Bringing Human Rights Education to U.S. Classrooms: Exemplary Models from Elementary Grades to University

By Bennett, Michael | Radical Teacher, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Bringing Human Rights Education to U.S. Classrooms: Exemplary Models from Elementary Grades to University


Bennett, Michael, Radical Teacher


Bringing Human Rights Education to U.S. Classrooms: Exemplary Models from Elementary Grades to University (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) by Susan Roberta Katz and Andrea McEvoy Spero (Eds.)

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As Susan O'Malley and I discuss in the introduction to this issue of Radical Teacher, we have come to appreciate through the process of gathering and editing the essays included here that there is a growing and vibrant community of teachers dedicated to Human Rights Education (HRE). Katz's and Spero's edited volume does an admirable job of providing this community with the tools and information needed to apply the insights of HRE in a range of classroom settings, from elementary school and a junior high science class to a college course in Asian American Studies.

The two introductory chapters (one by Felisa Tibbitts and one by the editors) provide a helpful overview of HRE. They also caution that HRE is built on contested terrain. Tibbits traces this contestation to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was developed mostly by nation states of the Global North that emphasize "individual rights," as opposed to the emphasis on "collective rights" by indigenous groups and nations in the Global South; she notes that HRE is still resisted at times because of this legacy of thinking about human rights in a "top-down and hegemonic manner with little knowledge or respect for local culture" (4). Katz and Spero also train a critical eye on HRE, noting the contradiction between the U.S.'s self-image as a beacon of human rights and its failure to ratify many of the most fundamental human rights treaties (most notably being the only nation not to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child). They trace this contradiction to two sources: "U.S. 'exceptionalism' and a neoliberal, market-economy approach to education" (19). Though the subsequent essays in Bringing Human Rights Education to U.S. Classrooms are more interested in the nuts and bolts of providing HRE rather than a critical analysis of human rights discourse from a radical perspective, they provide some useful models for teachers that could be adopted and adapted from a variety of political perspectives.

The best pedagogical essays that form the core of this volume do an admirable job of keeping the contradictions of HRE in view. For instance, in the process of discussing the connection between human rights and the social construction of race and gender in "Bringing to Life Human Rights Education in the Science Classroom," Annie S. Admian makes the point that efforts to engage in HRE are undermined by the U.S.'s failure to live up to the education standards established in the UDHR, such that "U.S. public schools often embody sites of punishment and failure, rather than sites of sustenance and hope" (70). Jessie Blundell's "Each One, Teach One: The History and Legacy of the Black Panther Party (BPP) for an Elementary School Audience" explains how the BPP represented a return to the roots of the Black Radical Tradition that the mainstream Civil Rights movement had largely abandoned. Blundell brought this message home for her elementary school students in San Francisco by focusing on a local human rights campaign to free the SF 8--members of the BPP who were jailed in 2007 for refusing to give testimony regarding a 1971 case that was reopened by former San Francisco Police Department inspectors who had since been deputized as Homeland Security agents. In my favorite of the pedagogical essays, "Tout moun se moun 'Every Person is a Human Being': Understanding the Struggle for Human Rights in Haiti," Victoria Isabel Duran points to the multiple ironies of trying to engage in HRE in and about Haiti, a country devastated by the legacy of colonialism, domestic dictators, and U.S.-led "humanitarian interventions" resisted by President Aristide's appeals to the UDHR before he was deposed and then replaced by the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) that has since been accused of several violations of human rights that were codified by the UN. …

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