Essay on Human Dignity

Students are often asked to write an essay on Human Dignity in their schools and colleges. And if you’re also looking for the same, we have created 100-word, 250-word, and 500-word essays on the topic.

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100 Words Essay on Human Dignity

What is human dignity.

Human dignity means treating every person with respect because they are valuable. It’s like saying every person is important, no matter who they are or where they come from. This idea is like a rule that helps us live together in peace.

Human Rights and Dignity

Human dignity is the heart of human rights. Rights like freedom and equality come from the belief that all people deserve respect. It’s like giving everyone a shield to protect them from being treated badly.

Respecting Others

To show human dignity, we should be kind and fair to others. It’s not just about not hurting people, but also about helping them feel good about themselves. When we respect others, we make the world a friendlier place.

Challenges to Dignity

Sometimes, people face bullying or unfair treatment, which attacks their dignity. Standing up against such wrongs is important. By doing so, we defend the value of each person and support a world where everyone is respected.

250 Words Essay on Human Dignity

Human dignity is the idea that every person is valuable and deserves respect. This means that no matter where you come from, what you look like, or what you believe in, you are important. Think of it like this: every person is like a precious gem that should be cared for and never harmed.

Why Human Dignity is Important

Human dignity is like the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated. When we respect each other’s dignity, we create a world where everyone can feel safe and happy. This helps us get along better, make friends, and live peacefully. Without dignity, people might feel sad, scared, or alone.

Human Dignity in Our Lives

In school, human dignity shows up when teachers listen to students’ ideas and when students are kind to each other. At home, it’s when family members support one another. In the world, it means making sure everyone has food, a home, and a chance to learn.

Standing Up for Dignity

Sometimes, people’s dignity is not respected. When this happens, it’s important to stand up for them. This could be helping a friend who is being bullied or telling an adult when something is wrong. By doing this, you protect dignity and show that you care about others.

Human dignity is a simple yet powerful idea. It’s about seeing the worth in every person and acting with kindness. Remember, when you respect others, you help make the world a better place for everyone.

500 Words Essay on Human Dignity

Human dignity is a powerful idea that means every person is valuable and deserves respect. This idea is like a golden rule that tells us to treat others as we would like to be treated. It doesn’t matter where someone is from, what they look like, or what they believe in—every person has dignity just because they are human.

Human Dignity in Everyday Life

In our daily lives, human dignity can be seen in many ways. When a teacher listens to a student’s question with care, that’s dignity. When a doctor treats a patient, or when someone helps a person who is in trouble, they are showing respect for that person’s dignity. It means we recognize that everyone has the right to be happy, to speak their mind, and to live a life free from harm.

Human Dignity and Equality

Human dignity also means that all people should be treated as equals. No one is better or more important than anyone else. This is why there are rules and laws in countries around the world that try to make sure everyone is treated fairly. For example, when a girl and a boy are given the same chance to learn and play, it shows we value their dignity equally.

Human Dignity and Making Choices

Another part of human dignity is being able to make your own choices. This means that people should be able to decide things for themselves, like what they want to do when they grow up or what they believe is right and wrong. When we let others make choices for their own lives, we are showing respect for their dignity.

Challenges to Human Dignity

Sadly, not everyone’s dignity is always respected. Bullying, unfair treatment, and being mean to others are all ways that can hurt someone’s dignity. When this happens, it’s important to stand up and speak out. By doing this, we help protect the dignity of those who are being treated badly.

Our Role in Upholding Dignity

We all have a part to play in making sure we and the people around us are treated with dignity. This can be as simple as being kind, standing up for someone who is being picked on, or learning about different cultures to understand others better. When we do these things, we help create a world where everyone’s dignity is respected.

Human dignity is a special idea that touches every part of our lives. It reminds us that every person is important and deserves to be treated with kindness and respect. By understanding and upholding human dignity, we can make sure that we, and the people around us, live in a world that is fair and kind to everyone. Remember, it starts with you and the small acts of respect you show to others every day.

That’s it! I hope the essay helped you.

If you’re looking for more, here are essays on other interesting topics:

  • Essay on Human Behaviour
  • Essay on Human Cloning
  • Essay on Human Body System

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how to promote human dignity as a student essay

Dr Iain Mossman

College Education Manager

Published 17 Feb 2017 • 20 mins read

Dignity and respect in the classroom

This article provides strategies for structuring small group work, with a focus on addressing difficult or sensitive topics.

Student interaction plays an important role in learning in higher education.

In order to make student interaction effective and safe for participants, teaching staff must create an environment in which people treat each other with dignity, courtesy and respect, while also promoting open and critical exchange of ideas.

This guidance is intended to help teaching staff develop their own way to strike this balance.

Provide a framework

It helps to make your expectations clear from the outset.  Some useful ground rules include:

  • treat each other with dignity and respect
  • listen to each others’ points of view, recognising that there may be disagreement
  • keep discussion and comments on the topic, and off the people
  • do not use inflammatory or offensive language, sarcasm, or raised voices.

In addition, consider reminding students that if they have a disability or impairment which might affect participation you can support them better if they let you know.

Small group work

Ensure that the tasks and the expected outcomes are clearly defined: uncertainty can allow confident students to dominate.  It also helps to put instructions for tasks in writing, and either provide them in advance, or allow plenty of time for reading.

Consider whether to allow students to select their own groups or whether you will allocate them yourself, either randomly or in some other way.  If students select their own groups they may self-segregate in ways which can be unhelpful.

Recognise that, left to themselves, students may not distribute the group’s workload fairly and consider whether to provide additional structure to address this.

Structure the tasks so that group members have clear roles and responsibilities.  If tasks are unsupervised or off-site, consider providing a brief role description for a chair to manage meetings and keep the group on task.

For extended group work, particularly when it is assessed, consider requiring each student to keep a record of how the group decided on tasks, arranged meetings and allocated work.  This can encourage them to keep in mind the need for fairness, and may provide you with a useful record of the group’s activity.

Addressing difficult or sensitive topics

Prepare yourself.

Know yourself.  If you know your own positions on issues, and your own sensitivities, you are less likely to get drawn into the controversy.

Decide whether you are going to maintain impartiality or acknowledge your own beliefs.

