Learning History through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

By Landorf, Hilary; Pineda, Martha Fernanda | Social Education, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Learning History through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Landorf, Hilary, Pineda, Martha Fernanda, Social Education


Consider these two scenarios:

1. A student is in a rush to get lunch so that she can finish her homework before her next class, so she cuts the line in her high school cafeteria. Immediately the students around her begin to protest.

2. A student destroys school property; a classmate of hers is unjustly accused and taken into the principal's office. Those who know that this is an unfair accusation write an anonymous letter to the principal voicing their concerns.

Although adolescent students often do not have the knowledge of specific laws, they usually have a keen sense of justice and fairness. We have found the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to be a powerful tool to channel students' sense of fairness into visible actions. Adopted in December 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations, the UDHR is an instrument that can help students anchor the universality of human rights both in their daily lives and in their study of history. It can be accessed on the Internet at www.un.org/Overview/rights.html

By using the content of the UDHR as a blueprint to examine historical issues, students are given the opportunity to discover the universal values that are at the core of this internationally recognized "declaration." Students can also explore, through the eyes of others, how people from different cultures articulate universal rights within their own contexts, and when and why nations (the United States included) drift from universal rights in their policymaking or in practice. From the study of the UDHR at a more global level, students also learn different transformative strategies that they can use to become active agents of change in their communities.

In 1997, Human Rights USA, a partnership for human rights education, conducted a survey about the knowledge and the attitudes of people in the USA on human rights. This study revealed the need to expose students to the UDHR. Through their survey, the researchers found "that only 8 percent of adults and 4 percent of young people are aware of and can name the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." (1) In the post-September 11 world, the need for students to know and use the UDHR and other international documents is even greater than it was in 1997. As the Human Rights Resource Center (HRRC) points out in their online handbook, teaching students through the perspective of human rights yields satisfying results. In their research, the HRRC advocates found that "Human rights education ... sets standards [and] ... produces change." (2) This change, according to the HRRC, is visible in students' attitudes and behaviors, and in their attunement to higher levels of "solidarity across issues, communities, and nations." (3)

Students want, need, and can use the UDHR as a guidepost from which they can grapple with and make judgments about world events, developments, and issues throughout history. Teachers may begin the year by introducing the UDHR and posing key questions based on this pivotal document. The UDHR then becomes the anchor with which students can judge historical events throughout the year. As the students are exploring historical events in any given lesson, the teacher may pose the following questions: "To which article does this event refer?" "Within the context of this moment in history, in what ways are human rights advanced or violated? Give evidence for your reasoning."

The strategies and activities that we describe below have been successfully implemented in university preservice and inservice social studies education classes or in high school world history and U.S. history classes. We hope that you consider using the UDHR as a focus point of your own classes, and adopt some of these activities as well.

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Activities for Introducing, Interacting with, and Contextualizing the UDHR

Introducing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

1. …

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