Governments and various civic groups around the globe are celebrating Human Rights Day today to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by UN member states on this day in 1948.
This declaration codifies thirty articles that refer to the basic rights people have as human beings anywhere and at any time. Such rights are to be respected universally and unconditionally. They include, among others, the right to life; equality before the law; the right to a fair trial; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; as well as freedom of opinion and expression. Human rights express democratic values.
This year’s Human Rights Day is dedicated to human rights defenders who often work at great personal risk to end human rights violations by officials representing political power. Naturally, governments without democratic legitimacy do not commemorate this day; they are afraid of human rights defenders. China, for example, puts them into prison regularly, as is the case with this year’s Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波).
Human rights have been developing since 1948: They have become more specific; their reach has been expanded (clean environment; economic justice) and they have been increasingly integrated into the legal provisions of national legislations.
There is also a growing public awareness of human rights issues. Taiwan is an example of such a development. Public discussions on environmental protection, social justice or on the legitimacy of capital punishment are intensifying in this nation, opening new venues for further social and political reforms in the spirit of human rights.
These developments are encouraging, though it remains to be seen to how far and how fast these debates go toward changing domestic policies and, equally important, to changing Taiwanese minds. Laws or good intentions are often not enough to bring what is written down on paper into reality — the frequent breaching of traffic rules is but one example.
There is still a way to go to bring about a stronger sense of “civic-mindedness” that would “raise the level of human rights in Taiwan” — President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration’s openly declared political and educational objective.
Indeed, human rights and education are closely related, and civic-mindedness plays a crucial role in this modern relationship, just like the fostering of a “strong character” among citizens, a term likewise invoked by the administration. However, what do these terms mean in this context?
A glance at the Universal Declaration might help: Article 26.2 stipulates that “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality.”
There is no definition of what “full development” would precisely mean here. However, it is safe to say that a reasonable definition would have to include a person’s ability to critically assess whatever is somehow related to him or her, personally or professionally; to distinguish between sound and unsound arguments; to form an opinion and be outspoken if necessary; and to select relevant information from an ocean of available data and transform it into arguments within ever-changing contexts.
The world of knowledge is as open as the world of individual development, but only critical distance guarantees the use of such openness toward change.
Educated people know that things could always be different, because they know that things don’t have to be the way they are; they can always be better. Laws of nature, of course, never change, but our perceptions of them permanently change. Today we know that nature is fragile; 50 years ago we did not think this way. Good education always changes and develops the minds of the educated.
The same holds true for oneself, for one’s own political opinions and/or for cultural habits. Educated people create a distance between these things. Distance enables reflection; reflection opens options and options enable freedom. Freedom should be the ultimate goal of education.
Educated people are prepared to critically analyze and reflect on their government’s decisions, an approach that is an apt defense mechanism against attempts at political manipulation. Civic-mindedness is indeed an appropriate mindset that heads in this direction.
Modern human rights education aims at the formation of free and intellectually independent individuals. Such an education, however, is not really taking place in Taiwan. The prevailing educational philosophy is still tradition-based, suggesting ways of learning and, subsequently, ways of life that are often contrary to the ideals of human rights. The educational world in Taiwan is a relatively closed world. A look into the classrooms of the schools here quickly reveals a reality that supports this view.
Independent thinking and learning, the main ingredients of civic-mindedness, are hardly encouraged.
Teaching methods and exams are more designed to reproduce facts and data instead of building up in the minds of the students a mental world necessary to transform information into arguments that would support one’s own opinions. The present system here in Taiwan, however, promotes neither the development of arguments nor of opinions. It promotes instead the passive reproduction of textbook contents, keeping the intellectual input of the students during the process of learning at a very low flame.
Masses of students who never learned how to learn without a teacher’s permanent guidance flock into cram schools that prepare them to pass exams designed to award those who cram the most information per time unit into their brains. Understanding and independent thinking never come up.
Ironically, “successful” students who pass exams in this way are — by this very process — becoming further incapacitated to study independently. They “succeed,” but incur the cost of an aggravated state of intellectual incapacitation, thus increasing the army of victims of a failed ideal of education that is light years away from fostering civic-mindedness.
At this point one would expect leadership from the government in propagating new trends in education to curb such out-dated and potentially brain-damaging educational practices.
However, this is not the case. The Presidential Office’s Web site on new education trends defines “strong character” as necessary for the “foundation of a good society,” and “civic--mindedness” as an attitude of a public that “supports constitutional government and abides by the law.”
These statements are perplexing. The first phrase is a tautology, for “strong” doesn’t add any information to what “good” should mean. And the second definition characterizing law--abiding behavior as a new trend in education is not really flattering for the people of Taiwan. What’s worse is that both definitions could be applied to support, say, the present North Korean or Chinese regimes. Intellectually they are as empty as they are politically dangerous.
What the statements actually mean is the perpetuation of current traditional practices of education beyond modern democratic values.
One wishes there could be more courageous politicians in this country who dare to stand up against current cultural habits “to do the right thing” (as US political philosopher Michael Sandel puts it); they should learn from human rights defenders.
Herbert Hanreich is an assistant professor in the Applied English Department of I-Shou University in Kaohsiung County.
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