"I cry, I do."
"Every time? I only cry some times."
"I used to cry, but now I do it differently."
"I don't cry, but my students do."
"My students don't cry, they get angry."
"Mine are ashamed."
These comments occurred in the course of a conversation about pedagogy among a dozen leading scholars following a conference at the National Humanities Center on "Human Rights and the Humanities." Human rights are rapidly entering the academic curriculum, with programs appearing all over the country—including at Duke, Harvard, Northeastern, and Stanford Universities; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the Universities of Chicago, of Connecticut, of California at Berkeley, and of Minnesota; and Trinity College. Most of these programs are in schools of law or public policy, but a few, including those at Macalester and Bard Colleges, are oriented toward the humanities, and the group was considering how best to teach the subject from that perspective, using the resources of philosophy, history, and the arts.
On the surface, the subject of human rights represents a wonderful teaching opportunity. All over the country, colleges and universities are talking about how to offer students an education that is engaged, connected, worldly, and interdisciplinary, and the subject of human rights seems ideally suited to those purposes. The concept is simplicity itself: People everywhere should be treated with dignity not because they are citizens of a particular country but simply because they are human beings. And it has the advantage, from a pedagogical point of view, of being both extreme and current—the "Kony 2012" video set YouTube records, and virtually every day's news brings reports of fresh atrocities—without troubling the normal rhythms of undergraduate life, since human-rights violations generally happen to disempowered people far away.
Moreover, the topic lends itself to an interdisciplinary program that could include history, religion, philosophy, and even the arts: Human-rights issues are raised in novels (Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians), films (Alejandro Iñárritu's Biutiful), paintings (Picasso's "Guernica"), photographs, and videos. But the term also encompasses issues that generally lie outside the reach of the humanities, such as prison conditions, workplace issues, fetal rights, reproductive rights, and the environment. Even the issue of Net neutrality has been cast as an issue of "electronic human rights."
A program centering on human rights could include a great deal of factual knowledge, but those facts would not be far removed from values, since the human-rights discourse has become, as one writer has put it, "the universal language for making fundamental political or moral claims." In short, the subject of human rights has everything—pedagogically speaking—going for it.
Yet our discussion, as the comments cited above suggest, was not going smoothly.
As we were discovering, the topic of human rights, so simple in its basic idea, gets complicated under the slightest pressure. We could not, for instance, even come up with a noncontroversial definition of "human." As Joseph Slaughter, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, pointed out, the word rarely appears in human-rights law, where the operative term is generally "person." The reason seems to be that "human" suggests a biological species, while "person" inclines subtly toward the domain of law. But why, then, are they called human rights? And what counts as a human? The unborn? The dead? And why, if human rights apply to everyone everywhere, does our accepted vernacular usage focus on individuals rather than on genders, classes, religious communities, or ethnic groups? Isn't this emphasis on alleviating the sufferings of the few rather than seeking to extend the realm of justice and freedom for the many a huge and fundamentally sentimental distraction?
We had no better luck with "rights." During a break in the conversation, one distinguished scholar approached another and asked, in a lowered voice, "What is a 'right,' anyway?" The question hung softly in the air, unanswered. In fact, it points to a number of stubborn practical problems. Most rights are intended either to protect the individual from the state (the right to free speech or freedom of religion) or to ensure that the state protects individuals in certain ways (food stamps, police, public education, health care). Such rights are spelled out in the civil and legal codes of the state, even if they are attributed to some transcendent nonpolitical source, as in "We hold these truths to be self-evident ... that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."
It may have been self-evident to the signers of the Declaration that people had God-given rights, but those rights were not enforceable until duly elected representatives of the people affixed their signatures to an official document. In many places in the world, there is either no such document, or the interpretation of the document is left to those in power.
So what is a right?
A human right with no legal grounding is an especially fragile thing. As the philosopher Jacques Maritain, one of the framers of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said, "We all agree on the rights, as long as no one asks us why." In Europe, human rights are on a somewhat firmer footing, since many states have signed the European Convention on Human Rights, which grants authority to the European Court of Human Rights. But that court has no force in other countries, so people living in Gaza, Syria, Libya, Sri Lanka, China, Uganda, or Guantánamo have no court to appeal to other than the court of public opinion.