Be honest with yourself about your level of experience and skill in managing the classroom and facilitating group work.  Seek additional guidance and training if you need to.

Structure the debate

Ask students to participate in discussions with the aim of understanding other people’s reasons for their points of view, and articulating the reasons for their own.

Give students a chance to write before speaking, or to talk with a partner before speaking to the whole group.

Encourage active listening: before presenting their own viewpoint, ask students to acknowledge the previous speaker by restating content or indicating that they heard the other’s message.

Model good practice yourself by being open to multiple perspectives; if you are open with the students about your own views, be careful to distinguish between evidence and speculation, and encourage students to do the same.

Encourage students to distinguish between evidence and opinion by using “I…” statements when expressing opinions.

Ask students to think about how their own reactions to the topic reflect the reactions of the broader society.  What might students learn from their own behaviour and that of their classmates?

Responding to difficult situations in the classroom

Keep calm.  The students trust you to maintain control and will respond to your calmness.

Don’t avoid the issue.  Universities are where learning is supposed to happen, and it is up to you to enable students to tackle difficult issues in a constructive way.

Possible response: Ask the students to pause and write down what they think were the last couple of claims or statements made.  Then use what they have written to slow the debate down and pull apart what’s been said.

Possible response: ask the student to rephrase their comments so as to reduce emotional reactions and increase the likelihood that their point of view will be absorbed and understood.

Possible response: “It makes me uncomfortable to hear you saying….” (perhaps especially appropriate where offensive words or phrases have been used, even in an aside to a fellow student).

Possible response: Redirect an offensive comment by putting it on the table as a topic for general discussion.  Say, “Many people think this.  What reasons might someone have for holding this view?”  Then, “Why do those who disagree hold other views?”

Possible response: adjourn the class and deal with individuals or small groups privately before reconvening.

If a topic emerges in class and you have too little information to address it adequately, defer the discussion until next week and suggest that you all take the opportunity to inform yourselves ready for a balanced discussion

Debrief afterwards with a peer or mentor; managing conflict can be deceptively stressful, even when you think you’re coping.  Talk about what happened, keep it in perspective, and consider how you will manage it next time.

Follow up afterwards with any student who seemed upset.  Make use of the University’s Counselling Service, both to refer students and to seek support yourself.

You are a lecturer or course director responsible for the learning environment of these students.  What will you do?  Could this have been prevented?

  • A student often uses terminology that is generally regarded as unacceptable to describe people from minority ethnic groups. This is making the tutorial group uncomfortable, and another student has objected in class. The student insists that, as she is not directing the terms at an individual in the tutorial group or within the lecture hall, people should be less politically correct and stop taking offence.
  • Some students are given a piece of assessed group work to complete over several weeks.  A Muslim student does not attend the first meeting because it is in the pub, and roles as part of assessed group work are decided at this meeting. He asks for the second meeting to be held somewhere else - other students agree, but derogatory comments and unacceptable 'banter' follows. In addition, key decisions & discussions continue to happen informally in the pub.  He is now asking to work with a different group.
  • A woman student is on an engineering course dominated by men. She is partnered with a man for an assessment. Another student tells him that he had better be careful as he is aware that she has made a complaint under the Sex Discrimination Act in the past. He has now asked the tutor to work with someone else. There is also a rumour going round the students that she is a ‘serial complainer’ and she has received some unpleasant e-mails (with sexual content) from a hotmail account which make reference to her sex discrimination complaint.
  • A disabled student has additional time for assessments and use of a dictaphone to tape lectures. Another student starts using negative and patronising language when talking about disabled people: this includes saying that they are not as competent as other students because of all the special treatment they get, and shouldn't be allowed to be awarded qualifications. They also approach the lecturer to say that the student should not be allowed to tape record lectures.
  • A woman student has been getting excellent marks in class.  There are persistent rumours that the lecturer is a lesbian and that the student is sleeping with her in exchange for good marks, and derogatory comments about them both have appeared on Facebook linked to the student society.  Other students have been whispering and sniggering behind her back, and the student’s attendance is dropping.
  • A postgraduate student who is openly gay is running tutorials for a bioethics course.  In a lecture on adoption and IVF treatment for same-sex couples, a student states that according to his religious beliefs homosexuality is an unnatural abomination, and then in a loud aside repeats the claim to fellow students using derogatory and offensive language.  The postgrad approaches the lecturer afterwards concerned about the tutorial session in which the student will be participating.

Last thoughts

There are some simple and basic things most people already do which can increase the likelihood that students will respond positively to you and to each other in the classroom. Their feasibility will vary in some cases with the size of the group, but consider whether you:

  • arrive, start and end on time
  • ensure that everyone can hear and see what’s happening
  • provide course and session outlines (and stick to them as far as is reasonable)
  • communicate your expectations and criteria for assessment
  • make eye contact with all students
  • demonstrate respect for authors and researchers with whom you disagree
  • use students’ names when you speak to them
  • turn up for advertised office hours
  • provide opportunities for questions, and respond to them seriously and thoughtfully.

Dignity at Work and Study: Policy Statement (excerpt)

  • Cardiff University is committed to supporting, developing and promoting equality and diversity in all of its practices and activities. The University aims to establish an inclusive culture free from discrimination and based upon the values of dignity, courtesy and respect. The University recognises the right of every person to be treated in accordance with these values.
  • The failure of University staff and students to behave with dignity, courtesy and respect towards others can harm individuals and impair the functioning and reputation of the University. In particular, harassment, bullying and victimisation can cause fear, stress and anxiety, and impose strains on work, personal and family life. They can lead to illness, accidents, absenteeism, poor performance, an apparent lack of commitment, staff resignation or student withdrawal from the University. Harassment, bullying and victimisation are unacceptable forms of behaviour which will not be tolerated.
  • Any allegation of harassment, bullying or victimisation will be treated seriously, regardless of the seniority of those involved, and anyone found to have behaved unacceptably may be the subject of disciplinary action up to and including dismissal or expulsion.

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Treating Students with Dignity

This past August I had the pleasure of attending some professional development activities organized and presented by educators within the Central Falls, Rhode Island school district. One workshop was being presented by David Upegui, a science teacher whom I knew from my days consulting in the district years ago.

