Teaching the declaration of human rights.

Author:Zandy, Janet
Position::Essay
 
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"What is your greatest fear?"

"I fear leaving college and not being able to find a job and working at McDonald's the rest of my life."

The technologically-determined and career-focused private university where I teach has state of the arts programs in photography, computer science, new media, and many permutations of engineering, but no undergraduate or graduate degrees in English or history. The quarter system is unforgiving and, not unrelated, retention is a major concern. Art students hope for their big break and information technologists worry about finding required co-ops. Everyone knows that the real money these days--for grants, research funding--is in some manifestation of homeland security.

In this climate, teaching in the liberal arts is a refuge and a challenge. One of those challenges is a theme- centered Senior Seminar course that all students must take if they wish to graduate. The present theme is Globalization, Human Rights, and Citizenship. I like teaching this course even though I know that many students dislike this requirement, and some are outright belligerent and hostile to it. I think of the course as taking students where they do not necessarily want to go and I assign a variety of texts, films, lectures, even comics to open dialogic spaces for perceiving the intersection of globalization, human rights, and citizenship. I want them to question how their training for jobs fits into a larger geo- political and humanistic space, but I have to find subtle ways to get there or they will stubbornly and predictably shut down. And, so, I practice a variant of samizdat pedagogy.

I always begin with a central, grounding document: the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Almost all students have never seen it before or heard of it. It is a useful pedagogical troublemaker. From the start, a vocal minority of students make it clear: human rights are not a given. At first glance, their response (invariably from highly technical, white, suburban males) highlights the distance between those protesting in anti-capitalist globalization demonstrations and those programming the security systems that sustain the Patriot Act, the prison system, as well as the more mundane slow passage through any airport. Some--not all--of these technologically sophisticated and outspoken students champion a social Darwinism of survival of the fittest, an ideology of choice without any consideration of circumstances. Or, in the words of one...

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