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Reaffirming the Importance of Human Rights Education

Shardul Oza, Guest Blogger

We live in a world in which specialized technical knowledge and skills are generously rewarded in the labor market. For example, undergraduate students in the U.S. who major in engineering, science, and business can expect to earn high salaries upon graduation while their peers in the liberal arts are, on average, less well-compensated.

Because of this disparity, it is common to hear people devalue education that has less direct and tangible individual-level benefits. Take, for example, the way the word “practical” is used in popular discourse. In the education context, people use the word “practical” to refer to education that has high labor market returns (i.e. computer engineering). In this view, practical education is more important than other types of education because it helps individuals advance in clearly identifiable and socially-valued ways (i.e. financially).

It is in the context of the current assault on non-technical education that we need to revisit the very tangible achievements of the liberal tradition in education. Human rights education provides us with an interesting frame for thinking about the relationship of liberal education to human progress.

While much of the progress that mankind has seen in the modern era can be attributed to technological innovation and science (think of vaccines and the related decrease in childhood illness/deaths for example), there also been an important shift in how we treat human life that does not relate to technology per se.

Sign at protest against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo courtesy of Nina Sethi.

Documents such as UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) have helped create a world in which individual rights are sovereign and protected. We can only condemn human rights violations if we assume that people are endowed with those rights in the first place. In fact, the idea that people have sacrosanct, individual rights drives how citizens today relate to their governments and vice-versa. In the modern world, governments and other powerful actors are less likely to violate individual rights (at least, very egregiously) because they fear internal and external fallout.  For example, the North Korean regime’s flagrant human rights abuses have helped make it a pariah on the international stage. Individuals, communities, and states are less willing to accept violations as the norm. This is one of the reasons that violence has declined so precipitously in the modern era.

However, there is still work to be done in achieving a more just, progressive world. While we have rapidly expanded the universe of people to whom human rights apply (think about women’s suffrage, Civil Rights), serious state and non-state rights violations continue to challenge that progress. More than ever, we need organizations like ARTE that help individuals understand, define, and assert their rights.  

Shardul Oza is an international development professional based in Washington DC and an informal advisor to ARTE.

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