UW Center for the Humanities’
Confessions in Wisconsin
What Democracy Looks Like
Top: Danielle Allen in the
student exhibition area Above:
Olajuwon Cawthon as Rousseau
In an interview, Allen emphasized that democracy is not a static thing where once you have it, then it is yours forever. It is a fluid concept that
depends upon the people engaged in it to make it happen.
“Democracy is something that lives as long as the citizenry keeps it alive,” Allen warned. “And to keep it alive, that means the citizenry needs
to understand the ideals of equality, has to understand the ideals of freedom and fundamentally enough, something that we don’t often notice is
that you actually need self-knowledge to go along with both of those things because being a responsible citizen actually means knowing
yourself and also knowing the community around you and being able to think about how to relate yourself and your own interests and your own
effort to pursue happiness to the efforts of other people. So there is a funny way in which I think actually that self-knowledge is a very critical
part of democratic citizenship.”
Allen noted that youth participation in civic discourse and elections is up since 2008, the year that President Barack Obama was first elected
president, using social media and other communication methods that reached younger voters. But youth political participation isn’t going to
necessarily look like their parents’ political participation.
“The amazing thing about youth engagement now — and the challenging thing — is a lot of it is happening outside of political institutions,”
Allen noted. “There are a heck of a lot of events that are digitally-based, social engagement and activism. You think about kids work around
issues of food and diabetes and equity and kid’s issues around sexuality and sexual minorities. There’s an amazing amount of youth
engagement that happens through NGOs basically and non-profit organizations of various kinds. I’m thinking about things like the Mikva
Challenge in Chicago or the Harry Potter Alliance, which is an online-based community engagement of kids around sustainability and fair
trade. I think the challenge that we have actually is how to connect all of the energy that young people are displaying for engaging in their
communities back to political institutions.”
That online presence is what unites young people together.
“Social media is a tool that young people have gotten really good at using,” Allen said. “And they are using it to change public agendas,
change public discourse. So the Black Lives Matter campaign is a terrific example. We’re seeing a higher level of youth engagement than we
have seen in a long time. And again, the challenge is to reconnect that engagement to political institutions.”
And that engagement to political institutions, for the moment, has taken a 1960s style as social media has spurred almost instantaneous
demonstrations around police shootings.
“You are right to be reminded of the 1960s,” Allen said. “There is a sociologist who has done a comparative study of levels of social protest in
the U.S. and around the globe from the 1960s to the present. And in the last decade, we’ve hit the same levels of social protest as pertained in
the 1960s. So we are back in a moment like the 1960s.”
Unlike the 1960s, participation in voting and democracy is being discouraged instead of encouraged.
“The recent initiatives to restrict voting do concern me,” Allen said. “I really want to celebrate the League of Women Voters, which I think is
working really hard on maintaining voter participation and voter opportunities. They have an important program that is about registering high
school students to vote. And that is a program that moves in the opposite direction from some of these other movements. At the moment, the
League of Women Voters is a group that I would hold out as helping to push back against the constrictions on voting. And that is important. We
Allen is encouraged and not discouraged by the trends that she sees in youth participation. And by using social media, youth — and adult —
participation can occur at critical levels to ensure that our democracy stays healthy.
“Honestly, I think it is about talking to people,” Allen said. “I read something the other day that said it takes only 1.6 forwards to make
something go viral. So if everyone who got something passes it on to 1.6 people, it will go viral. So it’s worth thinking about youth
engagement and voting that way as well. If everyone who cares about democracy could make 1.6 more people care and get them to make 1.6
more people care, it would go viral. And that is actually not that many people to make 1.6 people additional people care about democracy and
get them to do the same thing.”
In the end, it is citizen activism and participation that make democracy work.
“We make this world together and we can only do it by digging in and participating,” Allen said. “You can’t wait for other people to make the
change. It’s on each of us to make the change. And I know there is a lot of money in politics right now that makes it seem as if, ‘How can little
ordinary me make the difference.’ But the truth of the matter is numbers are a counterweight to money. If you can get out there, get organized
and get your friends organized, those numbers matter.”
Votes do matter.
By Jonathan Gramling
In a few years, if there is a sudden uptick in the participation of young people in the political and
public policy-making processes, perhaps it could be traced back to the UW Center for the
Humanities’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions in Wisconsin. In schools all across Wisconsin,
students read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, a difficult yet stimulating treatise on the
personal and public and its impact on equity, freedom and democracy.
On March 25, several hundred students descended on Varsity Hall in Union South to share creative
exhibits about the meaning of Confessions and what they learned from it. One student, Olajuwon
Cawthon from New Horizons Charter School dressed up like Rousseau and answered student
questions in the spirit of Rousseau.
“I feel democracy isn’t like it used to be,” Cawthon said. “I feel that things need to change in this
world and if it doesn’t, then this world is going to change for the worst honestly. Democracy is
important for everyone to have a say in certain topics, for everyone’s words to be included, their
Danielle Allen, the political philosopher from Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study toured the
student exhibition and listened intently to a strings performance inspired by Rousseau’s work.
“These students are amazing,” Allen emphasized. “I’m just blown away by the creativity and the energy in
After the student exhibition, Allen gave a keynote speech titled, “A Conversation with Danielle S. Allen,” in
which she gave some introductory remarks about Rousseau — she confessed that she didn’t like reading
him — before she fielded some very poignant and thoughtful questions from some of the students in
attendance. It was clear that the students had done their homework.
“Rousseau’s Confessions is an amazingly hard book and the idea of assigning it to high school students, I
was really surprised when I received this invitation,” Allen said. “But it is terrific to see the connections
between Rousseau and picking up concepts like equality and democracy and then the incredibly
complicated story about Rousseau’s self-disclosures, the whole issue of subculture. There are a lot of tough,
difficult stories in the Confessions about sex and relations between people and his bad treatment of people
and things like that. And so, to have to navigate both the question of who are we as individuals, what is the
responsibility of the individual, what kind of self-knowledge do we need in order to act rightly, again
questions about our public obligations, our community obligations, those are big, hard, tough questions and
these students are engaging them.”