2012-13 Catalog

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Offering Description

Human Rights and the Tragedies of History


Fall 2012 and Winter 2013 quarters

Nancy Koppelman American studies , Joseph Tougas philosophy
Fields of Study
history, international studies, literature, philosophy and writing
Preparatory for studies or careers in
government, social services, NGO development, writing, philosophy and history.
substantial studies in the humanities and/or social sciences.

History is unkind. This program will consider the possibilities for human rights in light of the tragedies of history.

The phrase "human rights" suggests high moral principles and political ideals. It champions the dignity of all persons who have ever lived based solely on their humanity. It calls forth an image of a world better than the one we are in now--a world in which ideals have become realities and people can hold high moral principles with complete integrity. But humanity existed long before human rights.

Historians show that in any particular historical moment, people can think and act only with the conceptual tools they have. Structural realities can cause people to harm one another because they do not have the ability or desire to challenge or resist them. As a result, violence, racism, anti-Semitism and sexism are central to our history. For most people who have ever lived, there was no hope for their human rights. What are we to make of these tragic features of history?

What if Hegel is right, and "history is the slaughter-bench of happiness"? Are suffering and injustice the costs of making progress toward a better world? When and how does moral idealism help or hinder aims of "social justice"? If we can find out, how might that knowledge shape efforts to make a better world in our own time?

Before human rights, suffering was thought to be caused by mysterious forces - divine or human. For example, when John Adams defended British soldiers who fired into an angry mob during the Boston Massacre of 1770, he noted that there are "state-quakes in the moral and political world" akin to earthquakes in the physical world. Our program will examine a range of "state-quakes," and particularly those that shaped the lot of Native peoples, the Puritans, American slaves and their owners, and generations of women, immigrants, and people devoted to the life of the mind. We will learn about the philosophical history of human rights from its precursors in the ancient world through the Enlightenment. We will consider the rise of the nation-state in the 19th and 20th centuries, tensions between political liberalism and pluralism, and the emergence of 21st century internationalism which seems to eclipse mutual obligations tethering citizens to states. Writing will focus on employing the skills of close analysis and developing sound arguments informed by our texts. Students will write lengthy term papers that could serve as writing samples in graduate school applications.

Students who have completed substantial studies in the humanities and social sciences and who are prepared for advanced level work are warmly invited to join this program.

Online Learning
Enhanced Online Learning
Greener Store
Required Fees
$50 for entrance fees in fall quarter.
Offered During

Program Revisions

Date Revision
November 13th, 2012 Signature required for entry duing winter quarter.
September 10th, 2012 Fall fees have been reduced.
August 3rd, 2012 Bret Weinstein will be teaching a different program, TBD.
April 3rd, 2012 Bret Weinstein has joined the teaching team.