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Margot Stern Strom

Education, democracy, and rights

By Margot Stern Strom
November 20, 2008
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IN 1932, a time of political uncertainty and an economic crisis more grave than today, elections took place in Germany and in the United States. The two selected leaders ended up shaping the last half of the 20th century. One became a dictator and the other remained a democrat. What followed across Europe and the Pacific was one of the worst periods of devastation and hatred in human history, which in turn triggered the international human rights movement. Our understanding of this history can be a useful guide as we confront the risks of our time.

One lesson is the significance of education to democracy - and also to totalitarianism and oppression. Both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler understood the power of education. President Roosevelt told America that education is the only "real safeguard of democracy" and stressed the importance of an education that helps keep freedom alive in a world filled with danger and opportunity. Hitler had a very different view. By turning German schools into centers for indoctrination, he kidnapped democracy, manipulated the electoral process, established a brutal dictatorship, set off a world war, and carried out genocide on an unprecedented scale.

A second lesson is the power of individual leaders. Making enormous marks on their own societies and the world, neither Hitler nor Roosevelt ultimately witnessed the full consequences of the war and the genocide at its core. Near the war's end, Hitler committed suicide and Roosevelt died of a stroke. But President Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, bore witness, visiting displaced-persons camps in Europe after the war ended. She heard testimonies of concentration camp survivors and learned about the educated bureaucrats, doctors, teachers, and lawyers who made possible Hitler's rise and the murder of millions.

The encounters transformed Eleanor Roosevelt. As a delegate to the United Nations, she facilitated the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the first global expression of rights attached to every individual. The world's most translated document, the declaration marks its 60th anniversary next month. Eleanor Roosevelt was US delegate to the United Nations. She proved a gifted negotiator in articulating human rights that speak across cultural, religious, and national groups, and across generations.

A third lesson is creating a particular vision of common identity while respecting diversity. With unprecedented human migration across national boundaries, nations as different as Sweden, Germany, the United States, and India now struggle to interpret and enact the proposition that even displaced persons and non-citizens have universal human rights. Nations that in recent history may have seemed relatively homogeneous now must re-conceive of rights in response to increasing diversity. No single answer emerges as nations struggle with issues like whether a child should be allowed to wear a religious symbol to a state-run school, or how to ensure free speech while promoting respect for differences.

The 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides a rich occasion to reflect on the promise and limitations of rights and education to prevent mass atrocities and to advance individual freedom and dignity. To mark this milestone, Harvard Law School and Facing History and Ourselves host a conference this week, "Hope, Critique and Possibility: Universal Rights in Societies of Difference."

Today, students need engaging curricula and teachers who are prepared to involve their students in discussions about civic dilemmas. Educators need professional development that fosters integration of head and heart, and links academic rigor to ethical reflection. In the words of Harvard law professor and co-chair of the conference Martha Minow, "Even as students learn particular narratives and national values in diverse settings around the world, they have to be encouraged to walk even briefly in someone else's shoes."

Barack Obama recently told the world, "Our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared." The need for every child to understand the rights and responsibilities of freedom requires deliberate and informed choices about how they are taught. Society must continue to find ways to make our children aware of what Eleanor Roosevelt called "our responsibility" and theirs.

Margot Stern Strom is president and executive director of Facing History and Ourselves.

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