David is a big thinker with a huge heart, always active doing things for young people and the community,  see link . He’s well-known in the state,  see link   and I wanted to make sure I took the opportunity to see what he was up to, what he was saying of late.

His workshop was full of great ideas and his unique provocations. It reminded me of how much work we have to do to nourish the spirit of young people. And how important it is, each and every day, to remember the powerful role we have as educators in treating students with dignity. I asked David to recap his workshop in this following essay.

  Larry Myatt Co-Founder Education Resources Consortium

David Upegui

David Upegui

It so happened that I grew up and went to school in the most economically disadvantaged city in Rhode Island. Even more than I realized at the time, I was in dire need of guidance, support, academic discipline and most importantly, a sense that I mattered, that I had a future. I was among the few and the fortunate to find that one special teacher, one that understood how that idea of agency would determine my future.

Now, as a teacher in my very same alma mater, I see it as my turn. I work as diligently as I can with a new generation of students, trying to provide for them that same sense of agency that freed me from economic -and intellectual- poverty. I had left my job as a researcher at an Ivy League university in hopes of igniting minds, in that very same place I had once sat as a student.

My son was born with an extra chromosome in each of his cells. Life with and l earning from a young person with Down Syndrome is not what I had expected when I became a parent, but my son has taught me more than I learned in any class. My work became making sure that he would be treated fairly, with equanimity, and that he would have positive school experiences. It reminded me in the most powerful way of the power of each human being, and the fundamental belief that ALL children can and should learn. That’s what drives my teaching now.

So how do we do our best as educators, every day, to ensure that all our students are empowered and treated with that kind of dignity? Here is a short list of things I try to do that have shown positive results for my students --simple but important things—some having to do with the environment in my classroom and others more specially about my content teaching.

I call students by their last name. As simple as this may sound, this enables all of us to address each other with respect. When some students first hear me say “Ms. Rodriguez” or “Mr. Hernandez”, they are confused – it’s new to them. But I tell them that I try to look beyond their current status, that I see them as significant right now, that they will become even more important as they grow in our community.

I greet all students as they come in to the classroom . As an American-Latino, salutations and recognition of the other person were of importance growing up in my household. It may seem like a small gesture, but a smile and a hardy hello can have a profound impact. Even though I teach students that are in their final years of high school, I still begin each class with a “good morning/afternoon” and I expect the whole class to repeat it – it has become our custom. 

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 7.09.44 PM.png


Being prepared with lesson plans and materials. This may seem like a no-brainer, but one of the simplest ways to show respect to the students is by being prepared for class. When we are prepared we send subtle messages that let our students know that we are thinking about them outside of class. When we are not, that resonates as “he doesn’t take us seriously”.

Discuss the “rules” for all (including teacher). The rules that I have settled on are very simple: be prepared, be present and be respectful. They apply to everyone in the room, including me (and this is stated). It’s our way of agreeing on how we can be at our best with each other as we learn.

Introduce and value student questions. As a way to demonstrate the importance of questioning, I try to acknowledge and reward “good” questions. I have to make time for them, to go with the moment of curiosity. Over time students begin to notice the significance of questions and provide each other with encouragement.

Play music. This may seem trivial, but music can have a great effect on the culture of the classroom. I select playlists that not only have baroque musicians (studies have demonstrated the effect of this type of music on learning) but also include music that represent the wide variety of background my students bring. For example, I may play Sara Tavares or Mayra Andrade (both Cape Verdean), or Carlos Vives and Pedrito Fernandez (Latinos) and follow that with Air Supply, Olafur Arnalds, and Bach.

Regular communications . Some of these exchanges may be in-person or email, and regardless of method, communicating with students about their work, their academic performance, their strengths/weaknesses, dreams and plans, enables students to feel valued and important.

Explicit democratic voicing . I tell my students not to believe anything and everything that people say (even me!), unless evidence and data are provided. In other words, I want my students learn to be skeptical of “beliefs” and begin to recognize that their voice and opinions matter.

Bring in outsiders to the classroom/bring the classroom outside . Our classroom has many visitors each year. Any given week may include visits from college professors, nurses/physicians, graduates of the school, engineers, a swami (to teach the physiological effects of meditation on the body), or scientists. When visitors spend time with my students, everyone wins. My students begin to recognize that there is a larger world that wants them to succeed. And the visitors are inspired by the potential my students hold. Also, I try to take my students out of the classroom as much as possible – even it is just around the block – they are part of a greater community.

Storytelling/circle time. As unusual as this sounds, I hold “circle time” with my seniors in high school. I stop the action and call my students to bring up their lab stools and sit around a circle so we can all see each other. This works for many reasons including the fact that storytelling is the oldest form of communication and education (as well as being able to see who has their cell phone out). The stories I tell may include specific stories about science like the stories of Rosalyn Franklin, Lynn Margulis, Michael Faraday or Alhazen; stories which speak about perseverance, overcoming obstacles and using curiosity as an empowerment tool. Other stories may be my personal experiences or just about inspiring people such as Wilma Rudolph or Michael Jordan. Regardless, stories connect us as humans.

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 7.09.56 PM.png

Specific lessons that address liberation . A powerful examples is what we call “race”. I introduce the science underlying that notion. Skin coloration has historically been used to segregate and discriminate people, but what if we take a look at the data of ultra-violet radiation (UVB) and human skin pigmentation patterns? In this light, students begin to see that skin coloration is based on where our closets ancestors lived: the closer to the equator, the more skin pigmentation they had (as a natural protection from damaging sun rays). Once students appreciate that natural variation, they can begin to question why skin pigmentation was erroneously connected to human capacity. My students leave my class knowing that we are in fact only one human species (otherwise we could not successfully breed and have viable offspring). Undoubtedly, there are tons of lessons in all content areas that can be developed, delivered and shared with our students – we just need to consider them as what they truly are: the future stewards of the earth.

What we do as educators is never trivial. In front of us each day are the future problem-solvers of the world and it is up to us to enable them to recognize their great potential. We have more power than we recognize, and we are either part of the problem or the solution.

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how to promote human dignity as a student essay

South African Journal of Education

On-line version  issn 2076-3433 print version  issn 0256-0100, s. afr. j. educ. vol.35 n.2 pretoria may. 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.15700/saje.v35n2a1044 .

