A History of NCSS Involvement in Human Rights (Social Education: NCSS After 100 Years, November/December 2021, Vol. 85, No. 6)

A History of NCSS Involvement in Human Rights By Rosemary Ann Blanchard (pp. 364–365)

Active support for human rights education and for the human rights dimension of civic engagement has long been an integral part of CSS’s values, policies, and practices. This commitment was made official in 2012 with the estab­lishment of an NCSS Human Rights Community.

The term “Human Rights” has come to encompass under­standings of the rights of individuals within all societies (previously expressed with phrases such as the “rights of man,” or “natural rights”). The term itself, however, is largely a product of the twentieth century. Indeed, it took atrocities on a global scale for the phrase “Human Rights” to come into common usage.

In his 1941 State of the Union address to Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt referenced the universal­ity of human rights: “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere.” The phrase is repeated in the UN Declaration of 1942 (the main treaty of the World War II allies), in the preamble to the UN Charter (1945), and, of course, in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 1945, CSS participated in the development of a state­ment entitled “Education for a Free Society,” under the aus­pices of the Liaison Committee for International Education and its International Education Assembly.2 The statement enunciated core values for education in a democratic soci­ety-values that today reflect many of the characteristics we would today identify as educational ideals that are friendly to human rights (e.g., equal education for all, freedom to learn and learning for freedom, and education to enrich the full human personality). NCSS shared these visions with its members in the February 1945 issue of Social Education.

In 1948, NCSS, in conjunction with the Committee on International Education of the National Education Association (NEA) and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), issued a statement entitled “Education for International Understanding in American Schools.”3 The EA/ ASCD/NCSS statement-developed and issued as the UN Commission on Human Rights was negotiating the final language for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights-both anticipated and endorsed the ideals of the nascent UDHR. It urged that programs of education for international understand­ing be directed toward preparation of “the World-Minded American” whose values and actions would reflect those ideals:

II. The world-minded American wants a world at peace m which liberty and justice are assured for all.
III.The world-minded American has a deep concern for the wellbeing of humanity.

History is fickle, of course, and the “World-Minded American,” social studies educators and their national council soon had to contend with domestic accusations that world­ mindedness was the equivalent to being “soft on communism,” unpatriotic, or worse.

NCSS did not, however, aban­don its incipient commitment to preparing human rights awareness. By 1968, the 20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, President Lyndon Johnson joined the UN General Assembly in officially declar­ing 1968 Human Rights Year. In 1969, NCSS published Bulletin 43, A Guide to Human Rights Education (Paul D. Hines and Leslie Wood), with an introduction by Chief Justice Earl Warren.4 Warren’s introduction, from a speech delivered to the President’s Commission for the Observance of Human Rights Year, made clear that the work of upholding human rights was a domestic challenge as well as a global one:

[l]n recent years the fabric of our society has come per­ilously close to the tearing point because of a failure to live by that principle [of equality]. The potential for strife is great when some men will not deal with others as equals worthy of dignity and respect and fairness ….

let us not forget the threat which may be the gravest of all … because it threatens us as … moral beings-and that is the threat of ourselves-the threat that we may cease to be an outward going, freedom loving, and tol­erant people. The threat that we may destroy our own democratic institutions through malice or inadvertence (p. 7).

Hines and Wood, in their discussions of teaching for the promotion of human rights, stressed both the teaching of con­tent and the creation of opportunities “to develop the attitudes and qualities of mind necessary to the successful promotion of human rights.”5

The importance of incorporating reaching about human rights and teaching through practices friendly to human rights continued to be reflected in , CSS publications, and presenta­tions at CSS conferences throughout the latter third of the twentieth century. William Fernekes was the founding chair­person of the International Human Rights Education Special Interest Group within NCSS (1985-1992) and contributed to several NCSS publications throughout the 1990s on the need to incorporate the human rights perspective into teaching about children’s rights, genocide, Indigenous Peoples, natural disasters, and global citizenship education. Kristi Rudelius­-Palmer, Nancy Flowers, Fernekes and others worked with NCSS on the development of the national Human Rights USA Resource Center around the 50th Anniversary of the UDHR (1998) and on presentations and publications tied to that landmark.

The twenty-first century is on its way to becoming the Century of Human Rights Education within CSS. The first decade saw an increase in HRE-related contributions to NCSS publications. More recently, the American Red Cross contrib­uted to a special section within Social Education devoted to exploring International Humanitarian Law, a dimension of human rights practice which is too often omitted from general discussions of HRE.6

The HRE Community does nor and must not assume that this current period of “belonging” within the social studies family is a given. In preparation of chis report, I learned of the establish­ment and subsequent demise of an NCSS special interest group on International Human Rights Education. Nationalist and racist ideologies that considered extinguished in the American psyche have recently demonstrated their persistence. Respect for LGBTQ equality has moved forward to an encouraging degree, but, again, those gains exist against a background of intimidation and threat. Anti-immigrant/anti-migrant rhetoric and legally enforced policies are undermining fundamental principles of human rights and rights of children and families. We CSS members share a common human destiny. Our val­ues are only as enduring as our success in transmitting them to future generations.

Note: Dr. Glenn Mitoma, the HRE Community Scholar Presenter in 2018, greatly assisted with thi.s overview.


  1. The Social Studies in Secondary Education. Bulletin 28 (Bureau of Education Department of the Interior, 1916)
  2. James Quillen. “The Role of the Social Studies Teacher in the Postwar World.” Social Education 9, no. 1 January, 1945): 9-12.
  3. “Education for International Understanding in American Schools” (National Educauon Association, 1948)
  4. Paul D. Hfnes and Leslie Wood, A Guide to Human Rights Education, Bulletin 43 (NCSS, l969)
  5. Hines and Wood. 59
  6. Exploring Humanitarian Law. Social Education 74, no. 5 (October 2010).

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