Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Human Rights and Education

  • Félix García Moriyón
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_333


Humanity is facing at present a deep transformation in every domain of human life: politics, economics, social relationships, religious beliefs, etc. If we accept Castells’s approach (Castells 1997), the core of this transformation is the process of globalization dominated by the web and the flows of information. Both web and flows are characterized by flexibility, so that they can adapt very fast at any change in the environment, and mobility, because they keep changing all the time. There is not any specific center of the web, only nodes that also can change, grow, and disappear.

Societies are connected through rapid, large-scale networks on interaction, modifying daily our notions of time and space. However, as long as these globalization processes are dominated by neoliberal conception of society, it is economics that is the mainstream of every policy implemented by governments and all social institutions; and only those policies that yield an increase in money benefits are the good ones, not to say that they are the only possible policies. Free market is accepted as the only point of reference and as the yardstick everybody uses to assess the achievements of social life: the more free market we have, the best for all and for everything. One of the worst consequences of this reductive approach (economics, free market, and managerial manners) is that instead of globalization offering a more inclusive and solitary relationship between nations and cultures, it has fostered exclusion and has broadened and deepened the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Poverty (cultural, social, or economic) is at present a worse problem than it was 30 years ago when the process of globalization just started its new and accelerated pace.

This pessimistic conclusion is in tune with Lyotard’s earlier analysis of the postmodern condition (Lyotard 1984). Some tendencies Lyotard identifies in advanced technological societies have not faded away; even more, they are at present more deeply rooted in social life than in 1979, when Lyotard published his critical description. I want – just for the purposes of this entry – to mention only two characteristics: first, performance and effectiveness have displaced justification as criterion of personal and social behavior, and knowledge, as any other thing, has been commercialized to the point of becoming one of the main commodities in economic markets; second, people have difficulties in accepting a vision of humanity as a whole (“metanarratives”), and they have the tendency to take into account only individualistic conceptions of human action where everybody upholds their parochial and limited point of view. The impressive growth of nongovernmental organization in the last years can be understood as a good example of this narrow-minded approach to the problems of humankind: people feel more comfortable cooperating in small organizations that focus on very specific and concrete goals. At the same time, private, charitable, and nonprofit organizations replace the more systemic and inclusive project of the welfare State.

So, what we have got in the course of these last two decades is a big global market where everybody and everything is transformed in a potential commodity ready to be sold or bought in the market or listed in the stock exchange that, thanks to the web, is open 24 hours a day for buyers all around the world longing for making money as fast as possible. The growing rate of immigrant workers, living and working in subhuman conditions, the increase in women trade and white slavery, or the augmentation of exploitation of children in too many countries is just the ugliest and more terrible consequence of those tendencies. At the same time, what we are missing is some common values that, as Arendt used to say, allow us to build a civil democratic community, in such a way that we can solve conflicts without resorting to raw force and live together keeping the balance between our individual or national identities and the required universal identity.

In the Vienna Conference, summer of 1993 (United Nations 1993), after a long period of discussions and with the opposition of some countries, a declaration was signed – as you know, in the UN language, declarations are no more than a set of moral principles, without juridical or legal implications, that offer all of us a moral goal; in that document human rights were labeled in a very explicit way as universal values: “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” This universality has a double meaning. On the one hand, human rights were a conquest or achievement out of the contributions from many cultures, many countries, and many people along the history of humankind; they were not a Western-biased invention or ideology, even if we have to accept the outstanding contribution of Western civilization, mainly from 1770 onward, to transform human rights in legal precepts binding governments and also individuals. On the other hand, human rights are a minimal (although also very high or maximal) moral standard that has to be respected and enforced in every country all around the world: not any single country can reject or violate any specific right on the grounds of their specific cultural characteristics or their special social and economic conditions. Human rights are a necessary condition for human life, and they are universal, that is, they are valid for every human being whatever she/he may be: woman or man, African or European, child or adult, Muslim or Catholic, or illegal immigrant or native citizen.

So, human rights should be considered the common set of values we are looking for, and they are those values on which the global world has to be built. Any of us can become citizens of the world not because we can travel quickly and easily from one country to another, not because we can communicate with everybody else in the world using the enormous facilities that offer us the new technology of communication, and not in the least because we can buy a Kodak film, wear Nike sneakers, or eat a McDonald’s Big Burger or Chinese food in any county in the world. We are citizens of the world insofar as we actually are entitled to a set of rights that any government and its representatives (civil service, police, army, etc.) have to respect and protect, regardless of the country where I was born, the nationality written on my passport, or even the fact that I do not have any passport at all. World citizenship and holding human rights is almost one and the same thing; if we split the one from the other, we can get a banal cosmopolitanism, like another commodity in this consumerist society, instead of a reflective one that involves true and solidary respect for others (Delanty 2009).

There is, of course, a deep gap between reality (the domain of be: how human rights are respected at present) and ideality (the domain of ought: how they should be respected). This is a serious problem I cannot discuss in this entry, important as it is. There are also governments and some people, even philosophers, that do not recognize the universality of human rights and, at best, consider all the discussion about those rights as empty rhetoric, ideology, or wishful thinking; once again, I cannot discuss this criticism in this entry, criticism I have cope with in other papers and books (García Moriyón 1998). I just take for granted, or I assume, that human rights are the moral values we need to help children and all of us to become moral citizens of the world and of our own country, nation, or community. They can help us to resolve and adequately define some of the complex issues which modern societies have to face, as it is illustrated by the challenging work of many activists of human rights that know how to adapt those universalistic values to particular context, specific cultures, and societies. Even so, the problem we have to face and I want to tackle in this entry is how can we, as teachers, and the school system, teach human rights. There are, luckily, some good contributions to the teaching of human rights that I assume and can be considered as the underpinning of my own reflection (UNESCO 1995a, 1998).

