A gathering of a group of school principals to discuss how to introduce human rights to the school curriculum should be a matter for celebration. This event itself is an indication of the changes taking place in our time. This is a very encouraging event which indicates the growing consciousness that human rights should be regarded as a central and a core issue in the social discourse. The event is also one which gives good reason for hope. The school principals do play a major role in molding the future generation. Would it not be a wonderful thing if it is possible to mold our younger generation to respect human rights and if more of them would be involved in promoting and protecting human rights of everyone.
In the past generations there had been many persons who held the banner of human rights, though the majority who were educated on human rights, did not much listen to them. Perhaps, for the first time in our histories we are about to witness a significant change in our educational system with regard to education on human rights. This is not the only conference that is directed towards that end. In several countries in Asia, human rights are taught in schools and universities and several others are discussing the issue seriously. Text books are being written on human rights, curriculums are discussed and even effective teaching methods are been experimented with. As in some subjects like in religion and literature, in human rights education story telling, drama, cartoons and audio visuals are been used. When creativity and goodwill are combined many good things happen.
Perhaps one may mention something about the very concept of a school principal in the Asian context. With urbanization principals are often considered as administrators only. However, they used to have a much larger role in our societies when they were considered also as leaders in their localities and communities. As human rights educators the principals could reintroduce this former role. In societies which have become so much disintegrated as ours we need common reference points that bring it together. Human rights could provide that reference point. Particularly in our South Asian societies where communal differences are so deep human rights may become the foundation of a dynamic social discourse. Human rights could achieve this as it begins with recognition of the dignity of everyone and equal rights of everyone. Where communal considerations whether they be based on religion or race tend to stress partial and sectarian considerations, human rights education could help to foster a more harmonious social ethos as it is based on our common humanity. (ASIAN HUMAN RIGHTS CHARTER promoted by the Asian Human Rights Commission bears the title "Our Common Humanity"). Our common humanity is our pride and shame. The shame is that there has been so much neglect of rights of so many people. To end these shameful aspects of human experience respect for everyone, for men and women, for children and elders, for the sick and disabled and all other categories of persons is necessary. And if the schools are to nurture this respect would not the future generation be proud of their educational institutions much more than our generation is of ours?
You may say that the content of human rights education is not different to what was taught by way of religion, be it Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity or Islam. There is lot of truth in that statement. The quintessence of human rights is also the basic essence of all religions, Love, compassion, loving kindness are the same. Unfortunately we also know that we have disgraced religions a great deal by using its name for our petty ends.
Therefore, while teaching religions we confined the obligations arising from these doctrines only to their followers. Human rights could bring in a universal aspect to moral and ethical education. And we in our divided societies are in great need of this. On the other hand in the context of rapid secularization we could still retain a basic common ground for respect for each other. We could still be our brothers’ keepers and withstand value systems which only promote selfish ways of life.
I must also tell you of the discussions which are going on with respect to human rights education in the Asia-Pacific region. Since we are in the United Nations decade for Human Rights many such discussions are taking place. One such discussion took place in Sydney, Australia from 22-25th August, 1996. Many persons who play a very active role in promoting human rights participated in this discussion. Some of the main ideas which were discussed may be of some use to you during your discussion. The participants felt that human rights should not be considered just a peripheral issue but should be treated as a core issue. Therefore they thought that while human rights should be taught specifically as a subject, it should also be brought into all aspects of education. They felt that a holistic approach was very essential. As experienced educationists I am sure you will appreciate this view. If the students are nurtured in a world outlook every aspect of which gives priority to human rights, this will help them grow up as integrated beings and not as split personalities. When one part of the education stresses one set of ideals and another part undermines or belittles such ideals, children are exposed to a very unhappy situation. The participants of the Sydney conference also felt that this integrated approach must be linked to participatory democracy. In such an environment there is no conflict between rights and duties. Perhaps such an approach to education would have an impact on some South Asian philosophies of education which stress only duties leaving aside rights. Perhaps this may help overcome the graded character of our societies, because to maintain social grading duties has to be stressed as against rights. In graded societies, some people have all the rights and no duties and some have less rights and more duties and some no rights and only duties. The influence of such philosophies is very deep in our societies and all of us are very unhappy about it. Human rights education when related to education on participatory democracy may help us to overcome this philosophical debacle.
As you know an important part of school work is learning discipline. In this sphere too, human rights education can make a useful contribution. In a hierarchical society, people are trained into a duty based type of discipline. It is, thus, a discipline imposed from outside. A rights based concept of discipline emphasizes mutual respect for each others rights. It encourages discussion as part of the process of maintaining discipline. It encourages collective responsibility achieved through consensus rather than discipline enforced by a superior. In this way, a child is prepared for facing the rapidly changing modern society, where hierarchical model of discipline often results in anarchy. In graded societies there is stress on secrecy. But relationships in the modern world are very much based on the right to information. To form an opinion and to participate in social interactions one need to be informed. The children who are brought up in such an atmosphere where the right to information is respected will have an advantage in participating in society as responsible adults. People who are educated in such an atmosphere will have little difficulty in playing their roles as leaders, bureaucrats and holders of other important positions, whereas people trained in hierarchical model will have great difficulties in adjusting to a world where parity in communication is a primary demand. Such are the advantages of an holistic approach to human rights.
In South Asian societies, we are very much in need of a future oriented education. Important thinkers, like Sri
Aurubindo have warned us of "the increasing impoverishment of Indian intellect, once the most gigantic and original in the world "and stresses " the need to liberating our minds in all subjects from thralldom to authority." He further wrote, "Our first necessity, if India is to survive and do her appointed work in the world, is that the youth in India should learn to think--- to think in all subjects, to think independently, fruitfully, going to the heart of things, not stopped by their surface, free of pre-judgments, shearing sophism and prejudice asunder as with a sharp sword, smiting down obscurantism of all kinds as with the mace of Bhima." To innovate and not just to renovate is a fitting slogan indicating our approach to the future. This is the sprit of human rights, and human rights education can help achieve this.
Any education to be effective needs to be contextualized too. Thus it is not enough to teach abstract principles of human rights taken from United Nations’ documents or our Constitutions. Our historical context as nations as well as local contexts need to be reflected in human rights education. The contextualizing of human rights is essential for nurturing of peace. Creative reflections on local situations from a human rights perspective would help the schools greatly, to become the societies’ most important peace makers. However, contextualizing and relativizing needs to be distinguished. Some say that we Asians should have less rights than people living in Western countries. They say, the human rights concepts are Western. Only people who have all the rights could say this to people who have much less rights. We keep masses of humanity without rights and condemn the growing consciousness of rights as a Western one. This would mean that to be Asian one has to put up with one’s bondage, one must remain submissive, one must eat less and work more. Is that what our women, and our children need to believe. Is that what our workers and peasants need to believe while multinational companies with the help of our elite take away the fruit of their labours, and the fruit of our lands. The relativist theory, though couched in nationalist terms is not nationalist at all. It work for the benefit of big companies Western or otherwise.
As experienced educators if you bring your experiences into this rich discussion on human rights taking place in Asia, you may be able to enrich it more. That way human rights education in the region in general and in your country in particular may benefit from your deliberations.