Magazine Feature

By Virtue of Being Human

December 10, 1998, marked the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Classrooms around the country participated in a yearlong commemoration by exploring human rights issues across the curriculum.

"Who has heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?" Educator Nancy Flowers looks around the conference room at a sea of mostly blank faces, an experience not uncommon for someone in her profession. A notable difference, however, is that she's addressing a roomful of fellow teachers from across the United States.

When Flowers or her colleagues at Human Rights USA conduct a similar workshop in Albania or Costa Rica about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), she can usually assume that most of the educators present have not only heard of the document but also teach it. Yet in the U.S., the opposite is true.

"Americans tend to think of human rights as something 'out there,'" Flowers says. "We do a very good job of teaching the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, but most people have never heard of the UDHR."

Neither an international treaty nor conventional law, the Declaration is a "common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations." It was written 50 years ago by members of the 14-nation Commission on Human Rights, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. In the five decades since its inception, the document has been re-affirmed by all of the United Nations' more than 185 member countries and has influenced the constitutions, laws and court decisions of governments around the world.

According to Flowers, most Americans identify human rights with freedom of speech and association, due process, and protection from torture and arbitrary detainment. Here in the U.S., we are not accustomed to thinking in terms of human rights when we talk about adequate food, living wages, free and equal education, disability rights, safety from crime, capital sentencing, equity for women and sexual minorities, housing, abortion, environmental concerns, immigration policy, religious tolerance, social security and medical care.

Getting Americans to consider social, economic and cultural factors as topics directly related to the UDHR is the mission of Human Rights USA, a collaborative group whose efforts commemorate this year's 50th anniversary (see Resources). This multifaceted initiative is spearheaded by Street Law, Inc.; Amnesty International USA's Educator Network; the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center; and the Center for Human Rights Education.


As American as ... Human Rights?

"You are a human being. You have rights inherent within that reality. You have a dignity and worth that exists prior to law," emphasizes Human Rights USA director Lyn Beth Neylon of the Washington, D.C.-based Street Law, Inc. This conviction is the bedrock of the programs Neylon and her associates have provided in countries where human rights education has been a requisite of the curriculum for years.

"Back in 1985 we were asked by the schools in South Africa to come in and 'do' human rights education," says lawyer-educator Ed O'Brien, cofounder of Street Law, Inc. "So after Nelson Mandela's release in 1990, we collaborated in producing Human Rights For All, a textbook that incorporated what the South Africans had learned about human rights and what we had learned about democracy and curriculum design."

The text, now being used in hundreds of U.S. middle and high schools, was then adapted for educational programs in East Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, "countries that knew they could not have a true democracy without having human rights," says O'Brien.

According to Amnesty's Flowers, "Teachers in other nations say, 'But your country took the lead in developing the Declaration, and you get to live so many of these principles, so why is it that all Americans don't know about this?'" Research by Amnesty indicates that fewer than 10 states have mandated human rights education.

"I'd like to see every pre-service teacher have a course on the Rights of the Child," says Flowers. "There are too few teacher preparation programs where human rights education is even mentioned. It seems to me that this perspective is the perfect lens teachers need for viewing the issues that walk into the classroom with the child. "Teachers have enough to do," she explains.

"They can't tackle the '3 H's' -- hunger, housing and healthcare -- but they care deeply about the rights of a child. To let children know that they have fundamental rights simply because they are human beings is a wonderful thing. Irrespective of social class or ability or whether or not their parents are married or of the same sex, or are undocumented immigrants, the children have these rights. It's deeply personal, yet it's all about how we relate to one another inside and outside the classroom."

For educators who want to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the UDHR, Flowers offers some words of caution: "Be careful not to teach human rights only from an abuse model." A negative focus, she says, fails to acknowledge and celebrate the freedoms Americans enjoy. Another weakness of such an approach is that in citing flagrant violations, the more subtle, systemic abuses -- often pertaining to economic, social and cultural issues -- can easily be overlooked. Reduced to mere finger-pointing, it does not invite deeper analysis and positive, hopeful action taken "close to home" -- the place, Eleanor Roosevelt noted, "where human rights begin."


The "Aha!" Effect

"Teaching about human rights is not enough," says Janet Schmidt, pre-school special needs coordinator for Walpole, Mass., schools. "You want to begin teaching for human rights, creating a human rights culture in your classroom. It's the original diversity education. Human rights recognizes the common humanity underlying our differences."

"Kids always want to know how what they're learning is related to the real world," adds Patrick Manson, 6th grade teacher at Lancaster Intermediate School in Lancaster, Texas. "When you build a human rights classroom, you show students the rights they have just by virtue of being human, and then the responsibilities that come with those rights. So often we start the school year and tell kids 'Don't talk when someone else is talking' and 'No fighting or name-calling,' but we don't frame the don'ts with the rights they're meant to protect, like 'Everyone in this room has the right to learn,' 'Everyone has the right to feel safe from harm.'"

A collective "Eureka!" of recognition is the refrain of educators across the country who see human rights education as the template of their own subject matter.