The Content and the Process

To begin with, human rights is not a topic or a subject we can approach in our teaching in the same way we approach mathematics, grammar, spelling, history, or natural sciences. There is no doubt that human rights involve some specific content, some data, and information students need to know if they want to become familiar with all the questions and problems related with this domain. We can think, for example, in the history of human rights, a question people have a tendency to ignore, just considering that the rights they are entitled to have been a part of the social life of their community for hundreds of years; they have also a biased understanding of the implementation of human rights, and they used to think that the violation of basic rights is something that never happens in their own country; they are only violated in dictatorships or impoverished countries. In this narrow and specific sense, human rights education (HRE) is a discipline as any other else in the school’s curricula. The real difference becomes obvious as soon as we address the process dimension of teaching, the “know-how” dimension.

According to the point of view of almost every scholar and practitioner in teaching, you cannot teach any topic without paying attention to the “due process” imbedded in that topic. If we want children to learn mathematics, they also have to learn how to “do” mathematics: learning mathematics (language, history, or philosophy) goes together with doing mathematics (language, history, or philosophy). Although it is possible to talk about general high-order thinking skills, needed in each and every one subject matter, every discipline has its own skills, and if you do not foster those skills, you only get rote learning. It is this “doing,” necessary for teaching and learning, that makes a real difference between other disciplines and human rights: “doing” human rights is a very complex and demanding task, as much for teachers than for students. It calls for the involvement and commitment of the person as a whole, in such a way that they can become politically aware and responsible individuals and ready to engage in political and social action. HRE is closer to moral education and has to cope with problems very similar to those moral educators try to solve (Brabeck and Rogers 2000).

One of the most challenging, and more distinctive, features of human rights is that they are not legal or moral prerogatives that authorities (political, economic, educational, or whatsoever authority you can think of) bestow, concede, or give to people. A bestowed right is not a real right. They have rights only people who are able to defend or conquer their rights, to oblige authorities to the recognition, protection and respect of those rights that they are always ready to forget or violate; even more, they have righs only as long as they keep struggling for their rights, as part of a broader struggle for recognition (Honneth 1995). This is not an individualistic approach: the struggle for basic and fundamental rights has been always a cooperative and collective action where mutual aid plays a crucial role; at the same time, our rights come together with our duties in behalf of other people and of society as a whole. However, the personal commitment is an obligation any of us cannot evade. It might be the case that we need help to get our rights respected and fulfilled, sometimes because we are in extreme circumstances, as people suffering torture under dictatorships, and sometimes because certain individuals or groups cannot have power enough to defend themselves, as children, terminally ill people, or quadriplegic. However in all these cases, the help cannot go on longer than strictly needed, and the goal of the given aid is to have them back as full moral agents, empowered citizens ready to defend their rights.

Then, the aim of HRE is to empower students, that is, to give them all they need to develop or grow as active participants in their lives and as citizens able to discover their rights, to develop new rights that at present are only tentative or confused ones, and to get from authorities the recognition and respect of those rights. It, according to Biesta’s proposal, fosters the process of subjectification, together with the process of socialization (Biesta 2013). Children need, first, to develop high-order thinking skills, critical and creative, so that they can look carefully at themselves and the world around them and analyze, criticize, and make good judgments based on sound criteria and tested evidence, proposing then new alternatives to solve the problems they encounter in their activities. These cognitive dimensions are fostered as long as students have the opportunity of discussing all the questions related with human rights in the classroom, in an open, rigorous, and cooperative dialogue with their classmates and the teachers as facilitator of the discussion. The relationship between education, thinking skills, and democracy was strongly emphasized by Dewey and more recently has been the main contribution from Freire, who stressed the need of literacy to empower poor people in a democracy, and Lipman, who claimed for the presence of philosophy in the compulsory curriculum to cultivate thinking skills in the classroom, transformed in a community of inquiry committed to democracy (Lipman 1991).

In the second place, students also need to develop some specific affective dimensions that are the cornerstone of the ability of human beings in the pursuit of their own projects, human rights included. Some scholars at present prefer to talk about character education (Lickona 1992; Rest 1999), and I would agree partly with them, at least in the sense that the kind of moral citizen I am looking for in this entry needs to have a good and strong character, that is, the combination of a set of moral habits (virtues): as a consequence of the practice at school, they incorporate those competences or skills as habits of behavior. We should understand this character not as a well-defined and stable personal identity, but as a cluster of characteristics in some homeostatic relationship to one another. It involves – and what follows is not an exhaustive enumeration of personal characteristics – an accurate self-knowledge, coupled with self-confidence, that is, being conscious of our own limitations and possibilities, our strengths, and our weaknesses and then trying to braid with all of them a solid and balanced personality but at the same time flexible enough as to adapt itself to mutable circumstances. It also entails courage, strength, or the self, a cornerstone in moral behavior that can be found in many philosophers from Plato (courage) to Maquiavelo (virtu), Spinoza (conatus), or Nietzsche (will of power); courage is a quality that enables children to face difficulty and danger without fear and to act in accordance with their own beliefs, in spite of criticism and pressure from peers and other people. It is deeply related with the challenging characteristic of human rights I just mentioned before.

Another very important bunch of personal dimensions basic for human rights education are those named as social abilities or social personality. Empathy is the ability of climbing out of our own skin and into another’s; people need to develop the capacity of taking different perspectives, looking at the situation from the point of view of other people, and trying to share the feelings they have. And they must be capable of empathy not just toward their close relatives or friends but also toward people they meet for the first time, mainly people who are suffering from violence caused by other people or by themselves, or toward those who live far away from them. Other social abilities are openness, as being receptive to new ideas and different viewpoints and attitudes; tolerance, that is much more than the capacity of enduring and goes to interest and concern, to a positive attitude, for ideas, opinions, and practices that differ from one’s own, that is to say, a tendency to consider that difference and variety are a social and personal richness (UNESCO 1995b); cordiality, as the readiness to caring for other people’s well-being and to being concerned for their suffering; and, last but not least, solidarity and a cooperative disposition.

