Harvard scholar leads Upper School human rights seminar

Harvard scholar leads Upper School human rights seminar

Halfway into their eight-week course of study last semester, the 16 members of Thayer Academy’s Human Rights Seminar had discussed civil rights, immigration challenges, and global access to education, among other issues. They had touched upon compelling public policy topics like women’s reproductive freedoms and mass incarceration within the United States. 

But a definitive direction for the weekly course had yet to be charted. And that, said Dr. Timothy Patrick McCarthy, the seminar’s instructor, was intentional. 

Dr. Tim McCarthy with students

The human rights seminar at Thayer
included voices from Thayer students,
faculty, and staff.                                                 

“I let students drive the content,” said McCarthy, a Harvard professor and Thayer resident scholar who sees himself more as a thought partner and collaborator than the stereotypical sage on the stage. McCarthy said the key to this year’s seminar — just as it was for last year’s master class on leadership and communication — was that students, faculty, and staff were all equal members of the class, learning together. 

“We’re learning from them (the students) what they most care about,” he said at the time. And, McCarthy added, as co-learners in the classroom, faculty and staff members were demonstrating with their presence that they care about what students have to say. For McCarthy, these intergenerational conversations and collaborations are vital to developing students who approach complex or divisive issues with curiosity, respect, and empathy. 

The collaborative nature of the seminar was evident early in the class when participants undertook a close read of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was put forth by the United Nations in 1948. As a class, members focused on five specific human rights, creating provisional definitions for each. After that analysis, McCarthy facilitated a discussion of what rights were either not in the UDHR or not specifically articulated. Conversation ensued about whether the document’s listing of rights suggested a form of prioritization — whether it was significant that freedom and equality rights are spelled out almost immediately while the right to education is listed as 26th out of 30. Class members further explored how the nearly 75-year-old document might be updated to better reflect today’s society. 

Human rights seminar with Dr. Tim McCarthy

Dr. Timothy Patrick McCarthy and students
during a recent class.                                      

“Human rights are ultimately about human wrongs,” said McCarthy, explaining that one way these issues can be explained is by how individuals or groups find ways to challenge a power structure that limits or takes certain rights away. “Whenever we commit to human rights, we’re committing to an idea that we’ve never quite reached.” 

McCarthy has spent decades teaching graduate students at Harvard, and said that, invariably, many of those students will express regret about a time they didn’t challenge something that was wrong or speak up for what was right. As the seminar at Thayer came to a close, he called the opportunity to discuss human rights with Upper School students a gift because it helps to create a foundation of knowledge and understanding of issues that will become more important to them as they progress through their schooling and beyond.

“We all want to be brave,” McCarthy said, “so let’s figure out how we do that together.” 

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