self expression lead to learning this process of political co-creation. This might be another path towards education in civic participation.

Another question leads Allen to address Robert Putnam’s famous book, Bowling Alone. She suggests that the book is built around a single graph, a graph showing the decline in membership in 32 face to face organizations. Allen points out that 27 of those organizations were single-sex, and the Supreme Court ordered the opening of these organizations. “That’s what ended these organizations,” Allen tells us, not a lack of civic capability within American society. The decision that these clubs needed to be made more egalitarian, allowing the distribution of social capital, was a legal decision that preceded a great deal of sociological theory.

The decision suggests that we don’t know how to share social capital in an egalitarian fashion. The Supreme Court declared that these exclusive institutions weren’t fair… but they didn’t offer us a novel “art of association”. We need to figure out what reciprocity is, and how young people learn it. Allen notes that young people are asking these questions about how we interact with one another, which makes her hopeful that we may start answering these questions. And she points out that last year was the first year that new births were majority minority… which gives us 18 years to figure out how to work on these decisions around reciprocity and social obligation.

Why “art of association”? The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Americans had perfected the science and art of association, and that the art of association was an explicitly egalitarian art. Aristocrats need money and people to boss around, and they can make things happen. But in America, it took an egalitarian capacity to collaborate to get things done. We had our breakthrough in the science of understanding when Sandra Day O’Connor broke associations like the Jaycees, but we’ve yet to learn the art of association.

A questioner wonders whether civic education is possible in the age of No Child Left Behind and testing. Allen suggests we need to consider “linguistic empowerment”. This puts her in favor of language arts parts of reform issues. But she suggests that it’s extremely hard to teach civics without triggering the culture wars – we can achieve agreement on standards in language, arts and maths, but we argue too often to be able to meaningfully teach civics.

Nura Dualeh, former director of the Multicultural Center, asks about the connection between the Occupy movement and the breakdown in civic engagement. There are powerful people who don’t want to see people finding ways to assert their civic power. Allen agrees that it was refreshing to see Occupy, and notes that Occupy was engaging in a symbolic intervention, not a legislative one. That intervention counts, or we hope it does. (Allen and I are undertaking some research to test this question.) It’s important to note that Occupy explicitly dealt in the realm of symbolic intervention and it needs to be considered on those terms.

A final question asks whether in North Carolina, where schools are required to allow registration to vote, whether programs like this could lead to political indoctrination by the governing party. Allen tells us she’s happy to take the risk that we can do it right over the fear that we will do it wrong.


I have the pleasure of working with Professor Allen as part of a MacArthur Foundation research network, Youth and Participatory Politics. She, I and others have been wrestling with tough conceptual questions, like how to understand the impact and importance of content creation as a political act, a question that’s critical for understanding movements like Occupy that focused on changing dialog, not on passing laws. So it’s fascinating to hear her talk about suggestions as simple and practical as encouraging voting within high schools.

But shortly after she introduced her intervention, she noted the challenges of offering civic education – in our current, polarized political climate, it’s hard to imagine any agreement on a single standard for teaching civics. And it’s not hard for me to imagine opposition to efforts to register high school students to vote on similar grounds as objections to the “motor voter” efforts – that these efforts enroll more Democratic than Republican voters, and that we don’t want voting to be too easy, or voting won’t be a carefully considered decision.

Allen admitted she was somewhat embarrassed when she realized what a simple idea this intervention was, and that she’d not heard about it previously. I find myself embarrassed in a different direction. I’ve been thinking about the challenge of teaching civics at the college level, wondering whether there’s a way to make somewhat dry material more interesting by positing a digital civics that includes not just understanding executive, legislative and judicial power, but media and citizen power, as enabled by digital media. But I’d not engaged with the question of whether it’s possible to teach civics without stepping into “the culture wars”. By engaging with high school, a community where it’s likely more vital to teach civics, Allen is taking on a much harder challenge, both in terms of helping students connect with the material and in the potential political backlash from the efforts. Glad she’s addressing those challenges, and forcing me to think through those issues.

2 Responses to “Danielle Allen on equality, education and the Declaration of Independence”

  1. Sevesteen says:

    When I was in high school, a civics teacher was running for office. One of the classroom extra-credit assignments was to volunteer for a campaign. It didn’t have to be for HIS campaign of course…but I don’t think anyone worked for any other campaign. Students were often pressured to help pass school levies. Both of these things are a conflict of interest. This sounds like the same sort of thing–teach kids the ‘right’ way to vote and get them registered and to the polls.

    Getting registered is not hard, even without motor-voter type programs. We don’t need more politically ignorant or apathetic people voting, unless we want physical appearance and an easy to pronounce name to be key factors. This week a custodian asked me if I was voting, and for who. That lead to a conversation about libertarianism. She was entirely unable to grasp the concept, and appeared to be unclear on conservative and liberal

    Pushing registration at the license bureau is at least somewhat neutral–but pushing it at government aid offices is clearly partisan. Why not push registration with tax forms?

  2. quixote says:

    My initial reaction was also to think “do we really want more ignorant people, even young ones, participating”?

    But then I thought about the recent research showing that more educated people tend to suffer more from confirmation bias than less educated. (E.g. here.) So intelligence, at the level of populations, won’t be much help.

    And the “wisdom of crowds” research shows that large groups generally came up with better answers than individuals, so long as the people in the crowds had fairly equal information and were not influenced by others.

    I think that last points to the real problem. It’s not ignorance, but directed ignorance. More voters is always better, including high schoolers and custodians, especially if we could put the brakes on manipulation.

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