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Teaching human rights in schools: ‘Who am I to say that democracy is the right way?’

“What could very easily happen with teaching about human rights is indoctrination…so let’s say someone says that racism isn’t wrong. Okay, so what would happen is that ‘racism is wrong. You have to learn it’. That’s the way it would be taught… Actually, I think a debate around that is needed, because I don’t think you can say that intrinsically racism is wrong. You can say that as a society, we’ve formed a set of values that have concluded that racism is wrong.”

When a primary school teacher says something like this to you as a researcher, it makes you sit up and take notice. Whilst it would be comforting to think that this is simply the isolated perspective of one wayward teacher, my research into teachers’ perceptions of educating primary school children about human rights was punctuated by similarly troubling viewpoints. One teacher found it difficult to talk about the atrocities that happened at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp without telling the children in her classroom that “this is the most heinous crime ever imagined”, following this up with “and you can’t do that, so it’s very difficult.” Another was loathe to teach that democracy was “the right way,” because she didn’t want to influence, but rather to simply “open children’s eyes.” Her final comment on this issue being “who am I to say that democracy is the right way?”

These deeply concerning viewpoints were revealed in the context of discussions about teaching on one particular issue: human rights. Whilst some saw the topic as simply too dry, legal or complex for children at the stage of formal primary schooling, others identified its inherently controversial nature as the fundamental problem.

Image provided by Alison Struthers, used with permission.

Empirical findings such as these are perhaps unsurprising in light of widespread misconception and sensationalism surrounding human rights. Human rights journalism has shifted from being the almost exclusive remit of specialist sections of the UK press to donning the front pages of mainstream, largely tabloid, newspapers. When human rights issues make the headlines, these are bold, attention grabbing and, more often than not, bear only an ounce of resemblance to the truth.

Some of these tabloid stories in particular have become so notorious that it would be difficult to find a person in the UK unaware of them: the human right to a family life enabling an illegal immigrant to remain in the UK because he owned a pet cat is one such tale; a convicted serial killer drawing upon human rights as justification for obtaining access to hardcore pornography whilst incarcerated is another. These stories are frequently drawn upon to support the proposition that human rights protection has gone too far in the UK; that the human rights framework is abused by those who are unworthy, such as prisoners or those claiming on tenuous grounds that they have a right to a family life in this country

It’s unsurprising, therefore, that teachers reveal perceptions of human rights-related issues as too controversial for classroom teaching. When great swathes of the public are influenced and affected by hyperbolized or erroneous media portrayals of human rights, it’s simply unrealistic to expect teachers to be immune to them. Teachers view human rights as: too scary; too political; liable to antagonise parents with particular viewpoints; or largely irrelevant to children in this country who “already have their rights.” For many teachers, therefore, it’s “just not worth it” or “safer not to teach it.”

Something of a vicious circle is the inevitable result, however: teachers are reluctant to teach about human rights in a cultural landscape that remains sceptical of them; learners then emerge from formal education with little understanding and acceptance of human rights; negative perceptions of human rights persist and affect the next generation of teachers; and so on.

Education on human rights and their underlying values is arguably of fundamental importance for enabling children to recognise that human rights are not just applicable to those suffering in distant war-ravaged or hunger ridden countries but are equal and inalienable standards that belong to everyone simply by virtue of their common humanity.

Teachers, therefore, need to become more comfortable and confident about teaching on human rights values and principles, even in the face of perceived parental objection. Only by breaking the cyclical problem identified above will change be possible, through equipping the next generation with the knowledge, values, and skills necessary to contribute to the building of a broader culture that is respectful of human rights.

Featured image credit: classroom-student-students-lesson by hdornak. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Spiro Ozer

    Statements such as “racism is wrong” and “democracy is the right way” cannot be considered as unequivocally true even by those who are inclined toaccept them. Aside from any other considerations, the words “racism”, “democracy”, “right”, and “wrong” (let alone “is”) do not mean the same thing to each participant. These matters have been very extensively discussed by philosophers for thousands of years. There is no excuse for the author to be unaware of them, much less to sneer at people who perhaps understand a little more of the complexities of moral theory, despite being mere teachers.

  2. Pablo

    From our own experience, I can say that this issue, unfortunately, is still controversial, mainly for ideological points of view. As a retired school teacher, I can say que human rights education has been a wonderful and enriching experience. I think that this is so, because I believe that when we talk about human rights, we are specking about us as human beings, not of legal or theorethical matters, even though these factors are also important.

  3. Margaret Ellis

    Racism is wrong on scientific grounds. “The Human Genome Project states “People who have lived in the same geographic region for many generations may have some alleles in common, but no allele will be found in all members of one population and in no members of any other.”[83] (Wikipedia). This means there is no such thing as “race”; there are no subspecies to homo sapiens. One can discern common behaviours of people living together in the same location for a long time, but that has nothing to do with race. To teach children that racism is morally repugnant, because our culture think it is, is educational failure.

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