Human Rights in the Social Studies

I have found human rights to be a good lens through which to examine virtually every issue in the social studies. Yet, where are human rights taught? Almost exclusively as part of Holocaust education or in the foreign affairs unit of a government course. This is not enough.

We need to teach our students the basics of human rights and to provide them with a framework and language to use as they encounter these issues in all their social studies courses. For example, in studying U.S. history, a unit on the colonies would benefit from references to the human rights now embedded in the UDHR, including these examples: taxation without representation (Article 19, Freedom of Opinion; Article 17, Right to Property; and Article 21, Right to Participation in Government); religious freedom (Article 18, Freedom of Belief and Religion); slavery (Article 4, Freedom from Slavery)

All U.S. government courses should include human rights standards by which the performance of government can be measured. When one discusses each of the three branches of government, it would be a good exercise to examine which articles of the UDHR apply to that branch, and how the government is measuring up in protecting the human rights of the people. As education about the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights is a required part of government courses, this is a perfect opportunity to compare our documents with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to see where they are alike and how they differ. One can ask the fundamental question: “Can one explain all the differences by the fact that the UDHR, except by subsequent treaty, is not enforceable and the U.S. Constitution is?”

Economics courses are sometimes critized for being taught in a way that does not reflect values other than the need for a free market and methods for improving the economy and increasing profits. This criticism may be addressed by using the human rights framework to show how various economic actions raise or lower the standard of living for all people in a country, affect workers, and affect indigenous peoples. Another example of its relevance involves the current debate over foreign policy toward China, and whether human rights concerns should be attached to an economic policy.

Law courses should also include human rights, which provide a way to measure whether our laws are achieving the goal of justice. It is not difficult to see how many societal issues have human rights aspects to them. For example, the issue of excessive fraternity hazing can be related to UDHR Article 3, Personal Security. The issue of homelessness obviously relates to UDHR Article 25, Right to Adequate Living Standard. Affirmative action relates to UDHR Article 1, Equality and Article 2, Freedom from Discrimination. It also involves group rights, which are not listed in the UDHR, but have arisen out of Article 27, Right to Participate in the Cultural Life of Community.

In global studies, we should examine other cultures and practices that may involve the violation of human rights. As almost every country belongs to the United Nations and has endorsed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such discussion is relevant in the study of global issues.



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