Leading the Way in Human Rights Education

March 21, 2017

While teaching social studies at Hunterdon Central High School in the 1980s, Bill Fernekes developed an interest in human rights education. It soon took him to the human rights organization Amnesty International, where he served on Amnesty International USA’s first National Human Rights Education Steering Committee. Now retired from Hunterdon Central after an illustrious 36-year career and currently a Graduate School of Education part-time lecturer, Fernekes’ latest achievements in a long career in human rights education were his two presentations at the annual National Council for the Social Studies conference in Washington, D.C. in December.

Fernekes’ conference presentation titled “Global Citizenship and Human Rights Education: Are They Compatible with U.S. Civic Education?” has recently been published in the Journal of International Social Studies. He also was part of a presenter team that delivered a session on Issues-Centered Social Studies, focused on how to integrate human rights education into the social studies curriculum.

For Fernekes, developing awareness around human rights issues is an integral part of education. “We’ve come a long way from the horrors of the 20th century like the Holocaust, but there are still human rights violations that we need to take action against,” said Fernekes. “What we need as a society is to change the conversation to say that civil rights, women’s rights and other rights concerns are truly universal human rights that belong to everyone.” He pointed to the landmark school integration case Brown v. Board of Education and the work of famous Rutgers alumnus Paul Robeson as examples of how a focus on these topics as human rights issues and not only civil rights would represent a change in the conversation.

At the Graduate School of Education as a part-time lecturer, Fernekes has been able to develop courses on Global Education, Global Citizenship Education, and Human Rights and Education, supported by Dr. Ben Justice, Dr. Beth Rubin, Dr. Mary Curran, and GSE Dean Wanda Blanchett. These courses incorporate his vision that every student in pre-collegiate levels should experience human rights education, and that every person in higher education should learn about human rights and how they specifically apply to his or her chosen field. He is also active with the Human Rights Educators USA group, serving on their national steering committee and coordinating a volunteer curriculum development project to integrate human rights concepts and strategies into classroom instruction.

Fernekes hopes that increased human rights education will also change the conversation about pressing issues of today like poverty, access to basic services, and gender equality. “With globalization impacting virtually all facets of daily life, and tensions rising in both the USA and elsewhere regarding challenges to fundamental human rights, the work I've been doing to help teachers integrate human rights and global citizenship concepts into their work has never been more important,” said Fernekes.

Bill Fernekes graduated from Rutgers University in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in history, in 1978 with a master’s degree in Latin American history, and from the GSE in 1985 with a doctorate in social studies education. He received a Part-Time Lecturer Professional Development Grant to support his attendance at the National Council for the Social Studies conference last December.

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