In the opening of her book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, Danielle Allen describes her experience as a professor at the University of Chicago teaching the same texts—great books from Plato to Toni Morrison—to two quite different groups of students: by day, some of the nation’s most elite undergraduate students, and by night, adult students struggling to balance work and education.1 Despite marked disparities in academic preparation and economic and social class, the result was the same in both groups. “Through reading [the words of the Declaration] slowly we came into our inheritance: an understanding of freedom and equality and the value of finding the right words.”2 Indeed, Allen, a classicist and political scientist, makes a case for liberal education as indispensable to equality. She writes, “The achievement of political equality requires, among other things, the empowerment of human beings as language-using creatures.”3
The argument put forth by Allen, who has spoken and written eloquently on issues of race and education, is intriguing because it turns on its head the standard egalitarian objection to liberal education: that it is elitist and aristocratic. The familiar response is often defensive and negative, arguing that liberal education need not be elitist. Allen, by contrast, makes a compelling case for a certain kind of liberal education making a direct contribution to equality. She focuses on the role of liberal education in supplying a vocabulary adequate to one’s experience and to the capacity of each individual to make a case for a vision of what constitutes a just life together. Her argument calls to mind Frederick Douglass’s great statement about the connection between education and equality in his Narrative of a Life.
In that book, Douglass describes being moved, as a slave, from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Baltimore, where he lives with a family. The wife, whom Douglass depicts as initially exhibiting toward him the “kindest heart and finest feelings,” begins teaching him how to read. The lessons are cut short by the husband, who insists that a slave “should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning… would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable…. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”4 Douglass discovers, in the reasoning behind the prohibition, a liberating insight, a “special revelation” as he terms it, concerning the “white man’s power to enslave the black man.” The reason for the cancellation of his lessons reveals to him the incompatibility of “education and slavery.”5 Slavery is so contrary to nature that
to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.6
Arendt detects a paradox regarding equality in the arena of education. In the world of politics, we act among adults as equals, but education presupposes a certain inequality between the teachers and those who are taught.24 For the child, Arendt writes, the teacher “assumes responsibility for the world” and serves as “a representative of all adult inhabitants, pointing out the details and saying to the child: This is our world.”25 Yet the tendency in a democracy is to “equalize all things and persons and thus to erase the difference between young and old,… particularly between pupils and teachers.”26 For Arendt, this becomes a misplaced and dangerous application of the teaching of the Declaration regarding natural equality. To better understand this notion we need to see a bit more clearly what Arendt means by education. “Education,” she writes,
is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, not to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.27
This passage packs a lot, not the least of which is Arendt’s disdain for the pedagogical policy that seems like liberation to some—namely, leaving children on their own and unequipped to discern for themselves the difference between the enduring and the evanescent. Instead of allowing students to envision and create something new, it leaves them void of resources on which to build their lives and on which to base a shared public life. Leaving youth to their own resources assumes that they do not really need education, that they do not need to be led forth into freedom, as the etymology of education indicates. It presupposes a consumerist model of education in which students choose from a panoply of options, akin to choosing clothes or phones. It essentially deprives them of the aspiration for anything higher than material comfort and contemporary conceptions of success. That may be a form of equality but is one that permits only a shallow conception of human aspiration and a truncated vision of human dignity. Moreover, it occludes from view the possibility that education, which certainly inculcates pragmatic skills, can liberate the human soul in the pursuit of human flourishing. As Frederick Douglass eloquently puts it, “To properly teach is to induce man’s potential and latent greatness, to discover and develop the noblest, highest, and best that is in him,” and to unfold and strengthen “the powers of the human soul.”28
Of course, there are many ways for adults to hand down what is worthy of study from the past; there is no single, perpetually fixed canon. Denying students an encounter with the past deprives them of the rich vocabulary they need to understand and articulate contemporary narratives—about themselves and about others.