Human rights literacy: Moving towards rights-based education and transformative action through understandings of dignity, equality and freedom

Anne Becker; Annamagriet de Wet; Willie van Vollenhoven

Edu-HRight Research Unit, Faculty of Education Sciences, North-West University Potchefstroom Campus, South Africa [email protected]

The twentieth century has been characterised by the proliferation of human rights in the discursive practices of the United Nations (Baxi, 1997). In this article, we explore the continual process of rights-based education towards transformative action, and an open and democratic society, as dependent upon the facilitation of human rights literacy in teacher training. Our theoretical framework examines the continual process of moving towards an open and democratic society through the facilitation of human rights literacy, rights-based education and transformative action. We focus specifically on understandings of dignity, equality and freedom, as both rights (legal claims) and values (moral action) across horizontal and vertical applications, considering the internalisation and implementation of dignity, equality and freedom towards transformative action. Our analysis of data stemming from a project funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) entitled 'Human Rights Literacy: A quest for meaning', brought student-teachers' understandings into conversation with the proposed theoretical framework. In terms of understandings related to dignity, equality and freedom, participants seemingly understand human rights either as legal interests, or alternatively, as they pertain to values such as caring, ubuntu, respect, human dignity and equality. Legal understandings primarily focus on the vertical application of the Bill of Rights (RSA, 1996a) and the role of government in this regard, whereas understandings related to the realisation of values tended to focus on the horizontal applications of particularly dignity and equality as the product of the relation between self and other. We conclude the article by linking the analysis and the theoretical framework to education as a humanising practice within human rights as a common language of humanity. In so doing, we argue that human rights literacy and rights-based education transcend knowledge about human rights, moving towards transformative action and caring educational relations premised on freedom, dignity and equality. Finally, recommendations are made regarding human rights and rights-based education as transformative action within the South African context, towards an open and democratic society.

Keywords: democracy; dignity; equality; freedom; human rights; human rights education; human rights literacy; rights-based education; transformation; transformative action


The twentieth century has been characterised by the proliferation of human rights in the discursive praxis of the United Nations (UN) (Baxi, 1997). At the Vienna Conference on Human Rights (1993), the UN secretary-general posed that human rights constitute a "common language of humanity" (in Baxi, 1997:142). The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (RSA, 1996a, hereafter The SA Constitution) entrenched dignity, freedom and equality as the foundation of a democratic state, which protects the fundamental rights and freedoms of its people.

In order to translate human rights into classroom and school management praxis, the South African Department of Education (DoE) published the Implementation Guidelines for Safe and Caring Child-friendly Schools in South Africa (Department of Education & [United Nations Children's Fund] UNICEF South Africa, 2008 - hereafter Implementation Guidelines). According to the Implementation Guidelines, a rights-based school "demonstrates, promotes, and helps monitor the rights and wellbeing of all children" (Department of Education & UNICEF South Africa, 2008:7). The implementation of human rights and the internalisation of human rights values in schools and in teaching-learning are crucial to sustaining human rights and social justice in a transformative democracy.

The aim of this article is to explore the continual process of developing rights-based education towards transformative action, as being dependent upon the facilitation of human rights literacy in teacher training. With a focus on the South African context, the article forms part of a larger research project funded by the NRF. The project titled Human Rights Literacy: A quest for meaning (Roux & Du Preez, 2013) explored student-teachers' conceptualisation and ontology of human rights and human rights values, with this article posing the question: 'could human rights literacy, as understandings of dignity, equality and freedom as both rights (legal claims) and values (normative action) within horizontal and vertical applications, aid rights-based education towards transformative action and an open and democratic society?'

We begin by examining the continual process of moving towards an open and democratic society through the facilitation of human rights literacy in teacher training, rights-based education and transformative action from a theoretical perspective. In so doing, we focus specifically on understanding dignity, equality and freedom as both rights (legal claims) and values (moral action) within horizontal and vertical applications, considering the internalisation and implementation of dignity, equality and freedom towards transformative action.

Our data analysis explores the data in terms of student teachers' understandings of dignity, freedom and equality, and we link the conclusions from our analysis and the theoretical framework to education as a humanising practice within human rights as a common language of humanity. To conclude, we make recommendations concerning human rights and rights-based education as transformative action within the South African context.

Theoretical Framework

Human rights as the "common language of humanity" (in Baxi, 1997:142) are embraced as educational aims in numerous global human rights treaties since 1948. In terms of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN, 1989), the aims of education, in addition to personal development, involve strengthening a respect for human rights and freedoms, enabling individuals to participate effectively in a free society, and promoting understanding, friendship and tolerance.

Working from within a framework for the realisation of children's rights to education and rights within education, the UNICEF and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recommend a "human rights-based approach to education" (UNICEF/UNESCO, 2007:7-9), rooted in principles such as equality and non-discrimination, participation and inclusion, empowerment, accountability and respect for the rule of law. A rights-based approach to education is informed by human rights norms and standards. Such an approach aims, inter alia, to contribute to positive social transformation and social cohesionin and through education (UNICEF/UNESCO, 2007). The 1993 UNESCO Montreal Declaration states that education (and rights-based education) "should aim to nurture democratic values, sustain impulses for democratization [sic] and promote societal transformation based upon human rights and democracy" (UNESCO, 1993:1).

In keeping with international principles of a rights-based approach to education, the DoE published the Implementation Guidelines (Department of Education & UNICEF South Africa, 2008), which aim at translating rights into classroom and school management praxis. These guidelines define rights-based education within a holistic approach to quality education and are rooted in The SA Constitution (RSA, 1996a) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN, 1989).

Rights-based education in a transformative democracy relies on the implementation of human rights and the internalisation of human rights values in schools, and in teaching-learning. Section 7 of the South African Constitution describes the Bill of Rights as "a cornerstone of democracy" and provides, together with Section 1, inter alia, the values of dignity, equality and freedom as a framework for building an open and democratic society (Currie & De Waal, 2013:6-7). Thus, rights-based education should be premised on these values.

Rights-based education and the implementation and internalisation of human rights and human rights values are, however, not static; rather, these are on-going processes of moving towards the realisation of human rights and democracy within a transformative society. This understanding echoes Gordimer's (2011:501) view, that "democracy is not an on-off affair; it has to be learned, day by day." We therefore view an "open and democratic society" (RSA, 1996a, preamble, Sections 36 and 39) not as a static end-point but rather as a process involving continual becoming as human rights are learnt and human rights values are internalised day by day.

