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Michael Geyer: How Teaching Human Rights Changes the University

MG January 2012.JPG
Michael Geyer on teaching human rights: "human rights activism is among the most common extracurricular concerns" of students.

What is the impact of human rights studies on university faculty and students? Michael Geyer of the University Chicago is the latest in a series of speakers brought to Duke by the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute to explore that issue.  Geyer will discuss "Human Rights Education After Human Rights Idolatry" at 4 p.m. Feb. 24 in Bay 4 of the Smith Warehouse.

Geyer is the Samuel N. Harper Professor of German and European History and the faculty director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago. 

He talked with Kelly Carroll, a sophomore public policy major working for the Borderworks Lab in the Franklin Humanities Institute. 

Kelly Carroll (KC): Is it important for university level students to gain an education in human rights?

Michael Geyer (MG): Human rights education prepares students for citizenship in an entangled world. This is to say that knowing your way around in this world is a prerequisite for really mastering and living in it. That’s the bottom line for human rights education. It's also its attraction.

Among the many and competing ways of knowing the world, knowing the rights and obligations that shape human interaction in the world is essential. Knowing the debates on rights and obligations (what are they and to whom do they pertain?) is part of global literacy. Understanding the struggles for human rights and against them introduces students into one of the crucial fault lines of the contemporary world. And learning to weigh normative precepts such as human rights against political exigencies (what is feasible) is to prepare students to make informed judgments about key issues of modern life. I am arguing here for human rights as an education in global politics.

There are other more philosophical ways to approach the question. The question of rights is far too important to be left to law schools.  Understanding rights and the difference they make in ordering nations and world systems is a crucial element of general education. What does Right do in ordering the world that, say, Might cannot do? By the same token, the question of humanity is no longer a matter of abstractions and projections in an age in which human beings shape the world as a habitat and ecosystem.

But all of the above may still miss the point, if we consider human rights in the context of university education. Humanitarian and human rights activism is among the most common extracurricular concerns of undergraduate and graduate students. Why not make this philanthropic impulse part of an ongoing academic reflection, all the more since there exists a high level of academic research and debate on the subject matter?


KC: After having taught various classes on this topic, do you find the subject matter challenging to teach? What are the difficulties and the rewards?

MG: It is always easier to teach if students are interested and engaged in a subject, which has typically been the case in human rights classes. There is always the chance that the interest in human rights is just a fashion that has come and that will go. But even if human rights were a fashion among the young, part of the enduring appeal is that human rights education offers an understanding to what amounts to a revolution in international affairs in the modern world and especially in the period after 1945.

Take the idea that human rights are "universal" and that they pertain not only to small suffering groups, but to all citizens or, possibly, human beings; that they set not only limits on governments, but establish obligations. These are breath-taking concepts, and what is so amazing about them is that they are not simply "thought," the subject of dreams or utopias, but that they are crucial elements in a global struggle of how to order nations and human society. I think the sheer audacity of human rights thought on one hand and the intensity of the real-world struggle over human rights on the other make human rights education elevate human rights education above the "flavor-of-the-month" type courses.


KC: Do you believe there is an importance in offering human rights courses at universities? If so, why?

MG: The thrust of my answers so far has been to say -- look, can you think the world without making sense of Rights and without beginning to grasp the notion of humanity.  As far as I am concerned, "thinking" is what we do at universities and it is what we teach. But then there is the more practical streak of a historian in me that says -- look, human rights may be a very strange idea -- maybe even "nonsense on stilts" as Jeremy Bentham wrote. But there must be some good reason why it has been such a crucial element both in thinking and in ordering the modern world. As a historian I am asking what is this strange idea that doesn't seem to do anything in particular, but doesn't seem to go away either. This said, we can begin to figure what is happening -- and this might look as follows.


KC: Do you think the classes you've taught on these issues have changed your students, the way they see the world, their place in it, or the people in it?

MG: I have been teaching for too long to think that any one course or even an entire curriculum will shape a student. I think we do, because experience suggests that most students grow dramatically during their four years as undergraduates. If you ask, whether students who take human rights classes become human rights advocates, the answer is by and large "no." However, our record at the University of Chicago suggests that students who have taken human rights classes and have been part of the program have done exceptionally well in their further pursuits.

Do we motivate students "to go into human rights"? Yes and no. It rarely happens that any class or even a charismatic teacher motivates a student to be active in the world because students are already active in what they want to be active in or they are not. ... What we can do is give students the intellectual and, to some extent, the practical skills that it takes to work with their motivation or to satisfy their curiosity. I think we do well providing tools for understanding the modern world.