All these social attitudes are fundamental for the implementation of human rights. I agree with those who admit that human rights are always aimed at personal (individual) rights and that, then, it is meaningless to talk about the rights of a community, ethnic group, or nation, except in those cases where just the fact of belonging to a specific group (gypsies, women, children, etc.) is a handicap in the exercise of your rights or, even worse, is the reason your rights are violated (López Calera 2000). Notwithstanding in these situations we struggle for the rights of every single individual in the group, such that it is expressed in the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In any case, even if we talk about personal rights, they are only meaningful in a society where everybody else is entitled to the same rights as us. This social dimension of human rights has two different sides. First, rights are always a social question because you have rights as a member of a community or country where your rights are recognized and respected, and the whole social life is organized according to those rights, and that is the reason why struggling for your personal rights involves always social changes that affect all the members of the group. Second, your rights are meaningful only if they are recognized by people who have the same rights as you; your rights do not finish where the rights of other people start, but just the opposite; your rights and theirs go together in a close and deep binding. Third, rights involve duties in a “vicious” circle in such a way that you can never say what is first; as expressed in Article 28 of the Universal Declaration:

Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

Two very important things are needed in order to foster these cognitive and affective dimensions or attitudes in our students – and in ourselves as teachers. First, we have to offer them the opportunity of acting as moral autonomous agents in every activity across their school life. Unfortunately, in the current school system, that active implication of students is not very frequent; the school system focuses its attention mainly on handing down to children the values and knowledge society thinks worth transmitting, and this asks of children an active participation in the process of learning in order to understand and assimilate all that stuff, but nothing else. Teachers and principals, education administrators, and society as a whole think that children and teenagers are not qualified to participate in the design and implementation of school policies. That is such an important topic that I will develop it at length in a section below.

On the other hand, just as in moral education, in HRE children learn much more from what we do than from what we say. Children do not like at all to be moralized at any place and any time, and from the point of view of moral education, all that moral talk with children and young people is useless. They listen carefully, even if they feel bored to death while we are lecturing them, but do not pay real attention to what we are saying to them: all our lecture goes in one ear and comes out the other. Even more, they can agree with the principles of human rights, but that is not more than repeating the official and accepted moral discourse. As far as their behavior is concerned, modeling is a more appropriate approach to HRE (Bandura 1986): children will develop behavioral patterns similar to those of adults they are living with. A necessary condition for them to internalize human rights and to have them as moral standards of their behaviors is that they discover that we, teachers and adults in general, follow those moral standards in our everyday life. Let’s explore this a little deeper.

Deconstructing the Curricula

As I emphasized in the introduction, human rights are a set of values that everybody, all around the world, accepts as the moral standard they use to evaluate social, political, and economic activities. They are also proposed as guidelines for legal system in such a way that they become promulgated as laws or inform the current legislation of every country; the final step of a universal declaration is to be converted into a convention that, after signed by a number of countries, is binding on everybody and every country. It does not follow that they are actually embodied in social and personal behavior or in the proceedings or performances of public and private institutions. Most of the time, the promises in the introduction to the Universal Declaration fail to materialize, and the violation of basic rights is the rule everywhere. All of us have the feeling that people – especially those who hold public office or a position of power in society – just pay lip service to human rights and use them as a tool to the pursuit of goals very far from those involved in the ideals of the 1948 Declaration. That is the standard practice in foreign policy all around the world; a perfect example is those countries that use human rights to justify wars and totally forget any right as long as it is a question of making business wealthy and powerful nations. Annual reports from independent institutions, such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, show us an ugly scene for human rights implementation.

However, this contradiction between the values people say to respect and honor and the moral standard they do keep up throughout their life is not only a problem for all those people in positions of power. It is a contradiction that pervades and penetrates every social institution and almost every human person, even those who abide by specific educational responsibilities. We are supposed to follow the principles and directions from the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and that is what we sustain and teach to our students, but with shocking regularity we do not put all those children’s rights into practice. Sometimes we skip those rights on account of some harmless oversight; once in a while we think that those rights are not important enough and they have to be put aside in behalf of children’s education (I should say “children’s training”); even worse, there are many adults who actually think that children do not have as many rights as those included in the convention.

For students themselves it is as if we, adults, would say to them “Do as you are told to do, but not as we do”; they realize that we are asking them to conduct themselves responsibly and to keep up some moral values that we ourselves do not have and do not keep. The most probable consequence is that they will do just as we do and will pay more or less the same limited attention to human rights as us. They will learn that this moral inconsistency is the normal way of doing, something you can live with without any special annoyance for your emotional equilibrium. More than that, as they have developed at school a wide repertory of thinking skills, they will use them – just as we do – to justify almost every behavior, even those that at first sight are against the main values of human rights.

This distinction between the hidden and the open curricula imposes on us a reflection about what is actually being taught to students in the school system. It is not a question of wonderful public declarations or any other kind of wishful thinking. This is determined by educational policies adopted by the government, and it rests on the implementation of these policies at school by teachers, principals, janitors, trainers, and all those who work with children at formal education. As Apple (1993) said, “the politics of official knowledge are the politics of accords or compromises”; different groups and social movements in society struggle to protect their own interests and to make them legitimate and also to increase their own share of power. At the present time, when the neoliberal political agenda has been imposed on all social life without a very strong critical opposition, the concerns of the less powerful are not really taken into account. Managerialism and business are the models for education; all of us are told that it is needed to bring school and the business sector close together and develop educational models of training where professionalization, entrepreneurship, competitiveness, and social cohesion play an essential role, although the two first goals (employment and competitiveness) get the best of the education and competitiveness, as expected, reinforces social exclusion (Brandsma 2000). The school system is at risk of becoming not the place to empower children, but the place to reinforce the position of those who are in control and to teach children how to be obedient citizens that accept with resignation an official curriculum that legitimates personal submission and exclusion.

