This fall marks the launch of the Special Academic Program in Human Rights, strengthening Yale’s institutional support for undergraduate human rights study.
Either as a citizen or as a student, it is impossible to ignore the idea of human rights. Today, they constitute a powerful and influential language of law, politics and morality, of culture and philosophy. They structure our ability to think through the great political and ethical challenges of our time — whether migration, terrorism or the rise of new technologies — and older yet ever-present struggles of citizenship, nation and class. They are our central moral lexicon.
And, more than a moral language, human rights underwrite a robust legal framework. They are not only established in thought but also institutionalized in extensive systems of international, regional and national human rights law. They offer real remedies for real problems.
Human rights also have their own history, steeped in contradictions and controversies, with emancipatory triumphs and troubling hypocrisies. And one cannot appreciate the strength, limitations and possibilities of human rights without carefully studying all of these facets. The subject crosses disciplines by definition, and it requires its own literacy and training.
For this reason, the Human Rights Program is a much-needed addition to undergraduate education at Yale — a coherent, and appropriately interdisciplinary, framework for undergraduate study.
In many ways, the power of human rights discourse has long been on display on Yale’s campus. Courses related to human rights, among them David Simon’s The Rwandan Genocide in Comparative Context, are consistently oversubscribed. Extracurricular groups, such as the Yale chapter of Amnesty International, can be seen weekly outside Commons conducting advocacy campaigns. But, before the Program’s creation, there was a lack of institutional support for systematic study of human rights at the undergraduate level, especially in comparison to other colleges: Bard, Barnard and Columbia offer majors in human rights; Berkeley, UChicago and nearby UConn offer minors.
In its previous lack of similar academic programming, Yale had sent a message to its students and to the wider community that the idea of human rights was not a discourse worthy of attention, nor a field that could be studied rigorously. It left students interested in human rights to craft courses of study within pre-existing majors, and without the guidance of committed faculty or the support of like-minded peers. In effect, the absence invited a crisis of legitimacy for the study of human rights on campus. Without institutional support, students could not gain the necessary analytical skills, rendering the statement “I’m interested in human rights” — not yet grounded in deep content or knowledge — effectively meaningless. This paradoxically justified the University’s unwillingness to recognize the rigor of human rights scholarship.
This implicit illegitimacy contrasted not only with the credibility afforded to those studying human rights at Yale’s peer institutions, but also with other programs at Yale itself. For example, the creation of the Jackson Institute signified Yale’s endorsement of the study of international relations while providing students with skills deemed necessary for future work. It bestowed a legitimizing conceptual distinctness and clarity upon a field that similarly defies disciplinary categorization.
Of course, institutional support for human rights has by no means been completely absent from Yale’s intellectual and administrative landscape. The Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights offers extensive programs and events on human rights. But it has operated largely within the Law School and has primarily served Yale’s legal community. The Schell Center’s original mandate, however, was to serve as a human rights center for Yale as a whole, making the Program a genuine fulfillment of a promise to extend this deep institutional support to the undergraduate community.
The Human Rights Program offers interested students an introduction to human rights theory and practice, a guided set of electives drawn from existing Yale courses, a final capstone project driven by students’ interests and their summer experiences and support for internships and future careers. Most importantly, however, the Program supports a community of peers and scholars and provides a platform for critical engagement.
The Human Rights Program seeks to take human rights seriously as an influential object of study. It frames human rights not as an orderly discipline but rather as a set of overlapping strands brought into conversation. It does not simplistically valorize human rights but soberly explores their potential. And it seeks to offer students the institutional support to engage in human rights work with conviction and thoughtfulness. If current crises — the rise of ISIS or the struggle with Ebola, the flashpoint of Ukraine or the looming changes to our global climate — show no signs of abating, then engagement with human rights is a vital and shared task. With the Program’s creation, it is a task Yale and its students will be better equipped to undertake.