Inside the Classroom: Human Rights: Ideas, Institutions, and Laws
Many students are interested in questions of social justice – how do we make the world a better place? How do we deal with injustice and inequality? – but have not spent much time thinking about these questions philosophically. My course, Human Rights: Ideas, Institutions, and Laws, gives students the opportunity to think about precisely these important questions. Human rights is the language that is used most often in political discourse on questions of justice and this course aims to give students a solid foundation on the theories, laws, and institutions that relate to it.
Though I am a philosophy professor, I spent years working at a Human Rights Institute. So my course combines philosophy with both law and politics. Students will learn how the United Nations works, as well as how international human rights law functions. Students will become familiar with the philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, and Kant, as well as some contemporary authors, and learn how they sought to explain and justify human rights. We grapple with the question of cultural relativism – whether human rights can be genuinely universal or whether they are just “Western” constructs that are imposed on other countries. In addition, students gain an in-depth knowledge on a handful of contemporary human rights issues such as genocide, refugees, torture, and women’s rights.
This class is student driven and relies heavily on class discussion. I try to encourage students to talk about the issues in class and debate different viewpoints. Human rights pose so many challenges in the world that there is always plenty to discuss! When possible, I try to show film or television clips that can stir up discussion. Additionally, students work in small groups over the course of the semester on a human rights issue that they are personally interested in. At the end of the semester, students present their reach as a group and discuss the projects of their fellow students. Many students have found this to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the course because it allows students to get to know each other better and to work on a topic that is personally compelling for them. Students leave the class feeling like they understand the challenges involved with protecting human rights and have the tools to take part in this global social movement.
This is a great class for anyone interested in social justice and equality; anyone thinking about a career working for a non-profit or NGO; anyone interested in law school or graduate work in policy or similar fields; and of course, anyone who simply cares about human rights and wants to improve their knowledge of the world. This course will be taught again in Spring 2013, in sequence ‘F’ (T/F 1:30 – 3:30).