Even more complicated is that teachers and students are not equal parts in the educational relationship. Students attend compulsory school, that is, they are obliged to go there in order to receive the education adult people have decided is good for them to receive; teachers are supposed to have the knowledge and they are paid for handing down all that stuff to children. From the very beginning in kindergarten or primary school, children perceive that they are subjected to social and moral pressure to take their education seriously and to learn all that is taught to them, even when they are unwilling to do so, and that is a frequent attitude after they are 10 years old. Teachers, principals, parents, and every adult person used to say to children that they know better than children themselves what is good for them to do; so, if children want to become good persons and good citizens, they have to accept and follow adults’ advice and directions, even if they do not understand very well what are the terrific advantages they will get in a distant future, thanks to their present complete obedience.

As a consequence of all this constant pressure on children, although we are in favor of autonomous thinking, freedom of speech, and creativity as basic ingredients of personal development and democratic societies, we do foster, much more than it would be needed, dependent thinking, acquiescence, conformity, obedience, and a critical acceptance of authority. In the 1920s, Piaget gave a theoretical support to this educational approach when he described children behavior before 12 as heteronomous, and he, as much as Aristotle more than 2000 years before, postponed autonomous and rational thinking till they were 12 years old. Piaget’s own intention was to help children to become autonomous and cooperative persons; as a matter of fact, one of his main theses was that children developed a moral sense of their behavior guided by justice as soon as they had contact with their peers, people of their own age; however, in a certain way, he favored just the opposite: to undermine, even ignore, the capabilities that children have from the very beginning of their lives (Gopnik 2009). In the last decades, an important number of studies by psychologists and moral educators have offered us sufficient data to consider that children’s heteronomous thinking is more an imposition by adults than a basic characteristic of a specific stage of children’s development. If you treat children as dependent and heteronomous people, they might grow as dependent and submissive. That might be the reason why Dewey, also in the 1920s of the past century, emphasized that the relationship between education and democracy – and, in our case, human rights – is not something we must take for granted.

Had we taken seriously the teaching of human rights at school, we would have undertaken also seriously this deconstruction of teaching and the official curriculum. We had discovered with Basil Bernstein, (2000) that compulsory education does not offer equal opportunities to everybody, owing to the fact that curricula are biased and favor those students whose cultural and social background fits with the standards teachers use to evaluate and asses children’s processes of learning. There is an effective discrimination against children who do not speak the language of middle and upper social classes. We had also discovered how girls and boys internalize gender discrimination, because the school reproduces the sexist conditions that are at work in society, no matter how much we insist our devotion to gender equality. And just to give a third example, we had realized that we keep all the time singing praises of cooperation and mutual aid, but our students are assessed and graded by their individual performance, and most of the time we actually foster competitiveness and indoctrinate them into the basic social myths of neoliberal societies.

All these cases, and many more that we would be able to cite, show us that the patient work of deconstruction is a cornerstone of human rights education. That is a necessary step for teachers to wake up to the fact that they are not so committed to human rights as expected and that they are modeling a very different behavior. It does not matter that usually they are not conscious or voluntary supporters of those values that contradict human rights. Be that the case, it does not diminish the fact that those of us who are teachers need to be held accountable for what we do with our students in the schools we are working at. Our own educational practices are flawed as a consequence of living in a society where we are caught in multiple and sometimes contradictory social relations whose hidden rules we accept. More often than expected, we follow those social conventions just because we want to play the social game, and, in order to do that, we accept its rules; we do not want to be excluded from the game since that would be in any respect the worst of all possible situations. At other times we act as if it is socially expected from us, accepting traditional social norms without thinking carefully about their moral value. We are technical workers that restrict the profession to follow the regulations and conventions that are given to us by educational officials, mass media, and other social institutions. We are not critical and creative professionals that reflect on the ends and means of our educational practice; however, if we do want to take human rights education seriously, we have to develop an autonomous, critical, and creative behavior, and that involves a constant critical reflection on our own practice and on the “hidden side” of the educational system.

The Democratic School

As I just mentioned earlier, it is of course important to include in the compulsory curriculum a specific time in the school schedule devoted to the topic of human rights, in the same way that there is a place for mathematics or language. The actual curriculum of the compulsory school is the result of a social negotiation and a social choice aimed to decide which topics or disciplines are important or valuable enough as to be covered in the schedule. If there is not any specific time when students and teachers work seriously on human rights, we can give little credit to the declared interest in human rights from the part of those who are in the position of making decisions about educational policies. Of course, children can learn basic social values in their everyday life, at school or home, with friends or adults, and they learn their mother language in this way. However, this would be a faulty and superficial learning because they will lack the critical skills needed to get a sound and creative mastery of those topics.

So children should have time to think and talk about human rights. They need, first, to have a better understanding of the history of human rights to discover that many of the rights they are entitled to or they take for granted, as attending school or having medical care, are social conquests that were obtained thanks to the fights of many people, and they can disappear from social and political life as soon as people stop urging them. As a matter of fact, that is the case at present, when under the pressure of neoliberal forces, led by multinationals, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the welfare State is being dismantled especially after the great crisis of 2007. The impact of rising inequality is damaging one of the most important goals of public education – the ability of compulsory schooling to offer children an equal chance at academic and economic success (Duncan and Murnane 2011). They also have to ascertain that in today’s world, not everybody enjoys the same human rights, even those more basic and fundamental; they might not know that there are countries where some or many specific rights are systematically violated by the same authorities that are supposed to protect those rights. They should be familiar with reports such as those published by private or public organizations (Amnesty International, Worldwatch Institute, United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Population, or UNICEF, just to mention only a few) and with the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes a set of 17 goals (http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/presscenter/pressreleases/2015/09/24/undp-welcomes-adoption-of-sustainable-development-goals-by-world-leaders.html) to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030. It would also be very helpful for children to discover that there are many people and institutions all over the world that keep struggling for human rights, sometimes putting their own lives at serious risk. Many times, moral educators and people who work on human rights have the tendency to focus on the violations of basic rights, offering students an approach that makes them feel downhearted and hopeless; it is much more fruitful to emphasize the active social role of all those institutions, groups, and individual people who struggle in favor of human rights. Children learn that some do care; according to this pedagogical approach, violations are kept in the background, and civic movements deeply engaged in social transformation are in the foreground.

