By Jim Mamer / Original to ScheerPost
Human rights invented America. Ours was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded explicitly on such an idea. – Farewell address of President Jimmy Carter January 14, 1981
President Carter was right when he said that “human rights invented America,” but he was not referring to the Bill of Rights. He was referring to Thomas Jefferson’s philosophical assertion, in the 1776 Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
These inalienable rights, based on inherent human dignity, are very different from others, like those in the Bill of Rights, which are created by government. Inalienable rights are assumed to exist with or without government action. Thus, they are “recognized” rather than created. On the other hand, the Bill of Rights resulted from government. When they became part of the Constitution, Americans were entitled to them by virtue of being a citizen.
Teaching about rights can be complicated, but it should come as no surprise that learning about the concept of rights plays a part in education at all levels. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to find some of these rights purposely misunderstood by younger students.
I was one of those who misunderstood. In 4th or 5th grade I remember learning what was clearly a cartoon version of the Bill of Rights. Predictably, what I remember most was that we, as Americans, had a right to “free speech.” That quickly led to trouble as I deliberately said things, in school and at home, that adults did not like. When I was ordered to stop, I would refuse, loudly crying out that I had “free speech.” It never really worked.
Every student in every American high school has heard, more than once, that he or she has rights. It should be expected that these older students will have developed a more complex understanding than I did in 5th grade, but in my experience, many have not. Too many have not even learned to distinguish between legislated (constitutional or civil) rights and those human rights labeled “inalienable.”
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The difference between human rights and legislated rights should be made clear in the textbooks if for no other reason than this: if your constitutional (or civil) rights have been violated you have recourse to legal remedies. Whereas, if you feel your inalienable right to, for example, the pursuit of happiness has been violated, legal recourse is unlikely.
How History Textbooks Confuse Students
The widespread misunderstanding of rights came as a surprise to me soon after I began teaching high school history. This was especially troubling since understanding the concept of rights, whether inalienable or legislated, is essential to the operation of democracy.
There are at least three reasons rights are not clearly understood: textbook use of poorly defined or misused terms; telling history chronologically without any attempt to make connections between causes and consequences; and simply leaving out sometimes inconvenient facts.
Most of the blame is directly tied to the approved history textbooks.
In The Americans, “rights” are not listed in the glossary, but “human rights” are and they are confusingly defined as “the rights and freedoms, such as those named in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, to which all people are entitled.” This definition mixes inalienable (human) rights with constitutional or civil rights to which citizens of a particular nation are entitled.
In another section of the same text it says awkwardly, “Human rights are what Americans think of as their civil rights…” Howard University offers a clear counterpoint, “Simply put, human rights are rights one acquires by being alive. Civil rights are rights that one obtains by being a legal member of a certain political state.”
History Alive!, another popular textbook, in a sub-section entitled “Debating Rights Today” suggests that, “Some people argue that the government should also protect certain economic and social rights, such as the right to affordable healthcare or to a clean environment.” To which it adds this very misleading question: “Should our definition of rights be expanded to include new privileges?”
The pointed use of the word “privileges” here contradicts the fundamental notion that “rights” are what citizens are entitled to. No wonder students are confused.
In the same text, in a sub-section entitled “Debating Equality Today,” students are likely to be further befuddled by the unequivocal statement that “Americans have made great progress in expanding equality.” While that assertion would be difficult to defend during much of this country’s history; currently it is just wrong. Economic inequality has deepened; systemic inequities in educational outcomes experienced by different socio-economic and racial groups of students have increased; and, after the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the rights of women to control their own bodies is questioned.
It would be more accurate to report that: In recent years Americans have made uneven and halting progress in expanding equality.
The Tyranny of Chronology and a Failure to Make Connections
Additional problems in student understanding result from how stories are told. Although it may be logical to explain history chronologically, it can result in events and policies being separated from consequences which can make important connections difficult for students unless they are told specifically what is connected to what.
As a direct result of the fact that so many essential rights (like the right to vote) were denied to so many, the struggle for inclusion by various groups was long, sporadic, and messy. Reforms often took the shape of new laws or constitutional amendments and in classrooms these ended up separated by time and scattered throughout texts. Here are a few examples related to the right to vote.
Although African American men were granted the vote by the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, their rights to vote and hold office were largely eliminated, after 1877, by Jim Crow laws which relegalized racial segregation and made it difficult or impossible to vote. No textbook should explain that amendment without connecting it to the crippling racist reaction.
