“For me one of the Declaration’s great lessons and spiritual qualities is this amazing conviction it has in the intellectual capacity of ordinary human beings,” says Danielle Allen, professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., in reference to a course on the Declaration of Independence that she taught for many years at the University of Chicago. “The teaching experience confirmed that. It didn’t matter the background from which the students started. We all have beating hearts and lively minds.”
Allen is the author of the recently published Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton/Liveright, June). Beginning in 2000 at the University of Chicago, Allen, a political philosopher, taught elite University of Chicago students during the day and at night taught low-income students—older, African American, working students, who were sometimes unemployed, and many with children—in a series of classes called the Odyssey Project.
A collaboration between the University of Chicago and the Illinois Humanities Council, the Odyssey Project was based on The Clemente Courses, a program founded by educator Earl Shorris, a University of Chicago graduate from the 1960s, who believed that having access to and engaging with great works of literature and history was the way out of poverty for minority students. “They were trying to get these classes started. I was a new-comer to the University of Chicago and my immediate reaction was that this is exactly the kind of class I have always wanted to teach,” Allen said during a Skype interview with PW from Princeton.
During her time teaching these classes at the University of Chicago, Allen and her students wrestled with the language and the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, probing and responding to the document. It was an intellectual experience that differed for each separate set of students. The daytime “formal” University of Chicago students “were kids that had gotten good grades all the way through and wanted a good grade now.” But the students in the night class “took you back to the idea of texts for the sake of texts,” Allen said. While the daytime students also had “intellectual curiousity,” Allen said the night students viewed the Declaration of Independence more personally, as if they were a series of “messages from the dead about life. Some of the dead we don’t like, and some of them we do.”
Both sets of students found their own way to the meaning of the Declaration, she says, but the poor and working students from the South Side of Chicago grasped that the Declaration offered “things that people had to say about how they worked their way through life. The adult students really got that.” Allen’s ability to bring the vivid history of the creation of the Declaration of Independence to life for these students—no less than their process of engaging and, ultimately, claiming the Declaration as their own—is how this book was developed.
Allen uses Our Declaration to recount the lives and contributions the founding fathers; the book also brings John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee to life as people and political visionaries. But the book is really about the language of the Declaration of Independence; how the founding fathers’ linguistic precision and eloquence combined to inspire and propel the early American polity to liberty. Allen, in conversation with her students, makes the document, with its clarity and sense of collective national embrace, come alive. Her methodical examination of the Declaration’s text—always rich in historical context and with careful attention to the founders’ political design—is best captured in her discussion of the phrase “Separate and Equal,” encountered in the Declaration’s opening sentence.
Allen explains how a student named Terry in the night class quickly connected the original term with its insidious modern version—Separate BUT Equal, a notorious 1950’s segregationist justification for Jim Crow. The original phrase clearly expressed the Colonists’ intention to “stand as separate and equal to other powers of the earth,” Allen writes in her book, and declared the colonists free of British domination. But, the passage continues, “the phrase ‘separate but equal,’ was used to do work exactly opposite of that done by the Declaration: not to raise a people to sovereign status but to keep many people subjected and dependent.” Terry, Allen says, called this “the most important moment in the class.”
“The discovery, specifically that the phrase Terry had known for a long time, ‘separate but equal’ had this eerie precursor,” provided an intellectual spark in the class, Allen says. “So much of Terry’s intellectual awareness just clicked at that moment. We have all had these moments of awakening about how important language is in this country. Terry made me realize that this class had such a profound impact on how I thought about democracy that I wanted to record and capture what that experience had been. She inspired the book.”
Born in Maryland, Allen grew in Claremont, California, went to a private elementary school and a public High school. She’s a former athlete (volley ball and track) and former sports nut (“Raider’s Fan, I wanted to be a wide receiver”). She also has an imposing academic background—a PhD in Classics, ancient history and ancient texts, combined with a PhD in political science—that provides the intellectual tools for her lively textual exegesis. She is the author of Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006) a work, she says, that provides “context” for the new book. The earlier book outlines how important it is, “to be a heck of a lot better as citizens at building connections across the variety of social difference: race, religion, socio-economic status and so forth.”
Still, the Declaration of Independence is from another time, written with a reverence for language and a need for careful attentive reading. In an era dominated by the constantly morphing nature of pop culture and inventive slang that can push language to the point where words seem to mean whatever we want them to mean, can Allen’s classroom experience—wrestling sentence by sentence with a classic text—actually illuminate the political lives of ordinary people?
Allen laughs at the question and points to the slow food movement, another effort to slow down the pace of contemporary life in order to better savor and understand the rich texture of our cultural experience. “It is an appeal for a slow reading movement,” she said laughing, adding that “it matters what words you pick, it matters what relationships you establish between things.” She says, “Yes, I think the general dynamics of our culture work against slow reading at the moment. But it doesn’t take anything more than a single individual or even a group that just wants to say, let’s hold hands and take the time to go through this together.”
Allen says the challenge for her was to bring the Declaration of Independence alive for a group of students who often don’t see themselves or their lives reflected in this key document—at least not at first. “The Declaration also leaves the whole slavery question out of it in a very big and awkward way,” but, she adds, “one of the amazing things about the document is that it is genuinely polyphonic—there are many voices flowing through it.”
“We tend to want to say about the founding generation that they said this or they said that, but actually the most important thing is that they said a whole bunch of things and they weren’t all coherent or consistent with each other. Yet with that polyphony inside of it, they managed to forge a political entity.”