Important as it is in all this discussion, during the regular timetable and on the same or similar terms with other subject matters, we need to take a step forward and to get the whole school pervaded by human rights, not only as a theoretical topic but also as a practical matter, as the cornerstone or the backbone of the school life. Therefore, human rights should be the guiding criteria of the school as an institution, where many people, children and adults, boys and girls, live together and have to establish and follow the rules of their peaceful and fertile coexistence. Children need to be given the opportunity of participating as responsible moral agents in the elaboration and implementation of school policy. Principals, teachers, and all those who are in charge of the education of children tend to think that they cannot participate in the organization of their own education, because they lack the needed skills and knowledge to carry on with those responsibilities, but this is an unjustified prejudice. First, they underestimate children’s ability to manage all those problems that are related with their familiar environment (home, school, playground, etc.) and with the social relationships they are used to (parents and siblings, classmates and teachers, friends, etc.); however, if we offer them the opportunity of using their cognitive and affective skills, we realize that they can face successfully their own responsibilities, as the International Democratic Education Network proves (Waghid 2014) (http://www.idenetwork.org/) proves.

In the second place, they also tend to undervalue children’s reasonableness when their interests and motivations are concerned, and they assume that adults know better than children what is good for them; once again it is a misconception of children’s minds and abilities. They have problems – as much as adults have – to keep a balance between personal and social interests and between the present satisfaction of their needs and the future demands that sometimes oblige us to defer that satisfaction. They can also tell moral rules from conventional or social ones, and they know that it is possible, although not always easy, to change the second kind of rules, whereas moral rules should be respected in a deeper sense: you can modify social and conventional rules after negotiating with all those affected – and sometimes without any negotiation, just using a power position that allows some people to impose their own decision; however, you are abided by moral rules, even in those cases when the pursuance of your duty has adverse effects for you. And all this moral stuff is not something children are not familiar with or they cannot grasp. They can perceive the moral dimensions of many events of their everyday life, events that require them to make moral judgments and to act in a way that can be consistent with their own principles and judgments. They only need to grow in their capability to analyze situations of rising complexity and to find the best solutions for any specific moral problem (Hoffman 2000).

In the third place, as much as moral and political stuff (and that is what is involved in school policy) are concerned, it seems that we forget a golden rule of education: if you want somebody to learn something, give them the opportunity of putting it into practice. People learn to swim in the swimming pool, so children learn citizenship (and human rights involved in civic virtues) participating in assemblies in their schools, where they set the agenda of the topics, then expose aloud in a reasoned form their own view on these controversial questions, and listen carefully to the arguments of his/her classmates and teachers. Eventually, if needed, they make a decision, usually voting the different specific proposals and they are committed to the implementation of their resolution that will be analyzed in a next meeting. As Dewey made it very clear in his deep and sound philosophy of education, democracy is much more than a form of government, we would be able to explain children through lecturing in history or social sciences classes. A democracy is “primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” (Dewey 1966). Living together in the school, children participate in a common interest so that each one has to refer his/her own action to that of his/her classmates and to think on the interest of others as something that can give point and direction to his/her own. The biggest the varied points of view and contact, the strongest the feeling of richness and complementarity. In a safe environment of trust and mutual aid, as a democratic school is supposed to be, children internalize slowly but deeply the basic values of democracy, and they realize how worthy and precious they are.

In such a way they are not just passive subjects of the educational policies of their country and school, but active participants in its elaboration and implementation. They will grow as active moral citizens because they, after practicing as active school citizens from the very beginning at their educational process, get the habits and skills needed for citizenship. And they will internalize human rights because they will discover that those rights are the basic conditions that all of us have to respect if we want to solve social problems in cooperation with other people who have different (sometimes contradictory) interests and points of view. Notwithstanding all that involves deep changes in the present way of ruling the school system. The most habitual and widespread practices in the educational system are very hierarchical: officials from the Ministry of Education plan the big lines of educational policies, following in democratic societies the laws enacted by the parliament. Local educational officials adapt those lines to their own specific community. Principals have the responsibility of guaranteeing the right implementation in their school of those educational policies, although they have to adapt them to their specific school. Teachers themselves are the last link in this well-defined chain of command. Their job is reduced to the technical adaptation of educational directions to their students. Of course, students attend the school just to learn, but that learning is many times reduced to listening, memorizing, and obeying. As a consequence of this model, after 12 years attending the schools, children will become good citizens, but in the sense of citizens that respect authority, obey the laws, and never question seriously the orders of those who hold the top positions in every domain of social life: politics, business, or family.

If we want good citizens, in the sense of persons who can think for themselves, cooperate in the discussion about the ends of society, and live as moral and political agents committed to the principles of justice and the values of human rights, we should put the school upside down. We should, first, transform the classroom into a community of inquiry where everybody has an active role in the process of learning and teaching, a very interesting idea elaborated by Lipman (1991). Students discover that they have their own learning agenda and their own interests than can be accepted as the starting point of their process of education. Teachers stop lecturing and start seeing themselves much more as experienced people who are responsible for the education of their students, and that involves facilitating personal and communitarian development; of them; they find out at the same time that they are also persons who have to learn from their students and whose social role goes further than just looking after technical procedures. In such a way, students and teachers become those active citizens democratic societies are longing for, and they transform the fundamental values of freedom, equality, and fraternity in well-rooted habits of heart.

