Human Rights: How to Teach and Learn?
Sungkyunkwan University, Department of Sociology
As the cultural approach to human rights has proved to have more strength than the legal approach in the last few decades, human rights education has been receiving greater attention. In 1995, the United Nations declared United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995 – 2004). Since then, human rights education for law enforcers, students, and ordinary citizens has expanded to a global level. As UNESCO expanded its UNESCO Associated School project, which started in 1953, more than 2,000 schools in 150 countries around the world have joined the movement. Even the curriculum in elementary and middle schools in China is reported to be changing with the focus on human rights and world citizenship since the early 2000s. Universities are not exceptions. In South Korea, more than 50 universities have introduced more than 100 courses on human rights.
There are mainly two approaches to human rights education. One is to diffuse knowledge of human rights through formal education, and the other is to become friendlier towards human rights through informal education, such as campaigns and club activities. The former sees human rights as a system of knowledge to be taught like standard school subjects, such as social studies, ethics, or history, and therefore argues that history, institutions, and main issues of human rights should be taught in class. The latter regards human rights as a cross-cutting theme, which should be treated more empirically. The formal education approach is compelling as it brings the issue of human rights to the mainstream, but fails to effectively address its normative features. The informal approach has the advantage of being empirical and approachable, but lacks forcibility. Which, then, is the better approach? How should we teach and learn human rights?
Meyer-Ramirez’s research team from Stanford University recently published an interesting research result based on approximately 700 textbooks of social studies, ethics, and history from 70 countries. The research shows that human rights have been broadly taught regardless of region or culture since the 1990s. Students, in particular, are regarded as voluntary and participatory entities with needs and desire rather than having a simply passive objective of education, and more emphasis is put on their rights. However, the critical conclusion of the research is essential. It questions whether human rights education has allowed students to have a critical perspective on human rights and motivated them to apply such learning to their individual lives, since the curriculum is mostly formalized and fails to deal with human rights issues that respective countries face.
Human rights education in South Korea is criticized for similar reasons. Even though the 8th educational reform widely incorporated numerous issues of human rights in social and cultural courses, very few university students state that they had learned about human rights in middle school or high school. Even fewer students report that their vague learning of human rights has affected their values or ways of life. Many say that no one will care unless the College Scholastic Ability Test includes human rights as a part of the college entrance exam. Many teachers skip sections on them, saying “human rights are important, but not important enough. We don’t have much time [until the college entrance exam.]” Experts criticize that many teachers are not equipped with knowledge or a certain level of awareness regarding human rights. Thus, is the subject human right well taught and learned?
Last spring, Sungkyunkwan University opened a course on international human rights for the first time as a mandatory course in its liberal arts curriculum. The course aimed to teach various aspects of human rights, such as its concept, philosophy, history, institution, international norms, the public opinion, media, development, education, and international refugees from the perspective of “social science.” This advanced course was taught for 16 weeks based on empirical social science research, and about 60 students conducted successful presentations in fluent English and remarkable content. Passionate discussions continued, and the eyes of students sparkled. However, was this course well taught and well learned? Did it really increase students’ sensitivity towards human rights? I am curious whether the student actually came to think human rights issues as their own; or their friends, families, or neighbors’. I wonder whether the students now think and act according to these worldwide issues. To be honest, I am not sure; nor am I convinced. This is because I am not sure whether I touched their heart and soul through human rights as a professor, and even if I did, I question to what extent. I have opened many similar courses at nationally renowned universities in Korea, but I am still not convinced. Why?
The formal approach and the informal approach to human rights are not mutually exclusive. But actually, they should be. However, both professors and students should not make a mistake of perceiving human rights as a simple system of knowledge or tool to career advancement. Human rights is not a tool to establish a passageway to international organizations. Learning about and employing this subject for career advancement are, of course, important. And it is not wrong to utilize these means as stepping stones to ultimately achieve one’s goal.
However, we must accept that human rights education is a process of self-discipline and self-transformation that requires patience. Therefore, it is better to perceive human rights education as an informal “transformative learning process.” It should raise questions about anti-human rights customs and practices within and outside of the realm of schools, communities, and societies, and motivate students to think about idealistic alternatives to overcome issues discovered.
I envision that Sungkyunkwan University may open a new core liberal arts course in three years. How about Practicing Human Rights for its title?