Teaching progress: a critique of the grand narrative of human rights as pedagogy for marginalized students.

Author:Linde, Robyn


After the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, education about human rights became an important focus of the new human rights regime and a core method of spreading its values throughout the world. The story of human rights is consistently presented as a progressive teleology that contextualizes the expansion of rights within a larger grand narrative of liberalization, emancipation, and social justice. Most modern narratives of human rights begin with World War II and demonstrate the learning and adapting of social movements over time, from the U.S. Civil Rights movement to the Arab Spring to #Black Lives Matter.

Drawing on our experience as professors who teach human rights, social justice, and social movements courses at an urban college in Providence, R.I., with a student body that includes large populations who are of color, first generation, economically disadvantaged, and nontraditional in other ways, we explore the relevance and impact of these grand narratives for the lives of our students and their sense of political agency. In particular, we advocate for a critical approach to human rights pedagogy to counter and overcome the pervasive individualization that undergirds the grand narrative of human rights. We argue that a critical (and radical) human rights pedagogy must evaluate the position of the individual in modern life if liberation through human rights law and activism is to be possible. By challenging the individualization that forms the basis of the grand narrative of human rights, we can unlock the power and promise of human rights and social justice education as a driver of student and community agency.

Our Institutional Setting and Students

Located in Providence, Rhode Island College (RIC) is a comprehensive four-year public college offering a variety of degrees in the liberal arts and sciences, as well as professional and vocational degrees at the bachelor's and master's levels. We enroll just over 8,500 students, of about 7,500 are undergraduates. Sixty-nine percent of our students are female; sixty-three percent of undergraduates are white, eight percent black, and 14 percent Latino/a, with smaller numbers identifying as Asian, American Indian, and multiracial, and these numbers--particularly those of Latino/a students--are steadily rising. Twenty-four percent of our undergraduates are above the age of 24, and many have considerable family obligations, including caring for children, siblings, parents, and disabled relatives. Almost 86 percent of our students are from Rhode Island, with another 11.7 percent living outside of Rhode Island but within 50 miles of campus, mostly in Massachusetts; about 85 percent of undergraduates commute to campus (RIC Office of Institutional Research and Planning 19, 23, 26).

Approximately half of our students are first-generation college students, and the majority work to pay their tuition. Among undergraduate degree-seeking students, twenty-four percent attend part-time (personal communication, Director of Institutional Research and Planning).

The authors of this paper are two faculty members who teach undergraduate courses in political science, nongovernmental organizations, sociology, and justice studies. Between us, we also have considerable experience teaching in other types of institutions, including flagship public research universities and selective private colleges; however, our analysis in this paper is based primarily on our collective teaching experience with RIC students in particular.

Human Rights as a Grand Narrative

Human rights education has long been a central method of diffusing human rights norms, principles, and values. As discussed elsewhere in this issue of Radical Teacher, education was prominently featured in the vision of global progress articulated in the UDHR after the founding of the United Nations in 1945. Human rights education became part of educational systems globally, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, and a part of curricula in the study of history, law, and the social sciences in colleges and universities (Webster 188-189).

There are many approaches to teaching human rights. The most common is to introduce students to the legal guarantees afforded them in international human rights law (Ely-Yamin 652). In these classrooms, the story of human rights is constructed or presented as a morality tale, replete with starkly drawn heroes and villains. The heroes emerged triumphant from the horror and chaos of World War II and formed a global society with the goals of ending impunity for gross human rights violations and applying universal jurisdiction for human rights crimes.

There is a progressive teleology that haunts most narratives of human rights, one that leads to a steadily expanding corps of rights being conferred upon ever increasing groups of marginalized peoples. Human rights museums are cropping up all over the world to tell this story, to contextualize new within old struggles. In this narrative, for example, voting rights expanded rapidly from the British reform acts of the 19th century, which empowered growing numbers of men, to the women's suffragette movement, enfranchising huge numbers of people around the world in little over a century. The rapid succession of other post-material rights and protections, such as protection from discrimination based on race, serves to further demonstrate the larger trajectory of human rights. Social movements seeking such rights learn from one another, adapting strategies and frames to suit their needs.

An important part of this narrative is the move from impunity to criminal sanctions for gross human rights violations and violators. This theme of accountability is traced from its origins at the trials of war criminals at Nuremburg to the international criminal tribunals of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and to the ongoing work of the International Criminal Court today. The speed with which these changes occurred, mostly in the decades after World War II, lent credence to the idea of the inevitability of human progress and liberation. This master narrative of the march of progress can be seen most recently in the rapid societal acceptance and legal diffusion of marriage equality in the United States. The story's appeal is simple, strong, and obvious: it is easy to seamlessly weave these events together and see the arc of human history in high relief.

Western history also plays an important role. In Europe, the individual states, long at war with one another, joined forces to reject the fascism and barbarism of the past and spread human rights norms to the world. Europe's moral authority comes not only from its means (normative) but also from its narrative--its transcendence of the depravity of the Holocaust and other horrors of World War II. Its authority on human rights stems in large part from the strength of its story, its historical transformation from war-torn region to moral arbiter.

The American contribution to this narrative is threefold. First, the United States mythologizes its national origin as the world-changing story of a valiant underdog, a ragtag band of freedom fighters who fought the English king for independence and won. Its victory in 1776 is understood as central to global emancipation, the start of a cascade of democratization that continues to this day. Second, the United States positions itself historically not only as the victor of World War II, but as largely responsible for the more "peaceful" and "prosperous" world that followed. Third, the prevailing narrative depicts a United States that went astray after September 11, went on to be humbled and to become more humane, chastened by past failures, especially those in the Second Gulf War and Rwanda, and now seeks to (re)claim its moral authority through humanitarian intervention in Libya, Uganda, Syria, and Iraq.

What is important about the prevailing human rights narrative is not its veracity, but how it is used to contextualize European and American values, norms, and action within a larger progressive telos. We claim in this paper that this historical narrative of global history, one that "bends toward justice," (1) has a purpose, impact, and outcome, that this narrative engenders a seamless connection between cause and effect that makes certain global futures possible and others impossible.

The impact of the grand narrative is explored in the work of Makau Mutua, who suggests that it is obscured by claims to rights and freedoms couched in neutral or universal language (206). Citing Louis Henkin, Philip Alston, and Thomas Franck, Mutua argues that the human rights script is widely recognized as "the key to the redemption of humanity" (210). The narrative itself, though grounded in a particular interpretation of history, is ahistorical, its universality and continuity evidence of its validity. Even so, it also expropriates history, neatly arranging major historical events on a linear path toward human rights (Mutua 213). Rejecting the notion that the ends justify the means in terms of human progress, Mutua contends that the narrative is rooted in European colonialism, and that it represents a continuation of the cultural dominance that has been exercised for many centuries (204, 210, 219).

The history of human rights is cast to serve an agenda, and that agenda often does not leave space for students to confront the hard truths that can provide real opportunities for critical reflection. Such reflection is aimed toward questioning an existing explanation, or causal account, for particular phenomena; it also offers other lenses through which to interpret and understand phenomena. The ability to craft a causal story is itself a type of power (Barnett and Duvall 43, Guzzini 506). For example, the grand narrative of human rights suggests that World War II broke out in response to the human rights violations...

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