Teaching Human Rights in the Trump Era: 100 Days and Beyond

Closing out our series in this blog on teaching human rights in Trump’s first 100 days in office, this post offers a synopsis of themes exposed in this series.

The 100-day mark has come and gone for the Trump Administration, and along with it teachers’ experience of a first semester or quarter teaching during this politically charged time. For those following our blog, over the past four months we have been discussing the various challenges of teaching human rights courses during the opening salvo of the Trump Presidency. Posts ranged from how do you incorporate changing current events into your already established course, to how do we teach about rights and institutions that seem far less permanent than before, to even how do we teach about the things that didn’t happen? Our series also highlighted teaching political advocacy and bringing students on field trips to the belly of the beast, Washington DC, to designing a new course knowing rights would be under threat in the USA, to using humor as potential teaching reprieve in what has become a ripe time for ironic critiques of those in power.

A few common themes stand out from our series about teaching human rights in the early days of the Trump Administration: (1) Enhanced concern for groups under threat in our local areas—with a particular focus on practical policy change/resistance to Trump’s policy; (2) Importance of staying abreast of ever changing current events; (3) The dangers of becoming too insular, focusing too much on the USA and less on rights in the international community; and (4) The challenge of responding to direct absurdities from the Trump Administration.

(1) From election night onward direct concern for threats to rights for different groups in the USA has been at the forefront of coverage oriented around human rights. This concern was palpable for our students from when they first entered our classrooms in the early days after the inauguration, the Women’s March, and when the Trump Travel Ban was announced. They were clearly worried for groups they knew, cared about, or were even part of, that were already under increased threat either directly from Administration policies, such as those affected directly by the Travel Ban, or illegal immigrants facing deportation. Also, the importance of what can be done practically at the local level to protect the rights from groups under threat was an overarching theme —as seen in Tina Chiarelli-Helminiak’s post about the trip to Washington DC to learn how advocacy works on Capitol Hill.

(2) The importance of staying abreast of quickly changing current events was another theme we saw in teaching during this tumultuous time. Current events always interest students, but sometimes focusing on them too much can cause us all to miss the forest for the trees. However, putting events in historical context proved to be a strong strategy as students could be given comparative and contextual lenses to view the assault on rights the Trump Administration has attempted to carryout. Finding the sweet spot between the two can be difficult, but we felt it was worth the effort as students wanted to know more about what was happening in real time.

Cathy Buerger’s post succinctly describes the interest in current events as a teaching opportunity: “Rather than seeing this as an inherent challenge, however, I chose to view this as a teaching opportunity. Throughout the semester, I assigned students to keep a ‘news journal,’ recording the important events that occurred in relation to immigration and education each week. At the beginning of every class, one student is in charge of providing the class with a news brief, to ensure that we are all on the same page. After that student presents the news from the week, we open it up for questions, clarification, or additional news stories that the students have come across. Most weeks, this process takes about 5 minutes, although some weeks (like the week that the initial Muslim ban was passed), it lasts much longer.”

Source: Image from Washington Post.

(3) It was also clear that there are dangers of becoming too insular, focusing too much on the US and less on the international community. Although the US has long played by its own rules in international affairs, as one of the only countries that did not sign many vital human rights treaties such as CEDAW, Children’s Rights Treaty, and now the Paris Climate Agreement, yet the US claims to have led the world forward in political rights and in fostering those rights in authoritarian regimes (of course on closer examination this happens only when it fits the interests of US).

Daniel Tagliarina mentions such an international approach in his post about teaching a class on civil liberties in the US: “[An] element to teaching about rights and politics within the current political climate is to also bring in a broader international focus. The most direct way that many of us reading this post (or the one of us writing it) can do this is by discussing the connections between our extant rights, Trump’s various actions, and human rights. By bringing human rights, international law, and global political developments into the conversation, we can allow our students to see how Trump’s proposals fit not only within current US law and politics, but also past US law and politics, global developments, and a broader human rights regime.”

(4) Lastly, something that stood out was the continued challenge of responding to direct absurdities from the Trump White House. From Day 2 of the Administration it was clear spin on political matters, and even basic facts, was going to be beyond anything seen in recent US history. For instance, Press Secretary Sean Spicer boldly tried to claim Trump’s inauguration crowds were bigger than Obama’s despite clear photographic evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, everyday partisan driven headlines seemed to contain more subterfuge, omissions, and straight out lies than usual as seen in Nicole Coleman’s piece about how to teach about “things that did not happen” e.g. the Bowling Green Massacre. Another approach to such absurdities is to respond with irony. Jack Barry’s piece explored an attempt at a reprieve from teaching the typical depressing subject matter of human rights with an exploration of irony and its potential as a weapon against the powerful.

Teaching human rights under the Trump Administration has left us with a variety of strong emotions, often not knowing whether it is appropriate to laugh or cry. Yet, one thing has been clear in the USA: respecting, protecting, and fulfilling human rights matter more than ever, to our inquisitive students searching for the truth, to groups that are under threat, and for us teachers of human rights.

Jack J. Barry, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow, Global Training and Development Institute, University of Connecticut, (blog and website editor) email: jack.barry@uconn.edu