Teaching Human Rights

IMG_3874In the spring of 2015, I taught Phillips Exeter Academy’s senior seminar on human rights for the first time. I had an extraordinary group of students, which included youth with strong passions for global justice and deep family connections to communities across the globe, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Turkey, and China.

Limiting myself to what we could cover reasonably well in just shy of 40 class periods (this involved painful cuts, which I addressed at least in a limited way by giving ample freedom for students to conduct individual case studies at the end), I developed this broad outline:

  1. Preliminary Considerations and Inquiries. Reading Naguib Mahfouz’s The Journey of Ibn Fattouma – the global architecture of civilizations, the abuse of power, the utopian dream, and the human struggle for freedom, dignity, and justice. Preliminary readings of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
  2. Historical and Philosophical Foundations. The evolution and definition of “human rights” in historical, philosophical, and cross-cultural perspectives. Case studies of women’s rights, migrant workers’ rights, and LGBTQ rights as human rights.
  3. Human Rights in the Age of Genocides. Case studies of Bosnia, Rwanda, and the International Criminal Court.
  4. Human Rights in the 21st Century. Human rights after 9/11: surveillance, torture, counterterrorism, and the future of global human rights.
  5. Student Projects. Individual case study of a human rights organization (Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, Journalists for Human Rights, etc.), a human rights issue (press freedom, prisoners of conscience, mass incarceration, female genital mutilation, sex/human trafficking, rights of indigenous/first peoples, food sovereignty, etc.), a human rights activist (Aung San Suu Kyi, Wangari Maathai, the Dalai Lama, Bryan Stevenson, et al.), or the human rights landscape of a particular nation (the United States, Syria, China, Russia, Myanmar, etc.).

These books figured prominently in the course, in my preparation and assignments:

  • Naguib Mahfouz, The Journey of Ibn Fattouma
  • Excerpts from Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society
  • Andrew Clapham, Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction
  • Richard Falk, Achieving Human Rights
  • Jack Donnelly, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice 
  • Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide

These films played a central role in the course:

Guest speakers with connections to human rights policy also enhanced the curriculum immeasurably: Jackie Weatherspoon shared her experiences from the Beijing and Beijing + 20 conferences on women’s rights as human rights (as well as her work in Bosnia-Herzegovina with OSCE), Alexis Simpson spoke about agricultural labor policy and food justice, and Vicki Riskin introduced the students to the work of Human Rights Watch.

Throughout the course, we examined the obstacles to achieving a world in which human rights thrive, as well as inspiring examples of individuals, communities, and organizations standing up for human rights, international solidarities, and global justice. In the end — I’ll admit some bias 🙂 — I came away feeling that this sort of course constitutes a perfect capstone for education in the liberal arts.

About Tom Simpson

Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, philosophy, and human rights at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH. He is the author of *American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940* (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) and nonfiction essays about Bosnia for the Canadian literary magazine *Numero Cinq*. Born in 1975 in Olean, NY, he earned the Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia, where he specialized in American religious history. He writes, teaches, and lectures about religion in America, popular culture, Mormonism, and Bosnia. He lives in Exeter with his partner, Alexis Simpson, and their two children.
This entry was posted in Books, Bosnia, Ethics, Feminism, Film, Gender, Human Rights, Peacebuilding, Social Justice, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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