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Teaching Human Rights

Teaching Human Rights

CIS summer institute frames a field of activism as a discipline

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Institute teachers, pictured on Chapel Hill St., toured Durham civil rights sites to learn about hands-on instruction of human rights.
Institute teachers, pictured on Chapel Hill St., toured Durham civil rights sites to learn about hands-on instruction of human rights. Photo credit: Barbara Lau

Durham, NC - Law students talk about Guantanamo in class. African studies courses explore ethnic conflict and genocide in Sudan. Psychologists debate the role of their colleagues in devising interrogation methods. And historians cast new light on the 19th century effort to abolish slavery and other social movements.

What these topics all have in common is they involve human rights, a field of activism that in the past decades has developed into an academic discipline. In July, nine college professors from around the state took part in a weeklong institute at Duke to talk about how to effectively incorporate discussion about terror, truth and political conflict in the classroom.

Teaching about human rights can be messy, said Robin Kirk, director of Duke's Human Rights Center who led the discussion. Not only does it bring into the classroom stories sometimes too horrible to comprehend, but the topic itself can be overwhelming in its interdisciplinary reach.

"Teaching about human rights is huge. There are dozens of international covenants dealing with human rights," Kirk said. "Just teaching the law alone is a big topic, much less bringing in history, public policy, economics and other disciplines. My goal when I teach human rights is not for students to know every little fact or law about an issue."

But its interdisciplinary reach is also a strength in the classroom, Kirk said. One value of teaching human rights, she added, is that the individual stories are just so fascinating.

"I like to teach about the people," Kirk told the teachers. "I want the students to know who the people were. What were the coalitions they built and worked with? What were the obstacles they faced? Thomas Clarkson [a leader in the British anti-slavery trade movement] had no reason to get involved until one day he had a ‘Road to Damascus' moment.

"That's one way you can teach complicated histories."

During the week, the teachers engaged Duke professors and local human rights activists in discussions about the history, theory and practice of human rights. Claudia Koonz, a Duke history professor, talked about teaching the Holocaust. Activists with the Duke student-founded Student Action With Farmworkers discussed how they combine classroom and activism. A trip to key Durham sites in the Civil Rights movement showed how hands-on learning is used in teaching human rights.

Human rights is not a static field, Kirk said. "When you teach about slavery, students are often amazed to find out just how ingrained it was in society," Kirk said. "Everyone took it for granted. We look at it now, and wonder how that could be? It wasn't until activists challenged that notion that people slowly started to take notice. The process of how that happens is fascinating to teach."

The major milestones in the field, such as the French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all capture a moment and time of what people believe human rights are. "What we think of what human rights are is different now and will be different 50 years from now," Kirk said, adding that animal rights "may be the slavery of the next decade."

Likewise, human rights as a discipline is growing and changing. Whereas 30 years ago it was rarely mentioned even in history or political science fields, now it can be found in classrooms across the disciplines.

The teachers, who came from area universities, colleges and community colleges, said they looked to incorporate human rights scholarship into their current curriculum. Reflecting the interdisciplinary interest in the field, their fields included world literature, psychology, sociology, history and communication studies.

One question for discussion was what constitutes human rights? How does teaching Dickens with a human rights perspective in a literature class differ?

"I think the theme is a frame to look at human history and the perennial and shifting debate over right and wrong, moral and immoral, human and non-human," Kirk said. "One could also teach this through philosophy or history or literature. But as one of the prime issues shaping the world, human rights is a powerful frame for examining how these things are not immutable and equal in all human society -- and are subject to activism and change.

"Dickens would be a wonderful example of activism through fiction, since his motive, in large part, was to bring attention to the horrible conditions for the poor (Oliver Twist) or children (David Copperfield). Human rights is a lens that allows you to engage with students on the great questions and their potential role in shaping a more just future."

The institute was sponsored by the Duke Center for International Studies.

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