It is not enough just to transform the class; we have to transform the school itself into a democratic school, pervaded by the principles of mutual respect and mutual aid, where everybody, students, teachers, and workers, is equal and has the same rights. In order to build the school as an institution that models for children and adults what it means to live in a small society guided by human rights, we have to implement an active action to guarantee that those rights are actually respected. We should offer students, from the very beginning of their school life, the opportunity of playing a major role in their own education. This demands two main lines of action; the first one is to create the characteristic institutions and procedures of a democracy: student meetings to discuss openly about the school policies and problems, elections of representatives that will have to account for their behavior as representatives to their schoolmates, and school boards and commissions where the decisions are made and where there is an appropriate balance between adults and students in such a way that student contributions actually make a difference. There is a long tradition of this style of democratic school that goes back to the anarchist educational practices since at the end of the nineteenth century (Autores Varios 1986) and has very good contemporary examples including the democratic schools in the USA (Apple and Beane 1997). The second line of action cares for the most appropriate moral climate of the school, which goes together with its democratic procedures. Everybody at school is supposed to be responsible of the moral atmosphere that is needed to guarantee that nobody suffers from discrimination or violence and that their opinions are respected and taken into account. Those moral questions come to the front page of the school agenda and are discussed openly, and the right steps are taken to remedy the misbehaviors and to implement the active policies of promotion and defense of human rights. This is the “just community” approach to moral learning developed from Kohlberg’s theory of moral development (Kohlberg et al. 1989).

The Scapegoat and the Forlorn Hope

Any time that society has to face all kinds of social problems and mainly those problems that might be related with morality and the behavior of young people, it is very common that people focus on education and school system and analyze attentively what is going on. If a couple of very young people, 12 years old, commit a violent crime, such as a murder, people tend to think that their behavior has a lot to do with their specific individual characteristics that have turned them into very dangerous people, but at the same time people think that family and school, parents, and teachers have some particular and definite responsibilities for that misbehavior. The feeling that schools and teachers are accountable to society for children’s and teenagers’ behavior grows as long as we have to cope with more common social disorders, such as vandalism, hooliganism, robbery, or just bad manners. The argument is very simple: as core habits of human behavior are developed early in childhood, those who have to look after children – parents and teachers – have a specific responsibility if children do not get the “good habits” society expects of them. This responsibility is even bigger for teachers because they are supposed to master the appropriate pedagogical techniques in order to get children to internalize those habits; they are paid for that, and if they do not achieve their goal, they are accountable for their failure and they deserve all the criticism from society.

This argument is partly right, and teachers should be much more careful with questions related with moral education of children and also with human rights education. After playing with other children in the park or the playground, the school environment is the place where children start to meet other people in a systematic way, and discover the constraints and advantages of living together. It is the beginning of their social life that, since that moment, should be ruled by social justice. That is the main reason why teachers have to play a very important and active role in empowering children to develop a behavior guided by the respect of all the members of the community and by the consciousness of their own rights and duties. As I tried to state earlier, teachers, curriculum, and the school as an institution have to be committed to the promotion of human rights as the basic values that have to govern social and personal life. And we have to admit that more frequently than desired, they do not pay the needed attention to those questions; they do not attach much importance to human rights and moral values, obsessed as they are by the content dimension of their discipline. HRE is put aside, and it is left to the hidden curriculum that very often involves values against human rights, such as racism, sexism, intolerance, etc.

On the other hand, the arguments of those who launch an attack on teachers and schools are biased arguments, and they want to turn teachers into the scapegoat for a social failure that much more people are accountable for. It is true that human rights are at present that set of social values everybody is committed to, and they are supposed to guide the policies from government and any other social institution, public or private; however, it is also true that the implementation of those policies is far from meeting those basic values that are the moral content of human rights. So they are modeling for children a social behavior that is only partly consistent with human rights; there is a certain loss of the civic virtues that hold together a society. People, obsessed with the dominant values of competitiveness and efficiency, try to keep all they have got, their standard of living; they just look after their own interest and they wash their hands of the whole public affair. Frightened by the risk of losing their social position and of falling in the black hole of social exclusion, they try to protect themselves in their homes and in their neighborhood, well guarded day and night by police officials and private security companies that offer their protection against any kind of threat and use any kind of security measures. At the same time, obsession for security is undermining fundamental values of democracy (Engelhardt and Greenwald 2014).

There is a serious risk of society falling to pieces, with the gap between the winners and the losers and the wealthy and the poor deepening more and more. At the same time, the social glue that keeps together all the members of society and helps them to share a common project tends to fade. The old liberal myth maintained that the institutions and principles of a society, its public life, might be virtuous, though the individuals composing it were vicious, and the rational choice of individual motivated by enlightened self-interest was sufficient – thanks to the hidden laws of free market – to give rise to the best possible society. Notwithstanding, they took for granted that private virtue and commitment to public welfare were basic ingredients of the social fabric, and they never gave up the ideal of citizenship that sustained the republican order. The good order and the welfare of society hinged on the people taking a public responsibility for each other, even without specific ties or familiarity. It follows that families and teachers should work shoulder to shoulder with many other informal educational settings; children have to learn public virtues and social habits from all those people they meet on the street, in the stores, and in the movie theaters. It is a big mistake just to delegate civic obligations over to professional bureaucrats or over to formal agencies of law enforcement. If we want to help children to grow as moral agents, committed to human rights, we have to implement social policies that involve everybody in their neighborhoods. It is not fair to wash your hands of public life and then to criticize the professionals we pay to do the job we are abided by.

Teachers themselves are members of this ultraliberal society that relieve individuals of most of their civic obligations and foster the increasing power of professionals of public welfare. At the same time, they have been taught in the actual values of this society, and they are impregnated by the discourse of competitiveness and self-interest in a worldwide free market. That means that they have some problems to help children to grow according to some values they partly disagree with. As Marx explained in his Thesis on Feuerbach, “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself.” So, much more attention should be paid to the education of educators and to the involvement of the whole society in the challenge of teaching human rights to children and to young people.

There is another momentous difficulty in the path of HRE. Alasdair MacIntyre said some years ago that teachers are the forlorn hope of the culture of Western modernity, because they are entrusted with a mission that is both essential and impossible (Macintyre 1987). On the one hand, they have to shape the young person so that they can practice a specific profession or job and occupy a well-defined social role; this purpose involves legitimation of hierarchical social positions. On the other hand, it is a central purpose of education, and of teachers, to teach young people to think for themselves and to acquire independence of mind so that they, as enlightened people, can play an active role in the society as moral agents and committed citizens. As long as we focus on this second goal of education, it is possible for teachers to add human rights to their daily teaching; and that is the case in compulsory education, where young people are introduced into the membership of those enlightened people who dare know and think for themselves. However, even in compulsory (and comprehensive) education, teachers tend to focus on the training young people need to become a professional, an expert, or a specialist, with narrowly defined social roles and narrowly delimited interests.

