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Human Rights Education in Asian Schools Volume II

Students, Teachers and Human Rights

Who's afraid of human rights? Many people. Teachers, parents, education officials, traditional community leaders, among others, feel threatened by the idea. Others, although believing human rights are important, also think they will not be realized in their lifetime.

Why do so many people in Asia have reservations about human rights? Even some involved in community service believe that human rights are used for selfish, individualistic purposes, that they are Western ideas imposed on local cultures, that they are a political tool or of use only to lawyers.

When people suffer injustice, however, they begin to see the real meaning of human rights. When people witness child abuse, they invoke human rights to defend the hapless children. When they are unjustly deprived of their property or maltreated by the police or government authorities, they begin to realize that their human rights are being violated.

Human rights usually receive public attention only when they are violated. Media reports often focus on cases of maltreatment or even death; human rights are normally seen in a negative light, not as the enjoyment of freedoms that make life more meaningful.

Human rights education (HRE) need not focus solely on human rights violations. It has to include stories of ordinary people's victories in realizing human rights, and thus bring the concept of human rights close to home. Students, for example, certainly face human rights issues in their own contexts. HRE uses such ordinary experiences as basic learning materials.

Recent surveys on the extent of Asian youths' perception of human rights may guide us in developing and implementing measures to assure a proper understanding and practice of human rights.

In 1994, for example, a group of Taipei educators surveyed students, aged 12 to 15 years old, in junior high school, high school, vocational schools and junior colleges, focusing on the relationship of four human rights values (respect, trust, esteem and privacy) to smoking and drinking.1 The report came to the following general conclusions:

(1) Younger females are more likely to be sensitive to respect from parents and teachers, trust within the family and esteem from parents. This sensitivity often reflects itself in higher rates of smoking and drinking. (2) The level of respect from teachers is more likely to be associated with smoking and drinking habits than the level of respect from parents. (3) In every school category but one, students who felt they were not trusted were more likely to smoke and drink, except in junior high school, where lack of trust did have a significant effect on smoking but not on drinking. (4) A low level of esteem from parents increases the likelihood of smoking and drinking, but low esteem from friends or classmates has the opposite effect. This is true for all males.

It also found that 4.1 percent of the students felt a lack of respect from teachers while 80.4 percent felt average or better respect. 34.9 percent of junior high school students reported that teachers normally respect them very much, while only 4.8 percent felt a lack of respect from their teachers.

One interesting result is reported in this manner:

When they have been treated unfairly, high school, junior college and vocational students are more likely to stand up for their rights than junior high school students. But for all groups, the largest number (53.2 percent) would base their reactions on the circumstances of the situation. The large majority of people are upset by others cutting into a line, but only 17.8 percent would consider confronting such person[s].

This finding is relevant to the action component of HRE. It may be worthwhile to find out if students would think and act differently if treated unfairly after undergoing HRE.

The survey is important because the issues taken up (drinking and smoking) are so ordinary and normally do not come up in discussions on human rights. It provides a concrete manner of looking at how people perceive themselves, their values and their relation to human rights. The survey was designed as a baseline study which can be the basis of a future HRE program in Taiwan.

Another survey, which studied the effect of HRE in India, Botswana, Northern Ireland in Britain, and Zimbabwe, surveyed 915 secondary school students, 14 to 16 years old, over a three-year period.2 The report notes that after the countries ratified international human rights instruments, the relationship between commitment to human rights and school curricula is

still rather indirect. Where they are taught it is often as part of teaching on the constitution, or in such subjects as Education for Living or Personal and Social Education. Topics such as the Holocaust, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the anti-apartheid struggle may come up in history. Where the constitution stresses rights and responsibilities as in India, it can exert a pervasive influence on the curriculum... Usually, however, the human rights components in school curricula appear there as contingent on other curricular or policy factors and do not reflect a broad philosophic or strategic commitment to human rights education. Article 42 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, 1990 is typical of more recent conventions in stating, "States Parties undertake to make the principles and provisions of the Convention widely known, by appropriate and active means, to adults and children alike." This injunction is not always followed.

The same can most likely be said of many other Asian countries. The study succinctly describes the prevailing lack of support for HRE in schools. At the same time, it explains how governments might justify the lack of formal HRE in their countries by citing the fact that subjects on morals, civics, and law and the constitution touch on human rights issues. The defining element, however, in the words of this report, is the presence of a "broad philosophic or strategic commitment to human rights education." Many governments fail to cite explicit policies and programs supporting HRE in schools.

The survey in India focused on eight public schools in Karnataka, Orissa, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Four schools are in rural areas and the other four in urban areas. Some of the results are as follows:

On materials and teacher preparation

Teachers and principals said there was no lack of print materials, but audio-visual items and international documents were not readily available. Educational administrators said more materials were needed, particularly modular materials for both teachers and students, on different aspects of human rights and the pedagogy of human rights. Human rights are absent from pre-service teacher education and teachers and principals felt it should be given special attention in in-service courses. The support of NGOs and teacher organizations was important.

On having exams or not on human rights subjects

In India the majority of teachers interviewed were in favor of exams as teachers and students would pay more attention to the subjects; but a minority thought exams would harm the learning-teaching method, and that it would be better to introduce human rights in classes not preoccupied with exams. The educational administrators did not want exams.

On student perception of law and the administration of justice

The students were asked to consider a hypothetical case of a policeman catching someone running away with an article from a shop. 72.1 percent of the students expected the policeman to beat the person and put him or her in prison. If the case happened in their neighborhood, 50 percent of the students expected unlawful action by the police. Asked what should happen in such case, 40.7 percent of the students talked about compassion, leniency and the social causes of crime, while not ignoring the judicial process.