Teachers play an important role in the facilitation of rights-based education towards transformative action, premised on human rights and democracy. It is incumbent upon them to facilitate the development of a sense of respect and responsibility towards others, to inspire learners to uphold human rights, and to promote democratic values and practices in schools (RSA, DoE, 2000). Being responsible for the dignity, equality and freedom of others in a classroom requires both teacher and child to always be "one-caring or one cared-for" (Noddings, 2007:372). The dignity and equal worth of all others are realised in the reception of the other as a subject in a caring relation within the teaching-learning context (Noddings, 2007). South Africa's Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (RSA, 2000) echoes the ideal of a caring society, where it states in the preamble that "this Act endeavours to facilitate the transition to a democratic society, united in its diversity, marked by human relations that are caring and compassionate".

For this reason, it is imperative that teacher training facilitates the acquisition of human rights literacy, manifesting as rights-based education within caring educational relations. For the purpose of this article, we define human rights literacy as transcending knowledge about human rights towards understandings of the processes of human rights and implications thereof in an educational context (Roux, 2010).

Human rights literacy: Moving towards rights-based education and transformative action

Against the background of the above discussion, we illustrate the continual process of rights-based education towards transformative action in the diagram below ( Figure 1 ), as dependent upon the facilitation of human rights literacy in teacher training. Human rights literacy, the implementation of human rights and internalisation of human rights values and rights-based education, are essential components of education as a humanising practice within caring educational relationships. In turn, such education could facilitate transformative action towards an open and democratic society, based on human rights, which may be marked by caring and compassionate human relations. An open and democratic society is viewed not as a static end-point, but as one of the components in a cycle of continually moving towards an open and democratic society through human rights literacy and transformative action - teaching-learning democracy day by day.

The most basic of all rights is the right to be human, and to remain human (Baxi, 1997). Our analyses and critique of data from this project are framed within the theoretical paradigm as proposed by Freire (1993), where the conceptualisation of education as a humanising practice of freedom is concerned. Given Freire's (1993:25) conceptualisation of pedagogy and education, humanising and democracy are central concerns, where the author notes that, "while the problem of humanising has always, from an axiological point of view, been humankind's central problem, it now takes on the character of an inescapable concern."

The critical theory paradigm (the conceptualisation of the emancipatory role of education) developed during the late 1920s with the Frankfurt School. Although there are many lines of thought in critical theory, all have a re-appropriation of classical Marxism in common. Critical theorists are informed by ethical concerns and a critical stance towards society. Critical theory research continually critiques conceptions of humanity and humanising from the positions of the oppressed and marginalised within societal and educational contexts (Becker, 2013; Blake & Masschelein, 2003). At its very heart, the paradigm is an ideological one of emancipation and transformation (Ponterotto, 2005).

Human rights literacy: Understanding dignity, equality and freedom

Values are understood as ideals we share about what is good, important and desirable in life, and serve as guidelines for our actions and attitudes (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 2003). As values, dignity, equality and freedom represent ideals about a good life, or a society. Arguing that all persons are of equal moral worth, the ideal of a democratic society implies that all persons should collectively decide what they regard as the good life, and which rules should guide action towards the realisation of such a good life (Young, 1990). Such ideals are described in the preamble to The South African Constitution (RSA, 1996a) as "a democratic and open society" and include the aims of both improving "the quality of life of all citizens" and freeing "the potential of each person".

The South African Constitution (RSA, 1996a) outlines the values that underpin the South African republic and society as, inter alia, "human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms" (Section 1(a)). Section 7(1) highlights dignity, equality and freedom specifically as "democratic values", which are affirmed by the Bill of Rights. These values steer legislation, as well as its interpretation and implementation, and place a duty on government to respect, protect and promote the values in both vertical and horizontal applications (Sections 1, 7, 36 and 39). Dignity, equality and freedom are, as Yacoob (2014) puts it, meant to transform our society from one in which only the fittest survive, to one in which we "care for and empower vulnerable people". i Within the South African socio-historic context, the Constitution (RSA, 1996a) explicitly acknowledges that freedom, dignity and equality should be realised within protected socio-economic rights (Cameron, 2014).

For the sake of furthering the realisation of the values of dignity, equality and freedom, The South African Constitution (RSA, 1996a) incorporated these values as human rights. In so doing, it (RSA, 1996a) provides principles and norms to measure right and wrong and enforces the realisation of the values it promotes and enshrines (Nieuwenhuis, 2007a). Rights are "legally enforceable interests that warrants protection by means of a legal remedy or sanction" (Smit, 2013:45), and the legal system has the duty to ensure that people enjoy these rights (Nieuwenhuis, 2007a). The values of dignity, equality and freedom should thus be understood not only as ideals and guidelines (values) but also as protected interests or legal claims (rights). For this reason, The SA Constitution (RSA, 1996a) protects the rights to equality (Section 9), dignity (Section 10) and specific freedoms (Section 12, 15, 16, 18, 21 and 22).

The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN, 1948) holds the recognition of inherent dignity, as well as the equal and in-alienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundations of freedom, justice and peace in the world. Consequently, only where equality and dignity are achieved, will individuals and groups be able to claim their freedoms. On the other hand, the realisation of freedom is necessary for dignity and equality to be achieved. Dignity, equality and freedom (as rights and values) work reciprocally and are linked to one another in the sense that the protection of each is essential for the realisation of the other.

The enforcement and implementation of rights are in the hands of national governments (Donnely, 2007), having both vertical and horizontal applications. The Department of Basic Education (DoBE), as an organ of state, promulgated and implemented several South African educational laws and policies. ii However, Nkonyane (2014) holds that despite laws and policies to protect rights and promote social justice, South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, with high levels of poverty. Furthermore, according to Sou-dien (2010), it seems that the post-apartheid curriculum perpetuates historic patterns of discrimination and reinforcing the marginalisation of poor children in South Africa.