"Take social studies teachers -- we're very content-oriented," says comparative world studies teacher Bill Fernekes of Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey. "You know, from Plato to NATO. You can teach human rights through all these definitional concerns: treaties, legalities, history. Or you can come at it through genocide study: Teach about the Holocaust and bring it up to date -- Rwanda, Bosnia. You can use the UDHR to examine specific current social issues or to investigate things that have taken place in history."

"It's a useful way to help kids grasp what they learn from the media," affirms Manson. "In analyzing a situation, we'll make a chart with these columns: 'What rights are defended? What rights are denied? What rights are exercised? What rights are in conflict?' And we can do this all the time, from examining a piece of literature to sorting out post-playground tattle sessions."

Schools interested in service learning, cross-disciplinary teaching or a thematic structure to facilitate block scheduling find that human rights education provides the umbrella they need. Administrators observe that teachers of special education and ESL often come on board first with human rights because they identify a context that not only ratifies their students' experiences but affirms their inclusion within the school community. Similarly, foreign language teachers discover that the human rights perspective helps students connect their acquired language skills with the actual experience of native speakers.


Get Out of Your Seats

"Whether they consider themselves as such or not, teachers are activists. They're always constructing," notes Kristi Rudelius-Palmer of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center.

"The key is to get students to think like activists: envisioning, planning and carrying out their own course of action to address an issue they have come to care deeply about. Ideally, students move from understanding human rights concepts to incorporating them into their personal values and decision-making processes."

In 1992, the university, along with Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, established the Partners in Human Rights Education Program. Under director Rudelius-Palmer and her colleagues, the Partners Program, consisting of teams of teachers, lawyers and community leaders, reaches thousands of students with the human rights framework. The aim of the initiative is for students to apply what they learn about human rights to community action projects on issues like homelessness, health insurance, domestic abuse, environmental hazards, language and cultural conflict, barrier-free access for people with disabilities, racism and religious intolerance.

When students themselves connect these issues to human rights, the impact is often seismic. "During our discussions, I made a breakthrough that I consider to be fairly big," asserts 9th grader Judd Katz of Beaver Country Day School in Newton, Mass. "For the first time I was able to look at a specific situation and apply it to the bigger picture," he says of his study of indigenous peoples. Katz and his classmates used the human-rights-based curriculum Cultural Survival to examine Native American Cree land rights and the expansion of a water utility plant.

"It's important that students have a solid understanding of the process by which change takes place," recommend the authors of the Minnesota Partners in Education handbook Good Things Happen When Students Take Action. "All students need to be able to identify decision-making powers and structures in their schools and communities. For older youths, that understanding should be extended to regional, national and international levels. Students should also learn how political action groups and social justice groups can interact with these structures to bring about change."

Patrick Manson of Lancaster (Texas) Intermediate agrees. "Because we're educators, we have to maintain a balance between an objective stance and a passionate involvement. We teach best the things we care about most. We need to be vigilant that as the adults, we're not pushing our causes, our choices for action, onto the students. But we need a body of research to statistically quantify our hunches about the effectiveness of human rights education. You know, we've had thirty years of intentional environmental education, and we still see kids who love whales but throw their candy wrappers out of car windows."

Although developing an action plan with a class requires substantial thought and effort -- often in the face of heavyweight curriculum mandates and rigorous assessment standards -- the rewards are great. Not only do teachers motivate students to get involved in a service activity, but they demonstrate that service includes a systemic analysis of the causes of the problem being addressed.

"A human rights context can be a powerful and exciting way to get people thinking in a new way about old problems," asserts Neylon of Street Law, Inc. "'Why, in our neighborhood, are people hungry?' the students begin to ask. 'What can we do about this? Who can help us? How can we prevent this problem from getting worse?'" Whether restocking a food pantry, reading to refugee children, researching corporate child labor practices, hosting a Human Rights Fair, or participating in public hearings, students are taking an active role in the democratic process and delving deeper for practical answers to real-life dilemmas.


An Illuminative Framework

When young students are exposed to the human rights framework, educators can tell when the "lightbulb" clicks on. Using that decisive moment is one of the most effective human rights education strategies available to teachers of primary grade children, argues Janet Schmidt, teacher and editor of Teaching Young Children About Human Rights.

"I try to get the students to the point of protecting the human rights of one another," Schmidt says.

"After we read and talk about the UDHR and then write and sign our own Declaration, I do not have to assume the role of enforcer. They signed on to it; they agreed to the rights that each member of the classroom is entitled to. We even talk about the fact that they are inalienable: You cannot lose these rights any more than you can cease being human. They are indivisible: You cannot be denied a right because somebody else thinks it's less important than theirs. And they are interdependent: They are related to one another, like your right to participate in this class is affected by your right to express yourself, the right to get an education and even the right to obtain what you need to live."

For the past four years, social worker Connie Overhue has been linking social skills instruction and human rights education in her work with kindergartners through 7th graders at West Central Academy on Minneapolis' North Side.

"I know this works," she says. "I see significant behavioral and attitudinal changes in compassion within the students."

One Friday, Overhue asked the 6th grade class to consider whom they would choose to write about for a report on someone who exhibited extraordinary human rights leadership. "As the students filed out the door at the end of class," she recalls, "Tawanda, a child who has lived in a shelter since she and her mother escaped an abusive relationship, walked up and said softly, 'Me, Ms. Overhue. I know who I want to talk about: me.'"

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