On student perception of violence

72.4 percent of the students worry about violence; more students strongly agree that it is never necessary. More students think that people resort to violence because they know they cannot persuade their opponents without it, than believe that people use weapons or violence because they think they are stronger. On domestic violence, the report states that:

There was a high level of agreement that domestic violence is morally wrong, irrespective of who the victim or perpetuator of the violence might be, and that external intervention by friends and neighbours is justified. Action to prevent wife-beating and child abuse had more support than action to prevent the possibly rarer case of assaults on husbands. Intervention to prevent injury to a child had less support in India than elsewhere.

On knowledge of the Convention on the Rights of the Child

67.9 percent of the students knew about the convention; 30.8 percent did not. But the report says that there is a "... widespread ignorance of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by all four governments in the sample countries by this time of this inquiry."

On experience of human rights education in schools

A high percentage of students heard about human rights through the school (45.4 percent), the press (25.7 percent), family, friends and radio/TV (6-7 percent each).

73.3 percent of the students who want to see more done provided practical suggestions to make the schools respect rights and duties in practice and said learning should not be restricted to textbooks.

These two surveys indicate students' level of awareness about rights and the schools' role in facilitating understanding of human rights. Indeed, the surveys support the view that HRE has to take up the issues confronting students in their daily lives in school, family and the society. The surveys reaffirm the need to see human rights in their more ordinary and practical sense. Respect, for example, is to be studied not only as a concept, but also in terms of the relationships the students actually have. Taking action on human rights does not only mean taking the whole government to task for massive and gross violations of human rights, but also taking small steps in concrete situations in the school, family and neighborhood.

Similar surveys may be needed to determine how effective or otherwise HRE is in molding attitudes and behavior. They may have to cover not only the students but the teachers as well. As these surveys show, HRE means learning for students as much as for teachers. The whole HRE experience affects teachers and students more or less equally.

The papers in this collection provide numerous ways of trying to make an impact on students and teachers. A closer study of these experiences would be helpful in developing HRE programs in schools. The experience of schools with a longer history of HRE-such as Japanese schools offering Dowa education-would be instructive.

The future scenario of education seems to be conducive to HRE in some countries at least. Governments, in view of the coming new millenium and in response to the vastly changing socioeconomic, cultural and political contexts, have expressed the need for a new approach to education.

The Thai government wants to radically change the school curriculum by emphasizing the need for students to think for themselves and to spend less time in the classroom and more in extracurricular activities. Textbooks are to be chosen by the students rather than required by the schools. Students will be required to do civic work.3

Based both on achievements and negative elements of the past, the Korean government's "second nation-building" seeks to change the education system typified by standardization, rote memorization, examination-oriented study, school cronyism, selfishness and secrecy.4 The basic aim is to make people change their way of thinking and adopt the "universal value of globalism" in lieu of authoritarianism, collectivism, conservatism, rigid thinking and regional favoritism.

In Japan, the proposed curriculum change (to be implemented in 2002) focuses on key concepts such as "quality, rather than quantity, individuality, yutori (more time to learn less) and nurturing the ability to find and resolve problems by oneself, rather than being lectured."5

A new school curriculum will also be introduced in 2001 in Taiwan.

There seem to be enough novel education principles which can help improve the learning environment. Certainly, in order to help students become more independent and think for themselves, these education programs should be receptive to HRE.

The experience of most HRE organizations shows that the mindsets of teachers and school officials must change. The task of changing mindsets is not difficult, but neither is it easy. It requires a better understanding of human rights and HRE in relation to the holistic development of the students. It needs to be translated into teacher training (pre- and in-service), textbooks, teaching aids, school policies and regulations, teaching methods, extracurricular activities, community outreach programs and other aspects of education. Since HRE means a change in education, people responsible for the education of students-from teachers to parents-need to work together to make performance of responsibilities feasible and effective.

End Notes

1. Pesus Chou, Meei-yuan Lou, Hong-Jen Chang, "The Present Status of Human Rights Perception and Behavior and their Relationship to Smoking and Drinking among Adolescent Students in Taiwan," Community Medicine Research Center and Institute of Public Health, National Yang-Ming University, Taipei, Taiwan, 1998.
2. R. Bourne, J. Gundara, A. Dev, N. Ratsoma, M. Rukanda, A. Smith, U. Birthistle, "School-based Understanding of Human Rights in Four Countries: A Commonwealth Study," Serial 22, Department for International Development, London, 1997.
3. Sirikul Bunnag, "Radical shake-up in schools next term," The Bangkok Post, January 27, 1999, Bangkok.
4. Lee Chang-sup, "Spiritual Rearmament Movement Eyed to Change Way of Thinking," The Korea Times, August 15, 1998.
5. Yukiko Furusawa, "Is a reduced curriculum the remedy?" The Daily Yomiuri, November 23, 1998. The proposed guideline has been criticized by educators in Japan for failing to fulfill its objective of easing the burden of students and allowing them more space to learn. The guideline proponents have been accused of mechanically cutting study time, such as Saturday classes, but adding time on weekdays, resulting in an insignificant reduction of class hours. One points out that the guideline does not talk about how the substance of learning can improve the quality of education. Others see the need for more freedom for schools to shape their own curriculum rather than be bound by government-issued guidelines. See Ginko Kobayashi, "Revised Curriculum just more of the same?" Daily Yomiuri, July 1998, and also Tomoko Shibuya, "Educators hammer out reforms," The Japan Times, December 17, 1998.


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