Teaching Progress: A Critique of the Grand Narrative of Human Rights as Pedagogy for Marginalized Students

By Linde, Robyn; Arthur, Mikaila Mariel Lemonik | Radical Teacher, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Teaching Progress: A Critique of the Grand Narrative of Human Rights as Pedagogy for Marginalized Students


Linde, Robyn, Arthur, Mikaila Mariel Lemonik, Radical Teacher


Introduction

After the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, education about human rights became an important focus of the new human rights regime and a core method of spreading its values throughout the world. The story of human rights is consistently presented as a progressive teleology that contextualizes the expansion of rights within a larger grand narrative of liberalization, emancipation, and social justice. Most modern narratives of human rights begin with World War II and demonstrate the learning and adapting of social movements over time, from the U.S. Civil Rights movement to the Arab Spring to #Black Lives Matter.

Drawing on our experience as professors who teach human rights, social justice, and social movements courses at an urban college in Providence, R.I., with a student body that includes large populations who are of color, first generation, economically disadvantaged, and nontraditional in other ways, we explore the relevance and impact of these grand narratives for the lives of our students and their sense of political agency. In particular, we advocate for a critical approach to human rights pedagogy to counter and overcome the pervasive individualization that undergirds the grand narrative of human rights. We argue that a critical (and radical) human rights pedagogy must evaluate the position of the individual in modern life if liberation through human rights law and activism is to be possible. By challenging the individualization that forms the basis of the grand narrative of human rights, we can unlock the power and promise of human rights and social justice education as a driver of student and community agency.

Our Institutional Setting and Students

Located in Providence, Rhode Island College (RIC) is a comprehensive four-year public college offering a variety of degrees in the liberal arts and sciences, as well as professional and vocational degrees at the bachelor's and master's levels. We enroll just over 8,500 students, of about 7,500 are undergraduates. Sixty-nine percent of our students are female; sixty-three percent of undergraduates are white, eight percent black, and 14 percent Latino/a, with smaller numbers identifying as Asian, American Indian, and multiracial, and these numbers--particularly those of Latino/a students--are steadily rising. Twenty-four percent of our undergraduates are above the age of 24, and many have considerable family obligations, including caring for children, siblings, parents, and disabled relatives. Almost 86 percent of our students are from Rhode Island, with another 11.7 percent living outside of Rhode Island but within 50 miles of campus, mostly in Massachusetts; about 85 percent of undergraduates commute to campus (RIC Office of Institutional Research and Planning 19, 23, 26).

Approximately half of our students are first-generation college students, and the majority work to pay their tuition. Among undergraduate degree-seeking students, twenty-four percent attend part-time (personal communication, Director of Institutional Research and Planning).

The authors of this paper are two faculty members who teach undergraduate courses in political science, nongovernmental organizations, sociology, and justice studies. Between us, we also have considerable experience teaching in other types of institutions, including flagship public research universities and selective private colleges; however, our analysis in this paper is based primarily on our collective teaching experience with RIC students in particular.

Human Rights as a Grand Narrative

Human rights education has long been a central method of diffusing human rights norms, principles, and values. As discussed elsewhere in this issue of Radical Teacher, education was prominently featured in the vision of global progress articulated in the UDHR after the founding of the United Nations in 1945. …

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