The problem teachers have is that they cannot put aside these contradictory goals of the educational institution. The increasing economic growth and the present globalization of the world market expand the need of specialized professionals, so society demands from schools a stronger involvement in the formation of those people who will occupy the top of the economic system. For most of the people, such a sophisticated education is not needed at all, as long as their jobs are only monotonous and mechanical, without entailing any specific high-order skill. Those persons have to face in their professional activities complex problems that require creative thinking, and they have to make decisions that will have a great impact on society as a whole. On the other end of the economic chain, workers only have to obey the orders and follow the directions they receive from their managers and supervisors; so, society expects of teachers that they will foster those people with the minimal thinking skills required to fulfill their small part in the chain of production or the assembly line and with the basic values of obedience and respect for authorities and superiors. The better the school achieves this goal of selecting people and legitimating the selection, the worse it can accomplish its other goals, to empower children so that they can think for themselves. And MacIntyre is right as he underlines that the gap between those two very different kinds of workers is becoming deeper in modern societies.

However, teachers are seriously committed to the second purpose of education, and they can never give up on the aim of building a community of people with the capacity of critical and creative thinking to dialogue about things that actually matter to those involved in the community. There are, however, three serious difficulties that we should overcome in order to build this educated and enlightened community. The first one is strongly related with the economic growth and the professionalization and specialization it requires; every person is restricted to the limited area of his/her discipline or subject matter, but they have problems to grasp the whole picture of social and political economy, and they have lost the ability to reflect on the ultimate ends that society is pursuing. The second factor is size; according to the ideals of ancient Greek and modern enlightened political thinkers, such as Rousseau, a democratic society could only flourish as an independent small-scale community. As soon as societies involve millions of people living together in the same city and they are seriously affected by decisions taken thousands of miles away from their own social environment, it becomes extremely difficult to develop in them the feeling of active citizenship and participatory democracy. There is a third factor strongly related with the other two just mentioned. Enlightened thinking and reflection on the ends of society is becoming more and more an activity reserved for experts and specialized professionals, and critical and creative thinking has been confiscated as an occupational responsibility of those who are holding official positions in public agencies or private companies.

Taking all these problems into account, we should not follow MacIntyre too far in his criticism and his very pessimistic conclusion. Those are, of course, serious problems teachers have to cope with, and they have good reasons to feel overwhelmed by those social responsibilities they can hardly carry out. Although the present context offers a specific and very worrying configuration of education, these contradictory purposes can be traced back to Plato. His proposal was to guarantee every citizen with the basic sense of morality and justice, as he himself exposed in the myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus (Protagoras dialogue), and to offer those best gifted from birth the best and highest education so that they could occupy the top positions in the polis, the philosophers (Republica). Dewey follows this contradiction up to the modern times, but he keeps alive his confidence in the possibility of school contributing to the overcoming of the contradiction between social classes that have contradictory interests and between national loyalty and the cosmopolitan ideal. But according to Dewey’s approach, education, as a necessary social process, must attend to that which connects communities in such a way that the goal of education as a freeing of individual capacity be bound up with education as a progressive growth directed to social aims. This conception of education implies a particular social ideal that has to be defined and implemented not just by teachers and school, but by all the members of society and by political institutions.

A society which makes provision for participation for the good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible readjustment of its institutions through interaction of the different forms of associated life is democratic. Such a society must have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control and the habits of mind which secures social changes without introducing disorder (Dewey 1966).

The school is, then, a necessary institution in modern and complex democratic societies, and it is a cornerstone in the formation of the active citizens that society needs to achieve the ambitious goals it set itself for its future. School is a necessary condition, but it is not a sufficient condition; it only can contribute its specific share in the human rights education task as long as every other social institution contributes their own share in a common project. The gray clouds that darken the horizon of a society where people live together sharing common interests and acting in accordance with human rights as basic values have been always out there; however, there is not any other way out but working together – teachers, parents, and everybody else in society – to keep alive those values we think are worth struggling for (Garcia Moriyon 2011). Some educational experiences, such as those conducted by Freire in Brazil in the 1960s or the most recent ones, such as the Accelerate Schools Project (http://www.tc.columbia.edu/accelerated/) in the USA, or the School As ‘Learning Communities’ in Spain (http://utopiadream.info/ca/) just to mention some of the many examples we could bring up, give us some hope and help us to think that teachers (and society) have to face serious problems, but they are not the forlorn hope of Western society.

The Good Citizen and the Good Person

Important as they are, human rights are not enough, even if we are focusing on the human rights education. Although there is a well-rooted myth in Western culture about the necessary and advisable separation between the private and the public life, so that many people think, following the old Mandeville’s ideal, that private vices give rise to public virtues, this is not more than a prejudice and a narrow approach to social life. If we do want to have human rights values as basic values in social life, we have to pay attention to something more than just human rights.

To begin with, there is a handicap in all human rights declarations. At best, they are high moral standards that allow people and institutions to guide their behavior and that can be used as criteria to assess and judge those behaviors demanding a perfect compliance with those rights. Usually, human rights are no more than wishful thinking, a bunch of good desires to be achieved in a distant future, all the political, economic and social circumstances permitting. Worse, they are just ideology in its worst meaning such as it was defined by Marx and Engels. According to both thinkers, ideology is a system of false ideas, a statement of class position, and a justification for class rule and for an unequal and a hierarchical society. They tend to sustain a society based on human being’s alienation and bondage and create a false consciousness in the oppressed social classes because ideology – in this case, human rights – makes them believe that they are living in a society where “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood,” (Article 1) although in this society some people are actually much more equal than others. They are, therefore, weapons for oppression instead of weapons for freedom.

