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Even Children Should Know Their Rights

05/14/2013 05:23 EDT | Updated 07/14/2013 05:12 EDT

She doesn't want anything discussed regarding human rights and what students can wear (ie. tank tops.. etc. ) because we are finally getting kids under control with dress code.

Do kids have human rights? Do kids have the right to know about human rights? The note above was received from an elementary school teacher in Canada and the "she" in the quote above refers to his school principal who seems to believe that kids are better controlled when they do NOT know they have rights.

In 2011 the United Nations and all the countries in it adopted an agreement on human rights education and training. The agreement says that everyone has the right to an education that must include education about human rights -- even snarly kids. So why might this principal, and other educators like her, want to prohibit human rights education in her school?

Stalin said, "Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed."

Are we putting weapons into the hands of our children when we educate them about human rights? You bet we are. The weapon that Stalin clearly feared most is the one that provides our young people with knowledge and with the power to fight injustice. The belief that all people are deserving of respect and dignity is central to democracy.

All of our rights -- from our fundamental freedoms such as the right to peacefully assemble, the right to freely associate, freedom of expression and religion, to our democratic rights such as the right to vote and to run for office, to our legal rights such as the right to counsel and to a fair and open trial -- depend upon people knowing they hold them. If you don't know you have rights, you increase the risk of losing them.

When you ask philosophers of education what they believe to be the purpose of education, many of our greatest thinkers tell us that education and democracy are inextricably linked. Democracy is the form of government that requires an educated citizenry. When people learn to think independently and to question authority, they become engaged and active citizens.

The great majority of people are quite happy to live with the rule of law, if and when they see laws as being fair and equitable. And the greatest number of our laws are fair and equitable. But every now and then we identify laws that are unfair, that are ineffective, and/or have terrible and inequitable side effects. Thankfully, democracies provide lawful and legitimate processes to effect the changes that are needed in every generation. If our young people are not taught the meaning of their rights, how will they learn to differentiate the fair from the unfair?

Every time an election is called, people begin talking about voter turnout. While the number of people bothering to vote seems to keep dropping, the number of young voters bothering to turn up at the polls is even more alarming. It is a rare election that brings out more than a quarter of eligible voters under the age of 25. Why is this? Is it that they don't care -- or is it that they have not learned that young people have rights and that those rights can weaken if they are not exercised?

What do we want our principals and educators to do? I think we want them to stop seeing human rights education as a loss of control -- a weapon to be used against their authority. Let Canada join with the rest of the nations in the UN which see human rights education itself as a right. We don't need Stalin to be our model educator. Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education."

We can teach our young people early and we can teach them well. They can learn what it means to be an active and engaged citizen. And they can learn to choose wisely. As parents and teachers, we owe it to our families and to our democracy to do no less.