Teaching Human Rights

on Feb 22, 13 • by • with Comments

Like any profession, we teachers have to keep up-to-date with our craft.  Content, methodology and, of course, testing, all go through phases of creation, disfavor, re-creation, and evolution.  One trend that is very likely here to stay, especially for the social studies and humanities, is “global” education....
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human rights Teaching Human Rights

A poster from the UN Committee on Human Rights

Like any profession, we teachers have to keep up-to-date with our craft.  Content, methodology and, of course, testing, all go through phases of creation, disfavor, re-creation, and evolution.  One trend that is very likely here to stay, especially for the social studies and humanities, is “global” education.  State and federal standards don’t look “21st  century” if the global reality of our culture, economics and politics is not reflected in the curriculum.  Consequently, we must always be on the lookout for ways to incorporate global themes into our courses.

I have been lucky enough to work in a situation where I could create a senior elective on International Human Rights.  I’ve been developing and evolving this course for about fifteen years.  What I’ve discovered is that during the semesters when I don’t teach this elective, I keep going back to the fundamental issues of human rights in all the courses I teach.  It has become the key paradigm for me as a teacher, an overarching guide to all I teach. Whether it is U. S., World History, or even other electives like Economics, human rights is the thread that tie my classes together.  Exploring human rights has also helped my students nurture a more global view and really develop as “21st  century citizens.”

From Local to Global:  Since 1948, when the United Nations, under the guidance of Eleanor Roosevelt, decided to put together the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), we as a community of nations have been “thinking globally” about our basic values.  This necessarily requires us to think differently about the things that impact us personally.  For Roosevelt, the UDHR was a guide for global justice, but started “in small places, close to home.”  For our students, worldwide conceptions of justice must start with an understanding of how human rights impact our daily lives.  In our human rights course we start by looking at the UDHR and discuss how they might apply to us on a daily basis.  We take the “human rights temperature” of our school, family, and neighborhoods to see how our ideas of justice develop and how they are then applied to our world views.  Reflecting upon the UDHR, Roosevelt commented that we need to start thinking about justice in the places we spend our daily lives – the neighborhood, school, work – and “unless they have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.  Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

The discussion of global human rights has led us to some great studies of culture.  In truth, the UDHR is very Eurocentric; a conglomeration of Western liberal values that we can trace back to the Enlightenment and 18th century revolutions.  Just as some of these rights are still controversial in Western societies – health care as a right, definitions of marriage, and even the right to leisure! – they become even more contentious in societies that lack similar liberal traditions.  There are a plethora of examples that develop from students’ research in these areas: the possibility of pluralistic (Western-style) democracies in religious-sponsored governments; the view of women’s equality in traditionally paternalistic cultures; economic rights in societies suffering from the harsh realities of globalization.  A book we use in class that students positively respond to is Masuda Sultan’s My War at Home.  An Afghan immigrant, Sultan grows up as a teenager in America and struggles with the social and religious traditions of her family – including an arranged marriage – in a culture that encourages individualism and self-exploration.  Later in the book she travels to Afghanistan right about the time of the 9/11 attacks.  The book is a segue into discussion of immigration, women’s rights, global inequalities between nations, and the human consequences of modern, impersonal warfare.  Sultan’s experiences are a great example of how very personal, local issues can bring someone into the wider world of global human rights.

United States History:  A study of the UDHR naturally leads students and teachers to self-examination, both on a personal level as well as toward their own culture.  United States history is a great contradiction of equality, justice, democracy and their disenfranchisement from certain groups.  When we think about struggles for justice in the U. S. we often think in terms of “civil” rights.  But these are particular to political or citizen participation.  Applying the UDHR to United States history broadens the scope of our understanding of how the development of this country helped to inspire human rights around the world, while at the same time denying those rights to people within our borders and throughout the hemisphere.  For example, we often think of Puritans as a precursor to our nation’s conception of religious liberty.  Colonial Massachusetts, however, was fraught with internal struggles to represent equally all those in the  society, and especially later as non-Puritan Christians began to settle the colony.  From a different perspective, the reality of English colonization was an abomination to Native Americans.  By middle school, and certainly by high school, students should understand the complexities of English settlement beyond the stories of Thanksgiving and explore the expansion of European civilization from a Native perspective.  Foreign policy and the economic expansion of the U. S. also takes on new meaning when looked at through the lens of human rights.  From Manifest Destiny to the War on Terror, human rights offers students new ways to understand both our extension of democratic principles and alternative perspectives of that expansion from other countries and cultures.

Our Contemporary World: If as a social studies or humanities teacher you are fortunate enough to develop courses on contemporary issues, human rights offers a broad framework on which to explore a myriad of subjects.  When we introduce the UDHR in the first week of our course, students naturally cite it as a reference throughout the semester.  Students will often be drawn to one or two of the UDHR articles because of current popular issues or out of their own personal experiences.  Delving deeper into these topics, students are encouraged to focus on a handful of very specific current examples and begin to share them with the class.  In this way, students actively help determine the topics and direction of the course.  From there they can find current reading materials for their classmates, direct discussions and even help develop assessments.  In 2006 students from the course developed a “praxis,” a plan of action to create an awareness campaign about the Darfur crisis.  As important as these larger projects, on a more individual level human rights help create empathy among young people who are growing up in a sometimes self-indulgent culture and spark their curiosity and concern about others with whom they share the planet.

Human rights help students create a framework for studying global issues, develop more critical thinking, and give them another tool to look at their world in different ways.  Just the things a 21st  century learner needs.

Places to start:
Human Rights Education Associates:http://www.hrea.org/
Human Rights Educators USA: http://hreusa.net/
United Nations Cyber School Bus: https://www.un.org/Pubs/CyberSchoolBus/
Youth for Human Rights: http://www.youthforhumanrights.org/

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