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Human Rights Quarterly 24.2 (2002) 537-557

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Human Rights Education and Public Policy in the United States:
Mapping the Road Ahead

Adam Stone

I. Introduction

In the last fifteen years there has been a worldwide explosion of interest in Human Rights Education (HRE), an area of education that can be defined, very basically, as "all learning that develops the knowledge, skills, and values of human rights." 1 Most HRE is based on the three seminal documents that collectively are known as the International Bill of Human Rights: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and its optional Protocol, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). 2 Some HRE materials focus on other international declarations, such as the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. 3

Despite the increasing prominence of HRE in other parts of the world—indeed, despite that the United Nations has declared 1995-2004 the Decade for Human Rights Education 4 —relatively little HRE now takes place in the primary and secondary public schools of the United States, and as yet neither the federal government nor any of the state governments have [End Page 537] articulated comprehensive public policies on HRE in those schools. This article will examine HRE and public policy in the United States. Specifically, Part II will introduce the concept of transformative, systematic HRE, and why it is needed in US schools. Part III will explore the connection between HRE and other approaches to teaching values. Part IV will outline the present state of HRE in the United States. Part V will discuss early public policy developments on HRE in the United States. Part VI will explore concerns about governmental involvement with HRE in the United States. Finally, Part VII will offer some suggestions for action.

The primary and secondary public schools of the United States need transformative, systematic HRE, and it is incumbent upon those with the most knowledge of HRE, and the most experience implementing it, to help our governments articulate strong, comprehensive public policies to ensure that these schools have HRE.

II. Transformative, Systematic HRE

As noted above, a simple definition of HRE is that it is all learning that develops the knowledge, skills, and values of human rights. The United Nations has issued a more detailed definition proclaiming that HRE is "training, dissemination, and information efforts aimed at the building of a universal culture of human rights through the imparting of knowledge and skills and the molding of attitudes." 5 These efforts, the definition continues, are designed to strengthen respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, facilitate the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, promote understanding, respect, gender equality, and friendship, enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, and further UN activities for the maintenance of peace. 6

Human Rights Education can take many forms, but most experts agree that it works best when incorporated into the existing curriculum, rather than added as a distinct subject. 7 HRE activities can take many forms as well, depending upon the age and level of sophistication of the students involved. Introductory activities may include discussions of what it means to be human and what rights all humans should enjoy, while later activities may focus on more specific issues, such as the right to education or health care. [End Page 538]

Inherent to virtually any definition of Human Rights Education, including the two given above, is the notion that to be legitimate, HRE must be transformative. In other words, it is not enough simply to teach about human rights: one must also teach for human rights, since empowerment to affect positive change and transform lives is one of the primary goals of HRE. 8 Thus the teaching of justice and democracy in a high school classroom in the United States requires a commensurate atmosphere of justice and democracy in that classroom. Without such an atmosphere, students will acquire only a formalistic knowledge, and the...


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