Countering the inequality and injustices in post-apartheid South Africa would require that the interpretation and application of laws be aligned with "the values that underlie an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom" (RSA, 1996a, Section 39(1)), enabling the Constitution "to continue to play a creative and dynamic role in the expression and achievement of the ideals and aspirations of the nation" (S v. Mhlungu 1995 (3) SA 391 (CC)). Whereas, the interpretation and implementation of human rights encompass interaction between different rights, and between individual and collective rights, having an understanding of how the values of dignity, equality and freedom underpin such interpretations and implementations, could impact the holistic interpretation of rights and the balance of power and sovereignty in societal and political relations (Mihr, 2009).

Human dignity is broadly accepted as an inherent and an inalienable attribute of humans (Vorster, 2005). The meaning of human dignity is explained by the court in S v. Makwanyane1995 (3) SA 391 (CC) to refer to the idea that all humans are equal in dignity and are worthy of equal respect and concern:

Recognising a right to dignity is an acknowledgement of the intrinsic worth of human beings: human beings are entitled to be treated as worthy of respect and concern. This right therefore is the foundation of many other rights that are specifically entrenched.

In terms of Section 10 of the Constitution (RSA, 1996a), everyone has "inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected". As a right (legal claim), dignity places an imperative on government and organs of state, such as departments of education and schools, to respect each person and to protect that person's dignity (vertical application) (Currie & De Waal, 2013). It is also horizontally applicable, where all persons (natural and juristic) should respect the dignity of every person.

An understanding that all people have human dignity to the same extent, invites equal respect for all (Currie & De Waal, 2013; Smit, 2013), which highlights the interaction and interdependence between dignity and equality. Currie and De Waal (2013) succinctly describe equality as the idea that people who are similarly situated in relevant ways, ought to be treated similarly. The interrelatedness between dignity and equality has been highlighted by the Constitutional Court on more than one occasion, where it has defined unfair discrimination as "treating persons differently in a way which impairs their fundamental dignity as human beings, who are inherently equal in dignity" (Prinsloo v. Van der Linde 1997 (3) SA 1012 (CC)). This interrelatedness also came to the fore in The President of the Republic of South Africa v. Hugo 1997 (4) SA 1 (CC) para 41.

According to Albertyn and Goldblatt (1998), equality as a value gives power to the vision of the Constitution (RSA, 1996a), while equality as a right supplies the means by which this is be achieved. The right to equality, in terms of Section 9 of the Constitution (RSA, 1996a), poses an imperative implementation of (the value of) equality and expressly enacts both vertical and horizontal application. Section 9 offers a guarantee that the law will protect and benefit people equally, and prohibits unfair discrimination. This section is intended to protect, inter alia, vulnerable gender, race, ethnic, religious, cultural, linguistic, social, abled and age groups from unfair discrimination (Yacoob, 2014). Understanding the value of equality calls for the implementation of substantive equality, rather than formal equality, taking the result or outcomes of a particular provision or application into account, so as to determine whether equality has been achieved (Currie & De Waal, 2013).

Just as dignity and equality are inextricably linked, both also have a direct bearing on freedom. Dignity and equality both contribute to the realisation of freedom, while freedom in turn is a prerequisite in a democracy, without which a culture of human rights would not flourish, and where dignity and equality would not be able to be realised. Freedom is described as the supreme value of liberalism and defined as having the ability to make choices for oneself, being autonomous, or being free from constraint (Law, 2007). Thus, freedom is viewed as an intrinsic part of all human beings, whose dignity would be violated should it be limited. When the freedom of some is limited to a greater extent than the freedom of others, equality is violated and inequality perpetuated. For this reason, freedom has been incorporated into the Bill of Rights as different rights: freedom of the person (Section 12); religion, conscience, thought and belief (Section 15); expression (Section 16); association (Section 18); movement and residence (Section 21); and trade, occupation and profession (Section 22). These rights provide enforceable implementation of (the value of) freedom pertaining to specific aspects of human life.

The values of dignity, equality and freedom compel us to take responsibility for becoming an open and democratic society based on dignity, equality and freedom. In addition, as enforceable rights, the rights to dignity, equality and freedom provide a guarantee for the protection and enforcement of the values that underpin these rights. Human rights literacy, described as understandings of dignity, equality and freedom as both values and as enforceable rights could, therefore, enable and empower departments of education, education institutions and educators to internalise and implement human rights and human rights values in schools and in teaching-learning. The continual process of becoming, of moving towards an open and democratic society through rights-based education and transformative action, is dependent upon the facilitation of human rights literacy in teacher training.

Research Process

Within the broader project of which this article forms part, the research team explored what human rights literacy entails and aimed to establish and develop improved transformative curriculum and teaching-learning approaches (Roux & Du Preez, 2013). The project group collected qualitative and quantitative research data by means of three different collection processes: a walk-about, a survey, and small focus-group discussions (Becker, De Wet & Parker, 2014). This article draws from the focus-group data only.


A total of 80 students participated in the walkabout. Using convenience sampling, the walkabout was conducted on three university campuses to explore the domain and inform possible questions for the survey.

Following the walk-about, first- and fourth-year full-time Bachelors of Education (B.Ed) students from six sites (university campuses) were selected by means of purposive sampling as participants for the survey. In selecting participants, the research team borrowed from stratified and cluster sampling to purposively choose six university sites (campuses) that were representative of:

  • diverse linguistic, religious, ethnic and cultural student populations;
  • rural and metropolitan areas;
  • traditional universities and universities of technology;
  • technikons and/or colleges that have merged with universities during the restructuring process of the South African higher education system, 2001 to 2007 (Becker et al., 2014). iii

A total of 1,086 students (551 first-years and 535 fourth-years) participated in the survey, during which they could indicate whether they were willing to participate in focus-group discussions that followed on the survey.

Small focus-group discussions were conducted on the six sites to validate data from the previous two collection strategies and to re-evaluate literature, ontologies and epistemologies. Using a snowball sampling strategy, we invited students on each of the six survey sites, who had indicated their willingness to participate in focus groups during the survey. Some of these students, in turn, invited other B.Ed students from their year-groups who voluntarily joined the discussions. Smaller groups (three to nine) were preferred due to the complex nature of the discussion topics. A total of 68 students participated in focus groups, of whom 29 were first-year and 39 were fourth-year students. Twenty-seven of the focus-group participants were male (14 first-years and 13 fourth-years), and 41 were female (15 first-years and 26 fourth-years). Participants were between 18 and 28 years old and spoke six of the 11 official South African languages. The majority were Christian, while three participants indicated that they were Muslim.

