More than 20 Blair freshmen through seniors have taken advantage of a unique opportunity to dive deep into human rights issues this year by joining a project- and inquiry-based seminar that launched in late September. Developed and led by classics teacher Chris Sheppard, English teacher John Redos ’09 and Harvard Kennedy School professor Timothy Patrick McCarthy, PhD, the extracurricular seminar convenes on Thursday evenings in the Chiang-Elghanayan Center for Innovation and Collaboration for focused discussion and eventual work on an extended, human rights-centered project of students’ design.
“This is a graduate-style seminar that mirrors what students will experience in college,” said Mr. Sheppard, who explained that participants’ interests and concerns will largely drive the group’s conversations this fall and determine the real-world project or projects students will build and execute later in the year. Students who are curious about human rights issues are welcome to drop into seminar meetings at any time, but those who regularly attend sessions will receive transcript credit for their efforts.
Dr. McCarthy, a human rights activist and faculty member at the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy who has generously shared his expertise in past Blair seminars on human rights and the 2016 presidential election, outlined the goals for this year’s program. “First, we want students to develop an appreciation and understanding of the history and philosophy of human rights, its origin and evolution over time. Second, we want them to learn how to grapple critically and respectfully with the contemporary implications of human rights, exploring both the possibilities and limitations of human rights theory and practice. And third, we want students to have the experience of partnering with a real-world institution or organization to develop their own projects for putting human rights into action,” he said. “All told, we hope students will emerge from this new seminar better thinkers and scholars and braver doers and citizens."
First Things First
The seminar’s opening sessions laid the groundwork for comprehensive study of human rights as participants explored several foundational questions, including, “What are human rights?” and “Are rights universal or culturally determined?” Students were also introduced to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and took a look at historical developments and modern-day concerns.
Discussion was lively from the get-go—as Dr. McCarthy put it, students were “on fire!” during the first meeting. “It didn't take them any time at all to dive right into the topic, working to define 'human rights' and ranging widely from debates about torture and terrorism to criminal justice and ongoing struggles for equality,” he said.
DB Won ’22, who joined the seminar to explore global ethics, was impressed by his peers’ enthusiasm as they shared ideas. “When we started the discussion about the fundamental question of human rights, it was extremely thought provoking, at least for me,” he said. “I think our entire group could have gone for hours talking about this issue if Mr. Sheppard hadn't stopped us.”
DB would like to study and research human rights in terms of access to clean water, energy and other vital resources, and, as the fall semester progresses, seminar participants will engage in close examination of a specific topic such as this in each session. Mr. Sheppard noted that these “deep dives” into student questions and interests will help the group focus on the project(s) they will undertake next spring.
For his part, Mr. Sheppard is excited to help lead the human rights seminar. “I love that the topic of human rights is so widely interdisciplinary and find the overlap with classics very interesting,” he said, noting that similar issues were raised by Greek and Roman writers thousands of years ago.
Mr. Redos, who has studied and taught at Oxford University and in Montenegro, will leverage his global network of experts as various topics are tackled during the year. “I’m not afraid to say I don’t know the answer to a question, but there’s a good chance I know someone who does,” he said. “I’ve seen the impact of connecting a student to just the right person who can help him or her, and I look forward to doing that in this seminar.”
Above all, Mr. Sheppard hopes to develop in seminar participants the awareness that they each have a voice that matters. “Regardless of their background or their personal area of interest, I want students to realize they can plunge into a current, worldwide human rights issue, develop a plan to address it and act on that plan to make a difference,” he said. “If we can do that, the seminar will be a success.”