Human Rights Column: Prospects and possibilities for HR education in the US

March 21, 2014
Eleanor Roosvelt displaying the UN Declaration of Human Rights

Eleanor Roosevelt displaying the UN Declaration of Human Rights

Rooted in the principles and values embodied in the United Nations Charter as well as the philosophical framework of the U.S. government, human rights education (HRE) has constituted an emerging emphasis in U. S. educational theory and practice since the late 1980s. As a subject of study, HRE represents both an expanding body of knowledge and a dynamic set of educational practices.  Its core is interdisciplinary, drawing upon a wide range of content and subject fields.

The broadly defined norms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international agreements address not only civil and political rights, but also social, economic and cultural rights.  For example, the 54 articles of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child include rights to freedom of expression, to a nationality, health and well-being, protection from abuse, and access to information.  Fields of study informing these rights and their implementation would logically include political science, law, history, sociology, medicine, public health, journalism, mass communications and many others.

The pedagogy and resources used to implement HRE in educational settings emphasize active learner engagement, along with a critical approach to the selection and organization of content.  Drawing on the work of John Dewey, Paolo Freire and other progressive theorists, HRE ideally represents both a deepening of student understanding about the content of human rights (historic and contemporary), and a set of skills that can inspire learners to pursue positive social change.  These skills can pose difficult challenges for teachers in educational settings with authoritarian management and leadership structures. HRE supports the democratic engagement of stakeholders—students and teachers as well as administrators—in decision-making and school governance.

Based on research conducted by social studies scholar Dennis Banks, 35 states in the USA currently include content about international human rights in their social studies curriculum standards.  This statistic is deceptive, however, since the degree to which human rights content and concepts are incorporated within the required social studies curriculum varies significantly.  In New Jersey, the state’s long-standing commitment to Holocaust and genocide education established a foundation for the inclusion of human rights as a central element in one of the four thematic strands that frame the content for social studies standards.  In contrast, Texas social studies standards adopted for the 2011-2012 school year only mention human rights within the curricular framework of world history, specifically requiring students to “identify the influence of ideas such as separation of powers, checks and balances, liberty, equality, democracy, popular sovereignty, human rights, constitutionalism, and nationalism on political revolutions” and to “assess the degree to which American ideals have advanced human rights and democratic ideas throughout the world.” Even with specific mention of human rights in content standards, the actual inclusion of such materials and HRE pedagogy is dependent upon the commitment of individual classroom teachers and department supervisors to embrace HRE and make it a priority in the curricula.

To implement and sustain a program of human rights education, one must develop a strong curricular rationale and a program of study that places human rights at the center rather than at the periphery of knowledge and education.  I served over 24 years as the supervisor of social studies in a New Jersey regional high school (Hunterdon County, NJ), where we successfully developed a three year required sequence that used human rights as a key organizing theme for course content.  From 1990 through 2010, every student in grades 9 and 10 examined such topics as the evolving U.S. Constitution, the Progressive Movement, the New Deal, the civil rights movement in the U. S., and the response to the Holocaust and genocides, feminism and the women’s movement from a human rights perspective.

In grade 11, all students took a thematic course entitled “Comparative World Studies” where a 9-week unit on International Human Rights introduced students to basic human rights documents as well as the development of human rights concepts and ideas. These included historical and contemporary examples of rights in conflict, and contemporary human rights issues, including the rights of children, human trafficking, torture, disappearances, and efforts to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice.

We provided training for classroom teachers in the content of human rights, emphasizing the use of learning strategies that enabled students to discuss, debate, and solve problems, promoted student engagement of human rights issues in the community, and developed a comprehensive library of human rights resources.  Additionally, we regularly invited guest speakers to share their experiences issues with students and faculty so that global concerns could be made comprehensible through the lens of personal testimony.   Among the speakers were Craig Kielburger, founder of Free the Children, Veronica Denegri of Amnesty International, a number of former prisoners of conscience who gained their freedom through the work of Amnesty International, and Joyce Horman, the widow of Charles Horman, the U. S. journalist whose murder in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship was the subject of the Costa-Gavras film Missing.

During the twenty years this program was in place, over 10,000 students studied the curriculum. One can reasonably conclude that their understanding of international human rights is more advanced than that of their contemporaries.  At the same time, while the program had considerable strengths, it also had limitations, notably in the capacity of students to translate their content understanding and empathy for victims of human rights violations into concrete strategies for action.
In learning environments that today are  increasingly focused on preparation for testing and college admission, the challenges in developing programs that emphasize active student participation involving global problems are daunting.  But our experience demonstrates clearly that such challenges can be met, and with an increasing number of educators nationwide taking an interest in human rights education through participation in networks such as Human Rights Educators USA and the newly-formed Human Rights Education Community of the National Council for the Social Studies, I am cautiously optimistic that HRE’s future will be a bright one indeed.

William R. Fernekes teaches in the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University and serves on the steering committee of Human Rights Educators USA.