Academics and human rights practitioners from across the country discussed the status and future of human rights on college campuses at a conference in Linsly-Chittenden Hall on Saturday.
The conference, “Human Rights Studies in Academia,” drew about 170 attendees, and was part of what organizer Justine Kolata ’12 said is her personal effort to create a human rights major at Yale. While Kolata and Yale faculty interviewed said it is unlikely that a new major will become available in the near future, Kolata added that she hoped bringing scholars who focus on human rights to campus would show University administrators the level of interest in the subject nationwide.
Kolata said at the conference that the study of human rights is relevant to a broad range of traditional academic fields, but is based on its own theoretical foundation and should be studied and analyzed independently.
“Human rights studies suffers from being considered an appendage, or merely a second thematic focus of other established disciplines such as law, political science or philosophy,” Kolata said.
She added that most of the human rights courses offered at Yale are in the political science department, and that this limits students’ ability to approach human rights from the perspectives of philosophy, history and other relevant disciplines. She named public health, environmental studies and religious studies as other fields that could inform the study of human rights.
Other universities have recently created new majors, minors or research centers to focus on human rights. Representatives from the University of Connecticut, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of California, San Diego and the University of Chicago, all of which have minors in the subject, Bard College, which offers a major, and Columbia University, which is working on a major to become available next fall, were all present at the conference.
The primary obstacles to creating a new major at Yale are funding and faculty support, Kolata and Yale faculty interviewed said.
Yale history professor Jay Winter, who is helping Kolata with her push to create a new major, said that “the odds are stacked against” such a major since the University’s endowment has shrunk in recent years. He added that existing departments would probably object to having faculty devote time to a new interdisciplinary project.
“Departmental boundaries are not just there, they are rigid and in your face,” he said.
To create a new major, the University would need “a suitable roster of faculty members” and teaching assistants that could be sustained over time, Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon said in an email. He added that Yale already offers more majors than either Princeton University or Harvard University, and that a 1999 report on the University by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges raised questions about whether majors at Yale were “proliferating” too much.
After the conference, Kolata said her next step will be to assemble a committee of interested faculty members at Yale from different fields, who could meet to discuss the place of human rights at Yale and hopefully push for expanded course options.
While academics at the conference agreed that studying human rights is worthwhile, they differed on whether it should be considered its own field.
“One reason why new subjects emerge in the academy is that there is a perceived social and intellectual need for them to do so,” Winter said. He cited comparative literature and American studies as new disciplines that were pioneered at Yale.
Still, other experts contested the idea that human rights could constitute its own discipline. Samuel Moyn, a history professor at Columbia, said that human rights lacks a unique methodology to distinguish itself as a field.
“Human rights is not a discipline and should not become one,” Moyn said. “I think it’s a site on which many disciplines have converged, applying their own specific methods of inquiry but not yet coalescing into something that provides its own new methods of inquiry.”
Moyn said that the study of human rights should be an interdisciplinary endeavor, adding that students who choose the new human rights major at Columbia will need to acquire a solid background in a traditional discipline in addition to studying human rights.
While human rights are often associated with advocacy and service work, many scholars at the conference said that if human rights are to be taught in a university setting, they must be approached critically. Thomas Keenan, who directs the Human Rights Project at Bard, said he tries to help his students question their concept of human rights and not only celebrate the good deeds that can be done in its name.
“When you put something like human rights — an extremely powerful moral and political idea, which many times seeks acquiescence or blind obedience — into an academic institution, there are real risks,” Keenan said. “[There are] risks that the teaching ends up being either quasi-theological or conversion-oriented, or that it simply has the effect of reaffirming a student and faculty’s sense that they’re doing good.”
But Felisa Tibbitts, director of a non-governmental organization that works for human rights and part-time lecturer at Harvard University, said that human rights programs must incorporate practical aspects in order to be useful. She added that the appropriate level of involvement in advocacy may differ in undergraduate programs and graduate or professional schools.
The conference was sponsored by the Dean’s and President’s Funds, the Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee, the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights and Dwight Hall.