07/24/2012 03:02 pm ET

Measurements of Human Rights

I recently delivered a keynote lecture titled "The History and Challenges of Global Human Rights" for a group of Massachusetts teachers. These were not teachers who teach human rights, per se, but who attended the workshop to become more knowledgeable. My task: to provide a sweeping overview of the history of human rights, and to outline common stumbling blocks of implementation.

I began the lecture in a seemingly unlikely place: a photo of a bathroom in 2010 from a middle school in Lima, Peru. The school mandates a curriculum in which every student learns about human rights. Indeed, all of the students I spoke to in the school could cite at least 10 children's rights. Bulletin boards about rights are proudly displayed throughout the school, and the school even has children rights ombudsmen's officers -- peer counselors where children could go if they are being bullied.

And, yet, as I reported to these U.S. teachers, the picture of the Lima bathroom was a daily reminder of hypocrisy given that the school only had one bathroom for 2,000 students. Female students I interviewed said they felt 'scared' to share and use the bathroom. Others spoke of it being dirty and unsanitary. The children of this school in Lima did not have to travel far in order to realize that human rights are not just based in abstract ideals, but rather measured in everyday and tangible experiences. Moreover, progress towards the enactment of rights is not just measured in what is present, but often what is absent. For these students, they each may know they have rights, but the absence of clean and safe bathrooms does not fit clearly into anything they were taught.

The image from Peru offered a reminder that the subject of human rights cannot and must not be solely abstract. The school in Lima is to be praised for teaching about human rights and incorporating it into their curriculum. But that is clearly not enough. And as U.S. educators, it is vital to remember that sometimes good intentions are simply not sufficient: especially in the area of human rights.

During the workshop with the Massachusetts teachers, I passed out a worksheet for them to reflect on the 'temperature' of their own schools and human rights. With over 40 questions on the list, teachers tallied how well their own schools measured up in the realm of human rights. And not in an academic or curricular sense, but in practice. Day-in-and-day-out. What kinds of atmospheres, values, and systems of equality (or inequality) do their schools promote?

Not all the schools did so well. Teachers reflected critically on what it meant for their schools to have large groups of multi-ethnic students and not a single teacher of color. Or to have homework assignments where Internet is required, knowing some of their students do not have computers at home. One teacher spoke frankly about what it means to have a transgendered student in his school, but not a single book in the library on the subject. Another spoke about not being able to teach about homosexuality full stop -- let alone have books in the library.

As the debate and conversation deepened, the teachers' examples spoke clearly to the fact that we do not need to travel to a school in Peru to talk about inequality or structural failures. Nor do we need to look only to human rights curriculum as the ticket for instilling particular values.

Together, we reminded each other with everyday examples, that learning about human rights on paper is not enough. Rather, human rights are and should be measured by everyday action, and inaction. They are gauged by context, and by who gets taken seriously, and who gets ignored. Which books are in library, and which ones are left to the side.

And that actually practicing human rights, rather than just learning about them, is an important goal, indeed.