Blair’s newest religion and philosophy elective is a semester-long seminar focused on human rights. Piloted last year in a popular co-curricular Thursday evening seminar, the course is now part of the academic day, and this fall, it brought 13 freshmen through seniors together to explore the history and theory of human rights, as well as current issues in the field.
English teacher John Redos ’09 leads the human rights seminar after having team-taught last year’s evening sessions with classics teacher Chris Sheppard and Blair’s scholar-in-residence, Harvard professor Timothy Patrick McCarthy, PhD. He began the fall semester with an exploration of basic questions, such as, “What are human rights?” and “Are rights universal or culturally determined?” before introducing students to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This landmark document is central to the course, as the class referred to its articles with each topic they studied to see which of them were being violated.
Students read a variety of news articles, engaged in class discussion, viewed thought-provoking videos and completed weekly writing assignments as they tackled human rights issues surrounding anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong, climate change, abortion, and education. When they delved into the death penalty and human migration, Mr. Redos brought in guest speakers Gabriela Markolovic and Dr. McCarthy, respectively, who shared real-world perspective gleaned from their work in those fields.
A visit to The Romano Gallery to view photographer Thomas Franklin’s exhibit, “Images of Immigration,” brought immigration even more sharply into focus, and this was the issue that struck a chord with Paul Kazilionis ’22. “Now I see why there is so much conflict about the wall on the Mexican-American border,” he said. “There are two ways to look at this problem. I see it as a necessary evil that prevents illegal immigration and the transport of narcotics into the United States, but the wall also prevents people who are in dire need of refuge from getting in. This course was so important because it helped me understand fundamental human rights and why they need to be protected.”
Deeming the human rights seminar her favorite course at Blair so far, Annalise Fried ’22 appreciated the opportunity to discuss real-world issues—including abortion, the “most difficult topic”—in a manner that was comfortable for everyone in the class. Addie Scialla ’22 was drawn to the course by its emphasis on current events and global issues, and she, too, loved talking with Mr. Redos and her classmates about each topic, even when her views differed from those of her peers.
For their signature assessment, students were required to infuse real-world perspective of their own into their study of human rights: They each chose an issue, researched an organization engaged in that issue and conducted an interview with a member of the organization. “Students were excited when the people they contacted responded to their questions,” Mr. Redos said, adding that presentations on their interviews were also required. “This project helped students develop skills they will use beyond Blair and, for the most part, left them wanting to learn more, and both are among my goals for the course.”
Another of Mr. Redos’ goals is to see that students can talk about both sides of an issue with respect, no matter what their personal opinion might be. He was impressed with class members’ ability to do just that as the semester progressed—everyone from freshmen through seniors engaged in thoughtful dialogue and realized that each topic they covered was far more complicated than they initially thought.
Carson Honor ’20 believes that the human rights seminar is likely the most important class any student can take at Blair. He was most intrigued by the class’s discussion of the death penalty, since it pertained primarily to the U.S. Constitution and American society, but he appreciated the opportunity to discuss “a variety of issues plaguing our world today.” “Mr. Redos encouraged those who spoke the least to contribute more and those who spoke the most to listen more,” he said. “Overall, I would recommend this class to any student who is interested in human rights or who yearns to learn more about the world we will inherit.”