3 Human rights and intercultural education in the Commonwealth
The state's implementation of human rights, and human rights education, is evolutionary in nature. Writers like Hobbes5 affirmed only the right to life, by suggesting a restriction on the power of the state. The next stage included a right by the state to intervene to protect the rights of individuals and groups. A third stage has been the development of notions of social rights, to bring about greater equity through active intervention by the state.
Not all these rights, nor the nature of these rights, are accepted by all states across the Commonwealth. Nor are the older developed Commonwealth states necessarily in advance of the newer members in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. Educational initiatives to teach about these rights have to be developed so that they can encompass the religious, linguistic, social, economic and cultural diversities across the Commonwealth. A conceptual framework, covering a range of these diversities, is therefore needed.
Questions of national integration and unity are as relevant to the ax-colonial territories as they are to New Zealand, Canada or Britain at the present time. Ethnic nationalism and devolution are some of the issues which many states confront. The Commonwealth Values project has highlighted the need for a type of teacher education which equips teachers with the knowledge, pedagogies and skills to teach human rights issues in classrooms with diverse student populations. In poorer schools, with knowedge-poor young people, there is a greater disparity of understanding of rights than for those who study in knowledge-rich institutions. The use of educational technologies and other measures which can equalise pupil understanding, and help both teachers and students to bridge this gap, therefore need attention.
Curricula and teaching materials in many schools are still inadequate for teaching purposes where student populations are diverse. Where linguistic and religious diversity impinge on education the challenge is to develop a common curriculum which encourages a shared value system, so that young people can function as democratic citizens in the cosmopolitan polities of today and the future.
This raises the extremely complicated question of what to choose from which cultures to devise a shared value system. This is where the intercultural issue intersects with human rights education for so many Commonwealth countries. If human rights education is perceived and constructed in purely “western” terms, it is liable to be rejected by “others” who assert oppositional Asiatic, Islamic or Afro-centric values. Such values may be based on falsely constructed notions of an ethnically purer past which their advocates seek to activate in educational contexts.
On the other hand it is important to look beyond such regional or religious stereotyping. The Indian perspective, reflected not only in a constitution but in 50 years' practice of democracy in a large and varied population, points to the experience of a secular, civil libertarian polity. India, since independence, has sought to reflect and support a series of multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-cultural values.
The overwhelming diversities within the states which are members of the Commonwealth present their educators with an opportunity. How can they make use of the constitutional, democratic and modernising principles to which these states are signatory? In fact the issues raised in diverse societies are relevant to all, whether they consider themselves secular or theocratic, and neither effective human rights teaching, nor educational use of the international human rights instruments, are yet common in Commonwealth schools.
Two general problems frequently arise, one relating to religious schools, another to arguments derived from the claimed demands of political stability and economic development.
Many Commonwealth children still learn in religious schools, while having to live later on as adults in complex, multifaith societies. There is a need for more interfaith contacts between young people. Educational work is often lacking to promote the intercultural values of respect, equality, and acceptance and toleration of different groups, based on genuine inter-group and public values.
There are also intercultural issues in the way in which some governments use problems of political stability and economic development to excuse the denial of “western-style” human rights. Educators cannot fudge these questions. There have to be educational strategies which together enhance democratisation, political stability and economic development. It is the task of educators to explore how best to enhance universal rights by drawing from different cultural traditions, and demonstrating that universal rights are often locally rooted. Such work must also take account of the rights and needs of the marginalised, oppressed, indigenous and immigrant peoples in Commonwealth countries.
Hence the context for human rights education in the Commonwealth today is an intercultural one. It affects the experiences of youngsters at school, whether they even get to school at all - for education too is a human right bullying, indiscipline and gender differences. Some aspects of the student questionnaire in the present project, relating to equality of opportunity and the different responses of “Protestant” and “Catholic” students in Northern Ireland, touched on this context. It deserves further inquiry and analysis
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