Colleges Must Teach the Virtue of Human Rights

Human rights education is not the solution to every societal ill, but it is the foundation for identifying the source of problems and paths to solve them, Rick Halperin writes.

July 24, 2020
 
 
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Our society is under simultaneous assaults on political, cultural, economic and social norms. Many people, especially those in different generations, are polarized as we confront an accelerated pace of change against institutionalized racism, bigotry and a systemically flawed criminal justice system that for too long has targeted the marginalized because of their skin color, ethnicity, country of origin or (lower) economic standing.

I am 70 years old, and I am energized and excited to witness and support a younger generation demanding its turn at changing this country into what it can and must become in order to move forward.

I came of age during a similar era of historic and tumultuous times. I lived through the violence and internal combustion in America known as the 1960s, when the country was daily tearing itself apart with no end in sight. Snipings, bombings, assassinations and riots were tragic and common occurrences, not aberrations. From the violence inflicted either by or in the name of the government, we remember the civil rights struggles, especially in the Deep South, and the incessant racialized killings of those who followed Martin Luther King Jr. and his moral crusade to pressure leaders to make good on the promise of human dignity for all.

The war in Vietnam played out nightly on our television screens and then on our college campuses and in the streets of America. There were simultaneous calls for human dignity for the LGBTQ community emanating from the Stonewall Inn riots in New York and gender equality with the onset of the women’s movement, as well as a recognition of the poverty, marginalization and seeming invisibility in their own country of Native Americans and of the rights of elderly Americans who needed and demanded governmental action to assist their own struggle for dignity.

The government’s response was a generic crackdown in the name of “law and order” against these oppressed groups long denied access to political power and human dignity. The flag, nationalism, patriotism and “for love of country” was brought out, and those who sought change were told that when it came to this country, they could either “love it or leave it.”

One of the traditional institutions in this country heard the cries and demands of its younger generations, namely, higher education. Many colleges and universities changed their curriculum and made it more reflective of the issues that were playing out in the country in the 1960s and early 1970s. Institutions created and offered both programs and degrees in specific areas of African American studies, ethnic studies, women's and gender studies, Native American studies, and genocide and Holocaust studies.

Graduating students who became the new generational leaders had opportunities both in and out of the classroom to expand their knowledge of this country. They were able specifically to look at American and world history through the eyes of the oppressed instead of through the eyes and actions of the oppressors.

A parallel opportunity is again at hand for the education system and our civic leaders in this country -- and indeed, the world.

All that we are witnessing unfold before us comprise issues central to human rights. The most fundamental human rights issue anyone has is the right to a life with dignity and rights. Yet in this country, halfway through 2020, we have virtually no culture of human rights. Usually if human rights is mentioned, it is embedded in a political statement about a problem facing another country elsewhere in this world. America continues to avoid putting itself under the microscope of self-reflection in the current struggles of Black Lives Matter.

Tearing down racist monuments and eliminating racist images is a start to redress the historic wrongs. But much more fundamental and structural change is necessary.

What is missing in America today is mandatory human rights education starting in kindergarten and continuing through the college experience. Educational institutions should offer a human rights curriculum alongside chemistry, engineering, history, business and the arts. Every generation will eventually get a turn at running our cities, our states and this nation. This one will be ill equipped without access to the study of human rights. Students who reach a college classroom should never say that they have never heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Declaration of Sentiments, the My Lai massacre, the Santos Rodriguez killing, the tragedy at Jackson State College, the Stonewall riots or Emmett Till or Breonna Taylor.

There are almost 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States, yet only seven offer an undergraduate degree in human rights. I am honored to be associated with the human rights program at Southern Methodist University. Our graduates are currently working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, serving as capital defense attorneys and advocates for the poor, homeless and other marginalized groups in Dallas and around the nation. Many are preparing for careers as human rights journalists or in government and will eventually bring a much-needed and different approach to understanding society’s problems.

But much more needs to be done, and quickly. The window of opportunity is now, and we should not waste it. I urge college presidents and faculty members to respond to the demands of a younger generation rightfully pushing this society to fulfill its obligations to all of its peoples. Colleges should seek funding from their community partners to provide human rights scholarships for students of need. They should incorporate human rights education into undergraduate curriculum and offer graduate programs, as well. How is it possible that in 2020, I don't know of a single Ph.D. program in human rights in the U.S.A.?

Human rights education is not the solution to every societal ill, but it is the foundation for identifying the source of problems and paths to solve them. This is not rocket science. Either we truly believe that all people, everywhere, are entitled to a life with inherent fundamental rights regardless of their race, ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, gender and the like, or we make excuses why certain groups of people, communities and countries can be ignored, bullied, abused, detained, disappeared, tortured or killed in the name of laws that see them as less than human.

Now is the time. Enough is enough. Demand dignity. Mandate human rights education for our students. There is no such thing as a lesser person.

Bio

Rick Halperin is the director of the human rights program at Southern Methodist University.

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