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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Challenges to Human Rights Education


Problems with HRE in Schools

While the previous chapter has introduced some of the positive aspects of HRE, resistance, difficulties and challenges cannot be ignored. For example, the program which is the focus of this case study, The Partners, points to ten oppositions to teaching and learning about human rights in school. They are adapted from Lister’s (1991) The Challenge of Human Rights Education edited by Starkey.



  1. Human rights are too complex for immature minds (an argument also made about other activities—such as political education and economics).

  2. Human rights [theory] over-stresses rights and under-stresses responsibilities.

  3. To teach human rights is a form of indoctrination, in which the teacher becomes a preacher (albeit of a secular religion).

  4. Human rights teachers are usually more interested in social change (or in subversion) than in maintaining the fabric of society.

  5. Human rights is a culture-bound conception, born in Western Europe and North America, foisted on the world in 1948.

  6. There is no consensus about what it is ‘to have a right,’ and no consensus about human rights in general. Schools should teach only those things about which consensus exists.

  7. Human[s] are too individualistic and private. Group rights, collective rights and the importance of public domain are under-represented.

  8. If we arrogate to ourselves the right to pass judgment upon, and seek to interfere with, the internal administration of justice in other countries, we are in effect according to them the same right of judgment and interference in our own. There is no good so great that it is worth purchasing it at the price of national independence (Extract from a letter by a politician to a school teacher who had invited the politician to make a statement in support of a human rights exhibition mounted by students in a comprehensive school.)

  9. Human rights issues are complex, long-term, and often intractable. Teaching about them can give students a feeling of impotence, rather than enable them to act upon issues and affect their outcomes.

  10. Teachers of human rights go too far. They are not satisfied with teaching about human rights. They want to teach for human rights. They want “human rights schools” and “human rights classrooms.” They assert women’s rights, children’s rights, and animal rights. Some even talk of the “rights of trees.” Ordinary citizens will not support this.

(Lister, 1991; Training Manual, 1997, C.2.2)

HRE as Revolutionary


As the third and fourth items suggest, people who work and/or teach for human rights are often considered revolutionaries (Lister, 1991). Even if people in general agree with UDHR and see the value of it, as soon as people start to talk about the rights of others, either a person or a group, all of a sudden the UDHR concept is judged rebellious or revolutionary. When the concept challenges people’s own beliefs and culture, teaching about human rights can meet great resistance. Hence, it is easy to see the tenth item coming. Because the most important part of HRE is teaching action skills, some people will have an enormous difficulty when education requires actions which contradict or threaten observers’ beliefs.

Challenging Existing Social Values


Tarrow (1992) contends that HRE has a controversial nature, especially when it does not match the social norm. To challenge school values means to challenge social values. Since, in most cases, school is serving its society to foster productive citizens, the researcher believes that challenging school values and norms means that it challenges society’s view of what “productive citizens” means. Therefore, unless the educator pays attention to such issues, i.e. challenging school and social values and norms, HRE can be threatening to people, such as students, parents, teachers, school administrators and the community, especially when these people do not like change from their routine. Hence, when school and society cannot accept and/or implement HRE at school level, “the fundamental problem is cultural and social” (Misgeld, 1994, p. 240). Misgeld also emphasizes value-conflict and conflicts between different rights. This is an important awareness for students if they are to advance their human rights understanding to the next level. Through this recognition, students gain the opportunity to see first, the reality of our society; then different beliefs, values and ways of thinking; and finally how to deal with them. If we want students to be human rights advocates, we need to present both the reality and the hope that they will apply knowledge, attitude and skills in examining situations.

Creating a just and peaceful society seems to be an extremely slow process. Yet, changes in society come only from changes of people’s minds, attitudes, and behavior. We also know that no one can force anyone to think and/or act a particular way. When we use force to achieve peace, history shows us that it seldom works. Educating and empowering people with their rights and responsibilities towards others’ rights, planting the seed of human rights for all, will be the only way to achieve a just and peaceful society. Magendzo (1994) suggests undertaking change at a slow pace. He believes that ideological struggle, which can be triggered in education and culture by HRE, can cause intense social explosions (1994). Hence, to transform a society, the process needs to be slow.


Differing Interpretations of Human Rights


Misgeld (1994) states that interpretations of human rights vary widely and may come into conflict, depending on people’s perspective and the context of application and interpretation of human rights. A right could have a different meaning for different people and/or situation. Article 19 “freedom of opinion and information” is an example. People have different opinions in general. One’s opinion does not necessarily match others. One’s interpretation of the right to one’s opinion can be different from someone else’s. The researcher believes that the article 29 “community essential to free and full development” and the article 30 “freedom from state or personal interference in the above rights” are essential to bring one’s own and other’s rights together. If people forget the responsibility of securing of other’s rights, human rights become self-centered.
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