Rethinking multidisciplinarity within human rights education

An education in human rights is essential to preparing the next generation of human rights practitioners, but human rights alone is rarely recognized as a distinct academic discipline. In this piece, we offer a critical reflection on human rights education (HRE) in higher education.  

Most non-law academic human rights programs embrace multidisciplinarity or interdisciplinarity, often claiming the latter when it is, in practice, the former. (Interdisciplinarity requires integration of disciplinary methods in a single course. Multidisciplinary just indicates that students are being taught from multiple disciplines in different courses). Many of the undergraduate and graduate human rights programs on offer in the US and internationally proclaim interdisciplinarity on their websites. Though many multidisciplinary programs are of a strong quality, others are incomplete because their emphasis on multidisciplinarity comes at the expense of a focused human rights curriculum.

First and foremost, human rights programs should be built around a core curriculum focused on developing knowledge, skills, understanding, attitudes, and behaviors to empower learners to respect and promote human rights (UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training). Multidisciplinarity should be a secondary concern.

Human rights programs should be built around a core curriculum focused on developing knowledge, skills, understanding, attitudes, and behaviors to empower learners to respect and promote human rights.

There are conceptual and practical reasons why human rights are usually structured from a multidisciplinary perspective. The traditional academic disciplines do have contributions to make.  From anthropology and economics to law and political science, each has provided knowledge and insight into various aspects of human rights.  Additionally, those who are designing human rights programs in academia tend to have learned about human rights from one of these traditional disciplinary perspectives. (There are very few doctorates in human rights per se). Thus, faculty may feel more comfortable with a multidisciplinary approach rooted in “traditional” disciplines than one that embraces human rights as its own discipline. Of course, institutions of higher education are structured around disciplines and departments. Therefore, programs such as human rights, women’s studies or ethnic studies programs that are not aligned with a department face difficulty securing faculty hires and proper funding.  Programs rely on available resources. They often depend on courses offered by other departments when establishing program requirements.  

However, taking courses from multiple disciplinary departments—one from political science, another from anthropology, another from economics , and so on—does not in and of itself mean that a student is adequately trained in human rights. Reifying and prioritizing multidisciplinarity can detract from strategic thinking about the core elements of a strong human rights education and can lead to an unfocused curriculum. In addition, the interdisciplinary nature of a program is sometimes used as a rationale to approve courses that do not specifically focus on human rights. For example, courses given in US universities at the undergraduate level that have been approved in curricula include titles such as: “Gangs in the US”, “French Thought”, “Ethics in Healthcare”, and “The Hindu View of War.” Recognizing there may be a significant human rights focus to these courses that is not revealed by the title, these are not seemingly human rights courses. A student’s human rights education is weakened when such courses are approved in lieu of those that focus specifically on human rights.

The guiding principle of curriculum design should focus on ensuring that students receive an education in concepts, critiques, laws, issues, norms, values, and skills specifically preparing them to engage in human rights, be it for academia, NGOs, governments, think-tanks, or businesses.  Core courses may focus on human rights law, theory, research methods, advocacy, and documentation, for example. The curriculum should also be learner-centered and founded in a critical pedagogy of human rights, which means including non-dominant voices, multiple perspectives, and critiques. An education in human rights should be relevant to the lived experiences of students and informed by the perspectives of activists, survivors, and grassroots NGOs. It should reflect a diversity of perspectives, and the syllabi should not be dominated by Western male perspectives. It should challenge elite institutions of power and addresses critiques of the field of human rights itself.  

Some of us in academia go so far as to argue that human rights should be its own discipline because the degree offerings and non-law human rights programs that were created globally over the past several decades have matured and focused the field. That is, there is some global consensus on many aspects of the field which are unique to human rights (as opposed to political science, international relations or peace studies). These features include having its own vocabulary and central concepts, seminal texts, community of scholars, and academic publications. These are criteria of an academic discipline, but human rights will not be recognized as such without the existence of human rights departments and PhDs.

An education in human rights should be relevant to the lived experiences of students and informed by the perspectives of activists, survivors, and grassroots NGOs.

We believe that treating human rights as a discipline in its own right encourages intentional design and could, in the long-run, help address some of the practical challenges that some programs face because they are not treated on par with established disciplines. (For example, programs do not always receive the same funding support, must negotiate for faculty teaching lines, and must depend on academic departments for a range of administrative needs, such as the appointment of adjunct faculty.) At the same time, it is also important to note that universities need to be decolonized and willing to more readily embrace new fields of study and alternative ways of knowing.

That said, treating human rights as its own discipline will advance human rights education and further research.  Articulating core competencies in human rights informed by scholarship and, foremost, the realities of human rights struggles and successes around the world, strengthens human rights programs. This clarity not only can make it easier for more universities to offer a program in human rights, but can strengthen the quality of human rights education that students are receiving. It is through solid human rights education that academia can in turn realize its potential to contribute to meaningful social change.


This series was developed in partnership with the University of Dayton Human Rights Center as part of the 2019 Social Practice of Human Rights Conference. To read more, visit our partnership page.