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wins "genius" grant
Danielle Allen '93's studies range from Greek poetry to Ralph Ellison
Louis Jacobson '92
After her freshman year, Danielle Allen '93 had
to drop of out the Princeton track-and-field program because of
knee problems. Looking back, she says, the injury was actually an
enormous blessing. With more time to devote to academics, Allen
began a career as a classicist that in October landed her a celebrated
MacArthur "genius grant" at the tender age of 29.
Winners of the $500,000, no-strings-attached grants
are chosen for "exceptional creativity" and "promise
for important future advances based on a track record of significant
accomplishment." Every year, a mix of scholars, artists, activists,
and other achievers are nominated, vetted, and selected in a secret,
two-year process. Allen says she still has no idea who brought her
to the committee's attention. "Everyone I've asked so far has
denied it," Allen says.
Currently, Allen is an associate professor at
the University of Chicago, with appointments in the departments
of classics and political science as well as in an interdisciplinary
program on social thought. In 2000, Princeton University Press published
her book, The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in
Democratic Athens. (When asked what she might do with the money,
she responded with "Buy many thank you notes, a dog, and time
Allen's rise in academia was remarkably rapid,
due to an unusual confluence of factors. The daughter of a political
scientist and a rare-books librarian in Claremont, California, Allen
majored in classics at Princeton. She had studied Latin in elementary
school, but it wasn't until learning Greek as a Princeton student
that she decided to make a career of it. "I adore the Greek
language," she says. "With Greek, there was something
about the sound of it that captivated me." Princeton professors
Thomas Roche *tk and Josh Ober were among those who helped instill
her with a desire to teach.
After graduating from Princeton, Allen attended
Kings College, Cambridge, as a Marshall Scholar. Allen not only
loved her time in England, but she also came away with a PhD in
classics after only three years, largely because she was able to
"hit the ground running" by expanding her Princeton thesis
about politics in ancient Athens into a dissertation.
In 1996, Allen enrolled at Harvard to earn her
second PhD, this time in political theory. Allen says she didn't
enjoy her time at Harvard a combination of nostalgia for
Cambridge and a less-welcoming intellectual environment, she says.
After a year and a half, she left for Chicago, where she was hired
as an assistant professor at 25. The market for classics professors,
she says, is actually stronger than one might imagine. "There's
more demand than there are people," she says.
This year, she's teaching four courses: a survey
on Greek poetry, a course about funeral orations, a course on ancient
and medieval political thought, and a seminar on the American novelist
Ralph Ellison. Ellison, along with Aristotle and Thomas Hobbes,
will feature prominently in Allen's next book.
In her first book, The World of Prometheus, Allen
zeroed in on the role of anger in crime and punishment. In ancient
Athens, for instance, husbands who caught their wife's lover in
the act were permitted to kill the adulterer; if the adulterer was
instead brought to trial, the wronged husband was allowed to physically
abuse the adulterer in sight of the jury.
Such practices, of course, would never stand in
contemporary America yet to Allen they illustrated the value
that Athenians placed on the expression of anger in the sphere of
jurisprudence. American law, by contrast, requires judges to insist
that juries abide by the precepts of the law, not by what they personally
believe to be the fairest or most just response.
"For me, studying anger in Athens was
an eye-opener about our contemporary justice system," she says.
"We tend to have pretty tongue-tied conversations about punishment.
We won't admit how important anger is, so we often can't resolve
it in ways that aren't violent."
Allen is intrigued by experiments in Australia
that have brought together perpetrators of crimes and their victims,
each flanked by their families. Perpetrators are given the chance
to apologize, while the victim is allowed to air their anger about
the crime. Allen sees such efforts as a way to use the justice system
to heal the community's scars. "I'm not so sure I feel comfortable
saying it should be done in cases of rape and murder, but I see
it as a promising idea," she says.
In addition to watching movies her favorites
include Chinatown, Vertigo and O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Allen spends her off-hours teaching in the Odyssey Project, a year-long
course sponsored by the Illinois Humanities Council that prepares
poor Chicagoans up to age 35 for reentry into the educational system.
Participants attend the course free of charge, and they also receive
child care, transportation, and books.
This year Allen is teaching Odyssey students about
American history. She says that the experience has been a welcome
counterpoint to the classes she teaches at the University of Chicago.
"The Odyssey students are invigorating," she says. "I've
learned more from teaching them than I have from teaching any other
students. They're very motivated, and also completely frank in a
way I find that university undergrads are not. They don't have the
same competitiveness, so they will admit it if they're confused,
and they don't hide their opinions. It gave me back a certain frankness
in the teaching process."
By Louis Jacobson '92
Louis Jacobson '92 is a staff correspondent at
National Journal magazine in Washington.