In History Alive!, that connection is only hinted at. A brief mention of the 1870 Amendment is followed, pages later, by reporting that “The redeemers put even more effort into passing laws that reversed the political gains that Freedman made during reconstruction.” A clear connection, between white supremacy (i.e., the redeemers) and the rapid loss of rights, would have been simple to make.
After women gained the right to vote in 1920 with the Nineteenth Amendment, History Alive! reports accurately that that amendment made it illegal to deny the vote “on account of sex.”
But, there is no mention of the fact that most Black women, subject to Jim Crow laws, were prevented from even registering. And there is no mention, in any text I have seen, that Native Americans (both men and women) were not universally granted U.S. citizenship and the right to vote until the 1924 Snyder Act. Nor is there mention of the fact that very few Asian Americans (again both men and women), had a right to citizenship, even if born in the United States. They were unable to vote until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.
In all of the textbooks I’ve seen, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is accurately credited with banning many forms of discrimination, strengthening enforcement of voting rights, and strengthening desegregation of schools. What is not explored in any of them is why it failed to solve many of these aforementioned problems.
That failure made the 1965 Voting Rights Act necessary to make it “easier” for African Americans to vote by eliminating literacy tests and other legacies of Jim Crow.
When Information is Simply Missing
Making the current textbooks better will not be easy. I suspect that sometimes the lack of clear connections between causes and consequences may be a deliberate way to avoid controversy. And sometimes information is missing simply because it is inconvenient. After all, the textbook adoption process has been hijacked by opportunistic politicians and pressure groups. If publishers want approval, printing controversy is best avoided.
No matter how boring students find the textbooks, in the minds of many they still carry authority. So, when important information is missing and responsible teachers are forced, again and again, to bring in materials not mentioned in the text a crisis in legitimacy can occur. More than a few times students asked me why, if this or that is so important, why is it not in the text? What I learned is that, as a teacher, one needs to bring in evidence that is clear and irrefutable.
Because of all this, I believe it is worthwhile to outline, for whoever is interested, important information on issues of human rights and civil rights that is often missing from the textbooks.
Where did the idea of rights come from?
Although it’s not usually in most high school history texts the traditional starting point in teaching about rights is Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1788) who wrote a lot about the relationship between society and the individual. He developed the idea that society could be held together by a “social contract” in which individuals would cooperate in aiming for the common good. That idea led to his position that individuals had rights which could be exercised within a group.
Other important precursors are more likely to be mentioned. The English Magna Carta (1215) was the first legally binding charter of rights to include the concept of limited government. The English Bill of Rights (1689) contributed by limiting the powers of the king and queen, creating separation of powers, and bolstering freedom of speech. And, of course, there is the American Declaration of Independence (1776), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789), and the Bill of Rights added to the American Constitution (1791).
Rights in the 20th Century
One can teach about the international acceptance of human rights as a mid-20th century phenomenon by starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the UN in 1948. Although it was largely a reaction to the atrocities that occurred during WWII, it draws on the content of all the documents listed above.
And, reflecting the prominence of the United States in the postwar world, the international committee that drafted the UDHR was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the 32nd president of the United States. Significantly, a photo of Mrs. Roosevelt, pointing to a copy of the Universal Declaration, is the most common mention of that document in an American history text.
Notably, it is at this point, just as rights became an international issue, that American history textbooks fall silent. This also coincides with an increased American reluctance to sign a number of international treaties. Of course, that should not make these issues and treaties disappear from discussion.
Despite virtual silence in textbooks, after the UDHR, human rights have become a primary legal protection of human dignity. The World War II fight against fascism had brought attention to the contradictions between America’s professed ideals of democracy and equality and its treatment of racial minorities. In the postwar world, human and civil rights should be discussed on the international level. Even civil rights legislation within the United States was likely influenced by international pressures.
In general, declarations, like those comprising the UDHR are not laws, they are aspirations. As a result, adoption of the UDHR by the United Nations was followed by an unsuccessful attempt to create a single document (a covenant or convention) that would have stated the articles of the UDHR in legally binding terms. Unfortunately, due to Cold War divisions, a single agreement was not possible and two separate treaties (or conventions) were written.
These two treaties are: The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and The International Convention on Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). They are both legally binding to those nations that have signed them.