Small focus-group discussions were conducted to elicit dialogue about human rights, probe participants' conceptions and ontology and disrupt fixed meanings and understandings (Becker et al., 2014; Roux & Du Preez, 2013). Focus groups allowed researchers and participants to meet face-to-face in mostly unstructured conversation and dialogue that supported the flow and development of conversation, encouraged debate and conflict, and inspired participants to discuss human rights with one another, rather than with the researchers only (Becker et al., 2014; Creswell, 2009; Nieuwenhuis, 2007b).

Six of the researchers in the research team visited different sites in pairs and conducted a total of 21focus-groupsessions, with 13 different groups of students. Seven of the groups met twice, five met only once, and one group ( S 6 Y 1) met three times. Separate focus-group discussions were conducted with first-years and fourth-years, except for one meeting ( S 6 Y 1&4 M 2) on Site 6, which combined first- and fourth-years. Discussions were prompted by the question: 'do human rights exist?' Conversation flowed easily, with researchers probing further issues as they arose.

In follow-up meetings, discussions were initiated by means of pre-selected scenarios. Four different scenarios drafted by the research team sketched fictitious events regarding diverse socio-cultural, gender and religious contexts, including possible human rights violations within an educational context. After reading the scenarios, participants responded to these in the order they chose, and without any specific probing by researchers.

To uphold ethical protocol in accordance with the hosting universities' policies, we liaised with relevant gatekeepers and stakeholders for permission to conduct research on the respective sites. We took care to uphold the dignity and privacy of our voluntary participants while gathering the data, and also in data management, analysis and dissemination practices.

The data used for this article includes the spoken text from focus-group discussions, which were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. For the purpose of this article, the authors analysed the data by means of discourse analyses, which provide the possibilities for exploring social interaction in relation to understandings of dignity, equality and freedom (see Leech & Onwuegbuzie, 2008). The focus-group data was firstly read as a whole, after which words and patterns of speech were selected and analysed in order to determine understandings and applications. Data was allowed to crystallise as it was brought into conversation with and examined in relation to our theoretical framework on dignity, equality and freedom as moral relations (values) and legal claims (rights) within vertical and horizontal applications. All data excerpts are quoted verbatim. The reference style for these quotes is as follows: S1Y2M1, where S refers to the site number (1 to 6), Y refers to the year group (first- or fourth-years) and M refers to the meeting number of a specific group (first or second meeting).

Participating student teachers' understandings of dignity, equality and freedom

In this section, we use a selection of the focus-group data to illustrate participants' understandings of dignity, equality and freedom and the social interaction resulting from it. Our analyses focus primarily on understandings of student teachers related to dignity, freedom and equality as internalised values (moral action) and as legal interests (rights) embedded in contexts characterised by power relations, poverty and marginalisation. We consider how human rights understandings are influenced and shaped by power relations and injustice, while examining how the understandings of student-teachers reflect and influence inter-nalisation and implementation of human rights and human rights values in vertical and horizontal applications.

Patterns of speech pointing to discourses on human rights as a legal construct and its vertical implementation included phrases and words such as constitution, bills and laws: "[Human rights exist] because we have a Constitution" (S2Y1M1) and " a human rights bill, a set of laws that tell you what human rights are" ( S 4 Y 4 M 1). Students see the role of the law as protecting the rights of humans, where, as one student said ".. .the law, it protects us and everyone..." ( S 3 Y 1 M 1), while another noted, ". the law is the thing that surrounds human rights and helps it..." ( S 4 Y 4 M 1) [sic]. From this perspective, the implementation of rights is understood as a function of and the responsibility of government, which has the power and authority to do so (S 4 Y 4a M 1; S 5 Y 1 M 1; S 6 Y 4 M 1 ).

Discussion of human rights as a normative and relational construct and its horizontal application, were constructed by means of patterns of speech or phrases such as responsibility, care, treat you fairly, compassion, ubuntu, iv sacrifice: Student teachers emphasising the normative and relational nature of human rights seem to be more inclined to describe human rights as both a legal interest and normative concept. This is illustrated in the following excerpts:

Everyone is so focused on: 'human rights, human rights, human rights'. No one says anything about responsibilities. I can have all the rights, but it is my responsibility to treat you fairly and to consider your rights as well. Everything is about: 'me, me, me', but I think, what can I do? How can I treat you fairly so that we are equal? ( S 4 Y 4 M 1 a). ...that compassion you have - that ubuntu in you - it supersedes everything, because you are acting in compassion to another human being, protecting their rights. Even if it is against the law. ( S 1 Y 4 M 1) [sic].

Students from the group S 1 Y 4 M 1 used phrases such as "when you do not only think of yourself.", "caring for another person", "sharing things", "compassion to another human being" and "helping others", which illustrate their understandings of human rights as a form of moral action. Personal responsibility towards the other, and specifically the marginalised other, is manifest as internalised values in a horizontal application, in which the dignity, equality and freedom of the other are primary concerns. This seems to be underpinned by understandings of human dignity and equality within a common human ontology: ". they are human. They need to be protected by human rights" ( S 1 Y 4 M 1).

Students argued that human rights need "a well-built foundation for us to step on [sic] and say, 'this is [these are] our rights, we are responsible for this'" ( S 5 Y 1 M 1). v A different group also referred to a 'foundation' and defined it as follows: "... Um, I think if we can start at the foundation, I mean -go all the way back to the morals, I mean - people with good values become good people." ( S 6 Y 4 M 1) [sic]. These students seem to understand the interaction between legal interests and moral action, since dignity, equality and freedom are viewed as both values and rights.

Participants related dignity to respect, but in contrast to the nature of the right to dignity in the Constitution and international human rights law, participants viewed respect as something based on what a person does - "the way they act, they live, they speak" - and that "you make the dignity when you make decisions about your actions ( S 1 Y 1a M 1):

I think when you talk about respect, it is when you respect the human dignity of someone. I think it is when you respect what he or she is doing; what he or she is willing to achieve in future [sic]. You can't respect a street kid although he or she deserves your respect. You can't just give respect.if you do something, you deserve respect.so respect, I will say, is all about the human dignity and respecting.myself and respecting each other ( S 1 Y 1a M 1).