When governments charged with committing, encouraging, or tolerating human-rights violations reject those charges—as they invariably do—they defend themselves by citing their own rights to maintain cultural tradition, to exercise their legitimate authority, or to maintain social order. Trapped between competing sets of rights, their victims can only hope that unfavorable publicity and outside pressure might persuade their tormentors to stop.
What we were discovering was that, despite the manifest intention of its advocates to articulate a clear and simple bedrock concept, human rights actually exist in a twilit region where nothing is as it appears, and nothing is indisputable. A woman sentenced to having her nose cut off for violating the Shariah code of dress is, we might say, "self-evidently" the victim of a human-rights abuse, but not all women living under Shariah feel themselves to be victimized. Many women insist they wear the burkha voluntarily out of respect for the tradition that compels them to do so, and some have said publicly that they appreciate the privacy and freedom bestowed by the face veil.
At the other end of the spectrum, when George Soros, who has pledged $100-million to Human Rights Watch, was convicted by a French court of insider trading, he was outraged and took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming (unsuccessfully) that his human rights had been violated.
There is something disturbing about both notions—that an oppressed person could acquiesce in her own oppression, and that one of the wealthiest men in the world could present himself as the victim of a human-rights abuse. But why? Can't people decide for themselves whether their rights are being violated? And do only the dispossessed possess human rights?
Maybe, some in the group felt, it would be easier and more inspiring to set aside these conceptual problems and concentrate on teaching the history of human rights. One could imagine the inspiring march of the syllabus: the progress of humankind from the Stoics to the medieval concept of natural law, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Rights of Man. It would include, as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a professor of history and African-American studies at Harvard University, has insisted, the abolitionist movement of the 19th century, as well as the civil-rights and women's-rights movements of the 20th century, all leading majestically and inevitably to our modern concept of human rights.
But Samuel Moyn, a professor of history at Columbia University and author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, immediately disputed this, asserting that none of those movements led inevitably to the concept that we deploy today, which only became a priority in the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter embraced it, and both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were formed. If Moyn was right, then our concept of human rights was not the fruit of a long tradition of progressive emancipation, but the last exhausted gasp of an unrealistic utopian impulse that could no longer place its faith in socialism.
Who to believe—and what to teach?
Even if utopian solutions for all these problems could be found, other problems would immediately appear. Does the United States actually hold human rights to be self-evident? As Harvard's Elaine Scarry pointed out, we seem to have found a way to evade what she called the "deeply unpleasant subject of prosecution." In all the conventions and treaties relating to torture, she noted, there is no room for interpretation: Those responsible for torture must be prosecuted. Our failure to do so, even in cases where responsibility has been plainly established, renders, she insisted, "inauthentic" our own commitment to human rights.
But would a more authentic and comprehensive commitment be rational? That was the question posed by Michael Gillespie, a professor of political science at Duke University, who asked the group to consider what the world would look like under a regime of universal human rights in which everyone was treated with dignity and decency, where they had adequate nourishment and shelter in a clean and nontoxic environment, where they had access to education and economic mobility, where their safety could be relatively assured, and where they would not be exploited or discriminated against or convicted of crimes they had not committed. Even in that thought experiment, it was immediately apparent that, given the inevitable collision of rights, a gain in rights for some would mean a compromise or reduction of rights for others.
If, for example, all the people in China and India, seeking the rights to found a family (Article 16 of the Universal Declaration), to have gainful employment (Article 23), to educate themselves (Article 26), and to participate in cultural life (Article 27), were to have several children, move to cities, and buy cars, refrigerators, TV's, and computers—exercising a comprehensive right to modernity, as it were—the result might well be an environmental catastrophe and a marked increase in the price of energy that would cripple economies all over the world. Could the West's commitment to universal human rights survive such an outcome?
Gillespie's question indirectly raised another problematic issue for those who would teach human rights to undergraduates. Soros's complaint notwithstanding, charges of human-rights violations tend to be leveled by those in the modern West at non-Western, nonmodern, or postcolonial cultures and their governments. Such charges typically take the form of a harshly disapproving judgment by the former colonial powers on the behavior of the "developing" world, which, it is implied, has failed to grasp or embrace the cosmopolitan spirit of humanity.
