January 29-31, 2004

Since the early 1980’s, and over the last ten years in particular, the language of human rights has penetrated virtually every corner of global and domestic politics, and public discourse. Thanks to the contemporary human rights revolution, international human rights norms have become standard barometers for assessing the quality of human dignity and freedom. Despite this efflorescence of human rights, abusive regimes and practices continue in the post-Cold-War world; sharply divided lines between East and West, North and South no longer map the central divisions in human rights principles and practices. The seeming paradox of simultaneously expanding human rights protections and violations poses a daunting challenge to students and practitioners of human rights, a challenge only deepened by the fractured state of the global community. At the same time that the world situation demands greater vigilance, the myriad contradictions between global human rights principles and abusive practices call for greater clarity in the definition of what human rights are, where they come from, and what they mean. The importance of human rights in contemporary public discussion, the magnitude of current global humanitarian crises, and the exploration of the legal, philosophical, cultural, and social dimensions of human rights are widely recognized in the academy. This situation demands new and creative approaches to the incorporation of human rights within a liberal arts curriculum.

More and more undergraduate programs have begun to add human rights courses and subfields to their curriculum. However, it remains the general rule that most American universities offer human rights courses primarily through law schools, while most of the available human rights textbooks are intended for law students. Legal education in human rights, however, is designed to train human rights lawyers and to inform other future attorneys about the existence and application of basic international human rights law. The deeper ontological, hermeneutical, and humanistic questions at the core of a liberal arts education receive secondary attention, at best, in this environment. The many innovative human rights courses sprouting up across the humanities and social sciences that delve specifically into the defining questions and pedagogical aspirations of a liberal arts education, furthermore, tend to lack a unifying disciplinary thread, or a rudimentary plan for how disparate courses should build upon one another or, towards what ends they should be building. Even in colleges and programs with well-developed human rights curricula, the disciplinary outlines of the field remain murky and erratic.

This seminar aims to provide a forum to bring together faculty members from Midwestern colleges and universities to discuss the integration human rights education into a liberal arts program. We hope to draw upon the different disciplinary, regional, and thematic foci of the various participants to address a series of critical questions facing all of us as human rights educators: How do we negotiate the tensions between different disciplinary practices, in order to integrate diverse courses and research into a specific area of inquiry? How do we explore legal norms and instruments from broader humanistic and social scientific perspectives without either distorting their legal realities or limiting discussion to questions of justiciability or legal outcomes? How do we teach the role of the U.S. in global human rights, and how do we explain the difference between the predominant perspective of civil rights in the U.S. and that of international human rights? How do we cultivate student writing and research in human rights sustained on quality social scientific and humanistic analysis, rather than mere moral indignation? What are the disciplinary consequences of using human rights as a rubric to teach students about civic engagement?

Drawing on the resources of the University of Chicago Human Rights Program, we will investigate the multi-faceted possibilities for human rights education within a liberal arts curriculum. Our speakers and participants will bring a wide variety of disciplinary, methodological, and practical commitments to the conversation. They will include: Rev. Alison Boden (Divinity School and Dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel), Andreas Glaeser (Sociology), Michael Green (Philosophy), Susan Gzesh (Director of Human Rights Program, International Studies Center), Hans Joas (Sociology, Committee on Social Thought), and Bill Novak (English). Individual discussions will address: the role of religious studies in human rights, human rights and international law, the human rights implications of gender studies, and the place of human rights in an undergraduate curriculum.