Sleepy students filled a lecture hall on the first morning of a Global Human Geography lecture, a popular class taught by history lecturer Martin Lewis. At the end of his class, Lewis stopped to play the infamous “Miss South Carolina answers a question” YouTube video from the 2007 Miss Teen USA beauty pageant. Suddenly, ears were at attention as students watched a contestant struggling to explain why she thought a fifth of Americans couldn’t locate the United States on a world map.
“People out there in our nation don’t have maps,” she responded.
A roar of laughter burst from the classroom.
Lewis had a different take. Unfortunately, he said, the video’s suggestion that American society is largely unaware of international issues is far from funny.
But the Stanford Human Rights Education (SHRE) Initiative hopes to fill this gap with a “fresh and surprising” approach to human rights education.
Teaming up with community colleges, the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE), which has partnered with the Program on Human Rights, the School of Education and the Division of International Comparative and Area Studies (ICA), aims to create a human rights curriculum and build a network of support among educators.
“It’s an outreach effort through Stanford University by a coalition of departments,” said Robert Wessling, associate director for the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, which is also partnering with SPICE. “We’re finding out that there are so many different ways to include human rights into a classroom and into so many different kinds of disciplinary studies. So, there’s not really a one size-fits-all, like a master curriculum of human rights.”
Support for the initiative expanded when 40 community colleges attended a conference called “Teaching Human Rights in a Global Context” last summer. From there, a team of eight fellows from Bay Area community colleges were selected to develop the curriculum, website and another conference for the SHRE Initiative.
“We’re not telling students how to feel about what is going on in the world,” said Timothy Maxwell, an English professor at the College of San Mateo and SHRE Fellow. “We understand that in order for students to authentically understand human rights and their international violations, they have to feel on some level what it means for someone’s human rights to be violated. They’re becoming agents of change and not just consumers of our message.”
According to Maxwell, the use of technology has resulted in less awareness among students about international issues.
“Global awareness is far down the list of priorities when you’ve got to check Facebook and Twitter, 10 text messages coming in, videos to play and music to download,” Maxwell said. “I think it’s always been a problem to get young people to be aware of things that are so far away from their experiences, but increasingly, the real estate in young people minds is being gobbled up by things that may not matter as much.”
The four-year SHRE Initiative curriculum will provide community college educators with resources to integrate human rights into their teaching.
“In the U.S. today, only about 8 percent of people even know that there’s a Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Jonas Edman, a curriculum writer for SPICE. “[The curriculum] is a framework for viewing other countries and the United States. It’s a critical examination where students have to reflect on what they believe — what’s right, what’s wrong and the gray areas in between. It can provide a lens that is very useful for understanding the world.”
Maxwell praised Stanford’s decision to focus on community colleges, noting that it allows the SHRE Initiative to reach a more diverse population of students than if it were only at Stanford.
“Community colleges serve a very large cross section of our society,” Maxwell said. “A great number of students go through community colleges, and I think it’s also a neglected part of our education system.”
Helen Stacy, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) also played a large role in developing the goals of the project. She argued that it is important for Stanford to play a larger role in the Bay Area educational community.
“We want Stanford to be a resource in our own community,” Stacy said. “We want colleges in the Bay Area to benefit from the presence of Stanford. We have so much expertise and convening power, and we need to share it.”
As with many others involved in the SHRE Initiative, Stacy believes that all students have the capacity to affect global change.
“Human rights work is endlessly fascinating, and to work with students is intensely rewarding because it’s the students who are curious, receptive and have the energy to take an idea and then stand together with other students to make change,” Stacy said.
Through a human rights perspective, Stacy wants students to become more “aware and alive” as global citizens and encourages students to work for “social progress” and human rights reform.
“My goal is for every student to learn about human rights so that they become emissaries of human rights in their everyday life,” Stacy said. “Human dignity and empathy for others is something that we all have responsibility for, and we each have different means at our disposal for meeting that responsibility. I want to see human rights as the platform for which we see the world.”