The sweep of history and the uniqueness of present moments

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The sweep of history and the uniqueness of present moments

Robin Richardson

The first draft outlines of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were prepared by one John P. Humphrey, who in 1947 was the newly appointed director of the UN secretariat’s division on human rights. On Sunday 17 February 1947 he was invited by Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, to visit her at her Washington Square apartment in New York. Also present were the vice-chair of the Commission, Peng-chun Chang of China, and the rapporteur, Charles Habib Malik of Lebanon. It was at this meeting that Humphrey was asked to start drafting. Many years later he recalled the meeting as follows:
Chang and Malik were too far apart in their philosophical approaches to be able to work together on a text. There was a good deal of talk but we were getting nowhere. Then, after another cup of tea, Chang suggested that I put my other duties aside for six months and study Chinese philosophy, after which I might be able to prepare a text for the committee. This was his way of saying that Western influences might be too great, and he was looking at Malik as he spoke. He had already, in the Commission, urged the importance of historical perspective. There was some more discussion mainly of a philosophical character, Mrs Roosevelt saying little and continuing to pour tea.i
It is a beautiful vignette of human rights in practice. Against a background of conflicting philosophies, perspectives and narratives, and with vivid memories of the world war that has just finished and of the terrible sufferings in the Nazi concentration camps, four human beings meet in someone’s apartment. There is both philosophy and the pouring of tea, public ceremony and private courtesy, contestation and modesty, grandness and homeliness, the explicit and the tacit, determination to re-shape the world and a temporary acceptance of traditional gender roles, the sweep of history and the uniqueness of the present moment.
Human rights education (HRE) at its best contains such combinations, such comings together. It is relevant, though, to ask how it fits with other similar concerns, for example those which are evoked by phrases such as multicultural education, intercultural education, education for mutual understanding; development education, education for sustainable development, global education; antiracist education, education for race equality; education for democracy, citizenship education, political education, peace education, education for tolerance; personal, health and social education; anti-bias education. These phrases belong to, as it were, a family. Questions for attention include:

  • what – distinctively – does HRE bring to the family party, the family table?

  • what is its claim, in other words, to be a full family member, as distinct from a hanger-on, or domestic servant, or temporary guest, or distant relative, or pretender, or gate-crasher?

  • is HRE, in point of fact, the true (if largely unrecognised) progenitor of the family – the founding mother and father?

  • may it (perhaps therefore) be well placed and well equipped to provide, for the rest of the family, a mediation service – a kind of family counselling programme?

And there’s a question from the rest of the family, seeking clarification and reassurance:

  • what are or may be HRE’s hang-ups and constraints, blinkers and blindspots, silences and inarticulacies, unhelpful baggage?

Further questions are about the family as a whole:

  • how, and to what extent, does it help get people (teachers, learners) get a handle on current issues – the so-called clash of civilisations, fundamentalism, nationalism and national identities, Islamophobia, the possible invasion of Iran, the conflict between the dollar and the euro, oil, climate change…?

  • how does it relate to mandatory curriculum requirements laid down by governments, to the exigencies of inspection regimes, the pressures on any education system to reproduce from one generation to another the surrounding class structure and distribution of wealth, and the society’s divisions by ethnicity and religious (or ethno-religious) tradition?

  • how does it engage with the things that interest and concern, even indeed absorb, children and teenagers – their relationships, bickerings and arguments with each other, their negotiations with authority, their need for street cred, and for love, and for selfhood?

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