Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others at the opening of Midway Hall, one of two residence halls built by the Public Buildings Administration of Federal Works Agency (FWA) for Negro government girls.

Teaching the History of Human Rights

Paris, December 1948: the UN General Assembly approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document detailing fundamental human freedoms.
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Where, after all, do human rights begin? In small places close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world.
— Eleanor Roosevelt

December 10 marks the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly. Developed through a collaboration between world leaders, the creation of this document would mark a significant milestone in the history of human rights—one in which a shared sense of possibility for greater justice and human dignity emerged for the first time. The document also offered a shared framework that has empowered people to challenge human rights abuses around the world. The visionary project at the heart of the UDHR was a vision of a world in which all people have what they need to lead lives of dignity. This idea is ripe for revisiting, reflection, and engagement, particularly as violence and social upheaval are ongoing across the globe. Yet it can be challenging for educators to navigate discussions about such violence in ways that make space for all of our students to engage critically with these events. Exploring the history of the UDHR and its continuing relevance today is one way to establish a shared language about human rights, a shared historical context, and a shared jumping off point for further exploration of human rights today.

Below are a number of resources that educators can use to bring the history and contemporary relevance of the UDHR into classrooms.

The UDHR is celebrated as a milestone in the history of human rights. The resources in this collection explore the context in which the document was drafted, the history of the declaration itself—including the debates and the dilemmas faced by Eleanor Roosevelt and others on the committee that produced the UDHR, and a consideration of the legacies and lasting impact of the declaration. This resource outlines key concepts, including the Universe of Obligation and multimedia resources such as this video. This collection also supports the Facing History & Ourselves resource book Fundamental Freedoms.

Surveying Eleanor Roosevelt’s early years and then concentrating on her life-long commitment as an activist, Fundamental Freedoms tells of Eleanor’s pivotal role in creating the UDHR in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust.

As demonstrated throughout all four parts of this resource, Eleanor was no ordinary person: she redefined the role of a first lady as she established her own career as a nationally-syndicated journalist and continually spoke out on behalf of the underprivileged. In 1945 after the death of her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, she participated in the birth of the United Nations and embraced a new role, advocating across the globe for the rights she fought for at home. This resource examines Eleanor’s development into a diplomat and renowned human rights leader of the twentieth century, and shows the challenges and determination required to realize the UDHR.

The UDHR is neither a law nor a treaty. This on-demand professional learning opportunity considers what the UDHR document really is and what it does. We also explore lesson ideas and teaching strategies to help connect human rights in the past to the present day.

Facing History & Ourselves invites educators to use our unit, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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Pictured above: Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others at the opening of Midway Hall, one of two residence halls built by the Public Buildings Administration of Federal Works Agency (FWA) for Negro government girls, May 1943. Credit: Federal Works Agency