It is indeed difficult not to convey this attitude when making a human-rights charge, which is why some feel that the very term "human rights" contains a hidden human-rights violation—the deliberate misconstrual of cultural differences as moral differences, and the patronizing presumption that everyone everywhere either is or ought to be modern and Western. This discouraging sequence of recognitions culminated in a discussion by James Dawes, an English professor at Macalester College, of his work taking confessions from war criminals. Sharing the lurid material with the group, he asked whether the interest that those in the West take in depictions of human-rights violations in films, novels, videos, or testimony might be considered essentially "pornographic."
Our project—so well intentioned, but so fraught with difficulties—was threatening to disintegrate.
Can human rights actually be taught from a humanistic perspective? Or do the complications introduced by philosophy, history, and the study of art render this seemingly ideal pedagogical subject unteachable? Might a humanistic approach that accommodates and even welcomes ambiguity and complexity actually wind up falsifying, even betraying, the gritty, bloody, overwhelmingly present urgency of human rights? Might such an approach undercut those rights by revealing, for example, a fatal lack of clarity in the most basic terms?
And what effect might a course on human rights have on an educational process that is supposed to be "disinterested"? This last question was broached in a pointed exchange between Michael Valdez Moses, an associate professor of English at Duke University, and Eduardo Cadava, a professor of English at Princeton, with Cadava arguing that critical analysis of the kind humanists specialize in is directly linked to political engagement, since all political actions are founded in such analysis, and Moses responding with pointed skepticism.
These were all difficult questions. But our three hours of sometimes wandering, sometimes contentious conversation also exposed possibilities and opportunities largely unrecognized at the beginning. We had started thinking that the humanities would illuminate the subject of human rights in new and important ways, but as we proceeded, it had become apparent that the subject of human rights revealed unsuspected facets of the humanities.
In the college curriculum, works of art are treated as objects to be studied in quiet places or consumed at leisure, but in a course on human rights, they assume a kind of urgency and immediacy that is not altogether aesthetic, as forms of witnessing, instruments for conveying in pictorial or narrative form the human realities associated with such abstract issues as dignity, the value of individual existence, and justice. Philosophy, religion, and history become in the context of human rights not just academic fields but distinct ways of thinking through real political, social, and moral issues. And the general approach to texts that the humanities cultivate—detail-oriented, interrogative, skeptical, critical—becomes not just a disciplinary peculiarity, a fussy insistence on slow reading, but a method necessary for uncovering the real complexity of the world.
In a larger sense, the subject of human rights lays bare the premises of liberal education itself. Liberal education is supposed to prepare you for life. It does so not just by giving you information or training you in a task, but by awakening you to the complexities of life in a setting that permits you to exercise the cognitive skills that will be required once you leave those quiet academic precincts. The humanities in particular not only expose you to the world outside your circle of experience; they also require you to make judgments, assessments, and interpretations of uncertain situations, and, most important, to do so in a setting where there are no real penalties for wrong decisions.
That is well understood. But when the subject is human rights, that safety is jeopardized because the distance between education and the world is collapsed. As Domna Stanton, a professor of French studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center, insisted, human-rights issues do not arise only in the "uncivilized" world; they are all around us, in U. S. prisons and detention centers, and also in our treatment of those defined as less than human.
In most academic environments, students have the luxury of forgetting about such things. But the students of Anat Biletzki, a professor of philosophy at the University of Tel Aviv, confront the subject of human rights virtually every day. Indeed, she reported, she must spend a good part of every class session letting her students talk about what might be called current events in human rights—events typically occurring just a few miles away, with a direct bearing on their lives.
Others in our group reported that their students often felt guilty about their own security. And still others—those moved to tears, anger, or shame—found themselves overwhelmed by feelings not normally evoked by coursework. And their teachers were themselves often uncertain where or whether to draw the lines between analysis and advocacy, information and engagement, or teaching and therapy. If a pedagogy focused on human rights introduces endless complexities and questions into a situation that seems to require empathy and action, it also brings the ends of education into excruciatingly close proximity.
One thing our group did agree on was that all the pragmatic and theoretical difficulties we had stumbled upon did not add up to an argument for abandoning the effort to teach about human rights from a humanistic perspective. Indeed, we concluded, a pedagogy focused on human rights might be able to provide students and their teachers an education not just in the ways of the world but also in the aspirations and limits of education itself.

* Geoffrey Harpham is president and director of the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C.