Even if I accept that Marxism despises too much human rights as a bourgeois ideology rejecting any positive values on those declarations, they do hit a raw nerve of social problems. That was the reason why in 1948 socialist countries did not sign the Universal Declaration and struggled for a new declaration where the formal rights were completed and enhanced: almost 20 years later, in 1966, a covenant on economic, social, and cultural rights was signed and entered into force in 1976. This covenant sustained that “the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights.” That risk is still with us, and we have to care not to convert human rights into an empty and formal set of big words that in reality are used to conceal the actual social relationships from those who are suffering poverty, injustice, and social exclusion. In order to build a democratic society, human rights are necessary but not enough; they have to be accompanied by effective social and economic policies aimed to transform society into a just society. At present, this is a well-accepted ideal that directs the policies of international institutions, such as the UNDP: human rights and human development share a common vision and a common purpose – to secure, for every human being, freedom, well-being, and dignity.

As Paul Ricoeur used to say (Ricoeur 1990), moral life of human beings covers three different domains. In the first place, we have moral duties with ourselves, as individuals who are looking for meaning and happiness and who want to accomplish a project of personal development to live our lives to the full; this hard task is related to personal characteristics – or virtues – such as courage, self-knowledge, self-esteem, and moral consciousness, etc., a set of dimensions teachers have to foster in their students and in themselves. Second, we have moral duties with our relatives, close friends, and classmates, that is, with all those we share our everyday life with; in this wider area of social relationship, a different bunch of personal characteristics occupy the stage: friendship, shame, gratitude, forgiveness, empathy, caring, etc. In the third place, we are members of a society, with its political, economic, social, and cultural institutions; it is in this area where the problem of justice and equality, solidarity, and impartiality comes up, and it is also a domain that demands from us specific moral duties that make possible social welfare and peaceful coexistence of many peoples with different personal projects and different approaches to social and political questions. It is the place for tolerance, empathy, open-mindedness, etc. These three moral domains with different problems and requirements overlap in many ways, and they are also present in distinct moments of our lives or in distinct social roles, and in other cases they come into conflict.

The point of Ricoeur’s way of looking at the problem is that human rights are relevant in the domain of social life, but they are values of minor significance especially in the case of close social relationships. The whole universal declaration of 1948 is, of course, fundamental to recover a basic value for the moral growing of the person; it clearly states the dignity of each and every one of all human beings, an essential element for personal self-esteem and courage, and also lays the foundations of personal well-being and happiness. However, it is almost silent over most of our personal identity and over our specific and distinctive project to develop a meaningful life. And it remains also silent over the second domain of our life, that of close social relationship. Human rights as a juridical body of principles to protect people against oppression was born in the move of modern revolutions, American and French, and it is too dependent on the liberal ideas that were built up in the seventeenth century; one of its goals at the very beginning was to guarantee that everyone in society could pursue his/her own personal project without being subjected to persecution by the government. A key concept that helped society to tolerate a wide array of personal conceptions of the good life and moral good was the scrupulous separation of the private and public life, and this was a big conquest we can neither put aside nor despise. However, contrary to this liberal conception of social and political life, it is impossible to have public virtues unless you foster private virtues, and we must not push the separation too far. The way you live in your private life, with your family and close relatives and friends, and in your job and neighborhood is strongly related with the way you behave yourself as a citizen. If we want people to be committed to human rights values and if we want good citizens, we have to foster those personal moral habits that define a good person; and it works just the same the other way: if we want to have good moral persons, we have to offer them a good society, guided by the principles of freedom, equality, and brotherhood and sustained on public virtues.

One of the most fruitful discussions between moral and political thinkers for the last 30 years has been centered on the issue of the foundations and procedures of liberal democracies. Rawls began the discussion in 1971, in his book A Theory of Justice. Even if after years of discussion he has revised and modified some characteristics of his approach, accepting some ideas from his critics, he still is one of the best representatives of the liberal tradition that overemphasizes the formal dimension of political activities and consider freedom as the cornerstone of democracy. On the other hand, Robert Bellah and some other scholars attacked the roots of Rawls’ proposal denouncing what the authors called “utilitarian individualism” – rampant competition and concern for the bottom line, income polarization, and contempt for the “losers”; their proposal was to focus our attention on forms of social organization, be it civil society, democratic communitarianism, or associative democracy, that can humanize the market and the administrative State: they insisted that citizens in democratic societies should go back to the affective warp of the social fabric, those habits of the heart banished to the private sphere of our lives in modern societies. Other scholars, such as Taylor, Walzer, or Sander, followed a similar path to recover the missed democratic strength and to recover the bonds that characterize any community (Gemeinschaft), ties that go further than those that define an association (Gesellschaft). A version of this controversy in the smaller area of moral education has been sustained between Kohlberg, close to Rawls’ standpoint, and Gilligan, whose emphasis on caring as the central virtue of social life and moral development is close to the communitarians, although her point of view is based on very different theoretical and practical grounds.

In a sense, the whole corpus of human rights declarations and covenants, strong evidence of this need of a moral approach to social life and politics, a project of surmounting a narrow way of elaborating and implementing social policies that at present are too technical, too much under the control of professionals and experts, and too far from the genuine welfare of human beings. According to Chantal Mouffe (1993), a good consequence of this controversy is the recovering of the republican tradition, that all along modernity has stressed the exigency of public virtues; it is not necessary to give up to the beneficial separation of the private and public spheres of human life, provided we cultivate and foster the public moral of the citizens. There is a place for plural conceptions of the moral good, and there is also a place for a shared political good; and both are so interrelated that if one of them vanishes in our society, the other one will vanish shortly afterward. The amazing propaganda apparatus of neoliberal heralds has tried for the last two decades to hide this simple evidence and to conceal with a shroud of silence this republican tradition that just in the American and French revolutions kept together equality, freedom, and brotherhood. That is the reason why as long as we want to offer our students a sound HRE, we have to help them to become good persons and good citizens.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Teacher Training and EducationUniversidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM)MadridSpain