Human Rights Education: An Elementary School Level Case Study By Megumi Yamasaki Ph. D. Thesis Completed June 2002 University of Minnesota Education Policy & Administration/Comparative & International Development Education Chapter 1

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Practical Knowledge/Wisdom

How can the knowledge students learn in class be helpful and useful for them in day-to-day activities especially when the concepts go beyond their community, their country and their time? Meintjes (1997) points to the importance of people’s concrete and practical experiences in seeing the relevance and value of human rights. Knowledge becomes useful when it applies to real life.

Any knowledge which is acquired through education needs to be used in our lives, although that does not always happen. Misgeld (1994) raises questions regarding how practical knowledge or wisdom has been learned throughout history and how experiences of the human race can be integrated with the knowledge of how societies work (or do not work), how politics function and how schools and other educational institutions function in reality. Tarrow (1992) states that HRE can serve as a unifying structure that would bridge knowledge learned at school and through human experiences. HRE gives people a tool to critically examine the information and knowledge learned and experienced and to apply them to their lives.

The implementation of HRE, therefore, requires not just learning about human rights by government and system, but also by every individual (Meintjes, 1997). Human rights educators need to show individuals examples of using knowledge, and of putting it into practice. The educators need to talk with people who resist such education. That means that HRE requires a horizontal relationship and dialogue to be effective (Freire, 1993; Meintjes, 1997). Through this education, students become able to think critically, to examine and make decisions based on the information. HRE, as we are talking about it here, is not only education about human rights, but also education for human rights. Otsu (1992) calls for education which tries to solve problems through participation in social activities (teaching for development, peace, human rights, and the environment), i.e., a switch from obtaining more knowledge (teaching about development, peace, human rights, and the environment) to using the knowledge acquired through education into students’ action in society.


Students must acquire an attitude of appreciation for such principles as freedom, tolerance, fairness and respect for truth and for the non-violent resolution of social and political problems (Lister, 1984). If our knowledge does not inform our attitudes, wisdom, and ability to critically examine events around us, our knowledge loses its purpose. We must remember why we study and learn.

People must also have a sense of justice and a belief in humanity’s need for a non-violent society. Otherwise, the skills learned in HRE can be used to discriminate against and to oppress people. For example, in the name of freedom of speech, so many people were hurt by others, and some people abuse freedom of opinion and information to violate other’s rights. The sense of justice creates an atmosphere which will not tolerate any form of human rights violation, and belief in humanity’s need for peace makes people incapable of accepting others’ suffering–strong motivation for action.


Skills include information processing, analysis/organization and action/advocacy (Lister, 1984). These skills are very important for students and for society, in fact, to transform our knowledge into critical thinking and then into actions. Education is not only for self-enrichment or learning for learning’s sake, but also for the good of other people and society by putting learning into action.

Critical analysis must be used for problem solving from a human rights perspective. Based upon the concepts and values of human rights, we can look at the issues and problems that we face in our daily lives, as well as world-wide problems. By nurturing students’ humane core values and respect for others, issues and problems in our community and in the world can be approached and examined. If we cannot solve our own problems or stand up for our rights, how can we do so for other people on this earth? It is critical for us to build a solid foundation of human rights in students’ lives when they are developmentally young, so that they can construct more humane and responsible values for themselves and others.

According to the Partners (1997), in HRE, action skills are the most important part of the education. Without action based on knowledge, society would not change. Hence, awareness and consciousness about one’s role in the protection or promotion of these rights in the context is critical. HRE helps students explore ways to examine situations and take action accordingly. It encourages them to use non-violent resolutions to social and political problems (Lister, 1984). We must learn how to solve conflict without violence.

Meintjes (1997) has several suggestions for developing action skills. They are a) changing attitudes toward other people and situations, b) using dialogue and reflection exercises aimed at values clarification, c) promoting solidarity, and d) using programs and techniques directed toward the empowerment of students.

These skills, which students gain through HRE, will be their tools for empowerment. How students use them in real life will show the real effect of the education. So as Meintjes (1997) states, this education’s success is totally up to the people who have gone through it determining the extent to which they will practice their skills outside the educational setting as well as whether they will feel empowered. In the end, what makes education work is people. Without actions, people’s good ideas, thoughts and theories have little meaning.

Misgeld (1994) calls for HRE which goes beyond knowledge content, social urgency, and public desirability. He states that it is important to “know what kinds of educational practices are conducive to the practice of respect for human rights and what this means, and how the relevant knowledge fits into the entire context of the production of knowledge in the school (and possibly also into other social institutions)” (p. 242).

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