The United States ratified the first treaty (the ICCPR) in 1992, twenty-six years after it was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Upon ratification, the ICCPR became the “supreme law of the land” under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. If only because the ICCPR has the status of federal law in the United States it should be analyzed and discussed in all of the textbooks. It is not even mentioned in any textbook I have seen.
Another important treaty, signed by the U.S. and thus part of federal law, prohibits torture. The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was adopted by the United Nations in 1984 and was ratified by the United States in 1994. The fact that this treaty is not included in any commonly used U.S. history textbook is completely unacceptable.
If treaty obligations are not explained in the texts or discussed in high school classrooms it is likely that will make it easier for Americans to ignore their implications. At least that seemed to be the case after Sept. 11, 2001.
After 9/11, members of the former Bush Administration denied that the treaty was binding because, they claimed, it was not clear. They further denied that the Geneva Conventions (on torture) applied to those captured in Iraq or Afghanistan or those captured or kidnapped in connection with the War on Terror.
If teachers decide to present information on the War on Terror, they will have to discuss the issue of torture. I suggest they also present how “torture” is defined in the 1984 treaty. Let students decide the issue of clarity for themselves. Here is how torture is defined in the treaty and thus in American federal law:
For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.
For a variety of reasons, some stated above, the United States has been reluctant to sign international treaties. Among these are the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the ICESCR) which was the second treaty meant to codify the parts of the UDHR.
In the American system presidents can sign treaties, but ratification requires the approval of two-thirds of the ideologically divided Senate. The ICESCR was signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, but no steps toward ratification have ever been taken. So American politics pose a significant barrier to ratification. And the United States, in 2023, remains one of the few U.N. member states that have yet to ratify.
The United States also remains the only United Nations member that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the CRC). Among the reasons given for not ratifying the CRC is a “fear” that it would let the American government have unlimited interference into family life, but the most common reason used by the United States for refusing to sign treaties is fear that they might infringe on national sovereignty.
What Should be Done?
If issues, events, documents, and agreements are not in the textbooks it is unlikely to be because they don’t exist or are not important, but because they are contrary to what authorities want remembered or inconvenient to those who prefer silence.
As mentioned earlier, one high school textbook suggested that “some people” believe that the government should protect rights to affordable healthcare or to a clean environment. Curiously, there was no attempt to identify who “some people” are, even though it would have been pretty simple.
“Some people” might refer to President Franklin Roosevelt who, in 1941 identified Four Freedoms as essential: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. These were incorporated into both the Atlantic Charter and the UN Charter.
Or “some people” might refer to those who support the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, unsigned by the United States and unmentioned in the texts, where both affordable healthcare and a clean environment are part of Article 12. This is from the treaty:
States must protect this right [to physical and mental health] by ensuring that everyone within their jurisdiction has access to the underlying determinants of health, such as clean water, sanitation, food, nutrition and housing, and through a comprehensive system of healthcare, which is available to everyone without discrimination, and economically accessible to all.
Of course, there are many countries in which such a guarantee might be impossible to fulfill, but the United States is not one of them. In fact, there are many countries, some much poorer than the U.S., that do a decent job of providing guaranteed affordable healthcare. And a clean environment,undeniably, is becoming a matter of survival. If the students are given at least this information, it should stimulate lively class discussion about what rights should be.
Inalienable rights and legislated rights remain essential despite the cowardice of textbook publishers. Given that the “hijacked” process for textbook adoption is not likely to change, the responsibility falls to individual schools and individual teachers to make sure that students learn what rights, recognized or legislated, national and international, exist for them and for others. That is the only way authorities will be held accountable.
Not mentioning issues does not make them disappear. American reluctance to abide by, or refusal to sign certain treaties does not provide an alibi for publishers not to include both the issues and the documents in their textbooks. Nor does American reluctance to abide by, or refusal to sign, provide an alibi for teachers not wanting to include the issues in their classes.
In the end, there is probably no topic more potent in stimulating student appreciation of this country than an understanding of what President Carter said in 1981 that, “human rights invented America.” And that is true despite the fact that it has been, and continues to be, a seemingly never-ending struggle to guarantee that every person is entitled to both inalienable human rights and the ability to exercise their constitutional and civil rights without interference.
Jim Mamer is a retired high school teacher. He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow for study of United States History at Stanford University in 1984. He served as History/Social Science department chair for 20 years and was a mentor teacher in both Modern American History and Student Assessment. In 1992 he was named a Social Science/History Teacher of the Year by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).