The Library of Congress named University Professor Danielle S. Allen as the 2020 recipient of the John W. Kluge Prize Monday, an international award for scholarly achievement in disciplines not covered by the Nobel Prizes.
Allen — who serves as director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard — will receive $500,000 as part of the prize, which seeks to recognize “individuals whose outstanding scholarship in the humanities and social sciences has shaped public affairs and civil society."
In an interview, Allen said she strives to bring together “the scholarly and the human” in her research, which approaches the “question of democracy through historical, philosophical, and policy work”
“The focus of my research is democracy, but my work on democracy isn’t limited to research,” Allen said. “I engage in the public sphere, I write a column for the Washington Post, but it’s also just a deep part of life.”
“For me, the pursuit of democracy is about, in general, building a foundation on which people can flourish,” Allen added.
She said her interest in democracy stemmed from a young age, describing it as her “life passion.”
“I come from a family that had political involvement for generations on both sides,” Allen said. “In that regard, it’s fair to say I inherited it or was raised with a love of democracy by my parents and my extended family.”
Allen also recognized the role her family’s encounter with racism in the American justice system through the incarceration and premature death of her cousin played in shaping her work.
“I think you'll find, in general, most people's motivations come from deep personal experiences, and my cousin's life and the difficulties he faced and his too early end are huge motivators for me and defining factors in how I think about the society we live in,” Allen said.
In a statement, Librarian of Congress Carla D. Hayden said Allen’s selection as this year’s prize selection will help further “a timely national conversation” to promote civic engagement.
“Now is an important moment to discuss ways we can all promote civic strength and engagement, which is at the core of our national culture,” Hayden said.
The Library of Congress recently reenvisioned the Kluge Prize — awarded roughly every two years and whose past recipients include former University President Drew G. Faust — to promote more public engagement with the prize. As part of this revamped mission, the Library of Congress announced upcoming collaborations with Allen, including designing civic education programs for schools and universities.
Allen’s recognition by the Library of Congress comes on the heels of the release of “Our Common Purpose,” a report commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of which Allen chairs. The report discusses the “challenges and opportunities facing American democracy.”
Speaking on the report and her view of the shape of American democracy, Allen said she views the unresponsiveness of public institutions and issue of police brutality as symptomatic of a ”deeper sort of erosion of our democratic capacity.”
“We have a big job to do to invent for the 21st century a constitutional democracy that empowers all people, where public institutions are responsive, where they deliver equal representation, where our media landscape is rooted in civic media as opposed to social media, and where our civil society has a strong and healthy ecosystem of organizations that help people bridge differences,” Allen said.
—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.