The above indicates horizontal applications of the right to dignity in the light of the (non)internali-sation of dignity as a human rights value. It indicates that although the student knows everyone "deserves your respect" (knowledge), this realisation is not internalised as a normative concept to such an extent that the human dignity of every person is indeed respected (internalisation and implementation).

Discourse around socio-economic inequality emphasised the relation between power, authority, money and the non-realisation of human rights. Phrases pointing to socio-economic inequality included power, money, monetary basis, powerless, scared. The data seems to indicate that participants understand inequality as a result of people with authority or power, violating and abusing human rights. Examples were given of lecturers and campus authorities violating students' rights (s4y4am1; s4y4bm1), police violating the rights of the people (s2y1m1) and government officials abusing their positions (s4y4am1).

Below reference is made to the (non)realisation of socio-economic rights. The first quote refers to vertical application, and the second, to horizontal application:

I think the government should build houses in the rural area because they live in shacks ( S 1 Y 1 M 1b). It [human rights] is governed by a monetary basis because people with power and money, they stand up quickly and say, I know my rights, [while] people that don't have money, they are like scared to say, 'I have the rights to education; I have, you know. They don't take the power because they are actually powerless. That's how I feel ( S 5 Y 1 M 1). vi

Although some participants acknowledged the need for certain agency in order to make human rights an experienced reality (defined as lived experiences of the implementation and the internalisation of human rights and human rights values), they nonetheless hold the view that money (as commodity) and power provide such agency:

...since I am poor, someone will violate my rights. Where I grew up, if someone violate[d] my human rights, I would not have the means to bring that person to book. But if someone has money, if they are rich, they would be able to get lawyers and bring me to book if I violate their rights ( S 1 Y 4 M 1) [sic]. vii

The influence of poverty and inequality on the individual's right to education, dignity, equality and the freedom to choose to exercise those rights is explained by the following student:

...you talk about the right to education, but what about the learners that really stay far away from school and cannot get to school and also do not have the finances to support them [selves]; if that person's human rights are taken away, how can you say in that situation that they have the responsibility to take ownership of the right? ( S 3 Y 4 M 1). viii

Student teachers' understandings of human rights are shaped by power relations and injustices to the extent that they see human rights as merely "a constitutional document that is not respected...that is leaving a gap between it [human rights] and responsibilities" ( S 5 Y 1 M 1) and "just a word...there to decorate a room, decorate the Constitution [sic]" (S5Y1M1). Phrases pointing to powerlessness such as "...they are out to get you" and "...is it only what would be preferable for other people" also featured when it came to discussing freedom, specifically freedom of speech and expression:

Freedom of speech, the greatest...I almost said something rude; it is one of the things that [is] contradicted the most. Because they say it is your freedom of speech, but the moment you say something they are out to get you ( S 3 Y 4 M 2) [sic]. ix Freedom of expression...is it freedom of expression of everything you want to express, or is it only what would be preferable for other people? ( S 4 Y 4 M 2).

In our discussion to follow, we bring the data in conversation with our proposed theoretical framework in an attempt to answer the question: 'could human rights literacy as understandings of dignity, equality and freedom as both rights (legal claims) and internalised values within horizontal and vertical relations aid the continual process of rights-based education and transformative action towards an open and democratic society?'

Data analyses focused on the different ways in which student teachers understand dignity, freedom and equality as internalised values and as legal interests within horizontal and vertical applications, and how their understandings are shaped and influenced by power relations, inequality and injustice.

In terms of understandings related to dignity, equality and freedom as both legal interests (rights) and values (moral action), participants either understand human rights as legal interests, or, in relation to values such as caring, ubuntu, respect, human dignity and equality. However, student-teachers who focused more on dignity, equality and freedom as values or moral constructs, were also more inclined to view human rights as legal constructs, whereas those who emphasised a legal understanding were less inclined to include references to moral action. Understandings related to dignity, equality and freedom as legal claims primarily focused on the vertical implementation and the role of government in this regard. From this perspective, government and state organs are responsible for the realisation and implementation of human rights.

Understandings relating to the internalisation of these rights as values manifesting within horizontal, interpersonal relations mainly focused on dignity and equality. Student teachers relate dignity and equality to the values of respect, care, compassion and responsibility. Within this view, focus is placed on the role of human rights as internalised values within horizontal interpersonal applications. It appears that the internalisation of the values of dignity and equality leading to the implementation of the right to dignity and equality, is supported by student teachers' understanding of a common human ontology.

Understandings of dignity and equality as internalised moral values would contribute to rights-based education as a continual, unconditional reception of others within caring and compassionate relations (see Noddings, 2007). These understandings focus on specific, (inter)personal and concrete experiences of human rights within teaching and learning contexts, towards transformative action and humanising practices. It transcends knowledge of rights as laws and legal claims towards solidarity and caring (moral action).

Our findings further indicate that student teachers understand the interrelatedness of equality and dignity in terms of the socio-economic (non)-realisation of rights. Participants in this study expressed feelings of powerlessness. This revealed how class, money and position within the South African context influence implementation and in-ternalisation of human rights and human rights values, and how this manifests in horizontal and vertical applications. The realities of the South African context were emphasised during discussions on equality/inequality and dignity. Student teachers seem to understand dignity, equality and freedom against the background of the money/power-agency relation, highlighting socioeconomic inequalities, and the resultant loss of dignity.

Socio-economic inequality and the resultant loss of dignity and (non)realisation of rights influence the understandings and applications of human rights as both rights and values in vertical and horizontal applications: although student-teachers understand dignity, equality and freedom within a common human ontology, power relations and injustice influence interpersonal relations and disrupt understandings of dignity, equality and freedom. Dignity is equated to 'good' human action, equality is influenced by power and money, and freedom of speech and expression are limited to "what would be preferable for other people" ( S 4y4 M 2). This indicates understandings that equality, dignity and freedom are only applicable to those who meet certain requirements or norms, be these social or moral; or only amongst those who have power and money.

Our findings in this regard correlate strongly with what Freire (1993:40) described as the perception that "having" is a condition of "being", a worldview which could have devastating consequences for the continual movement towards rights-based education, transformative action and open and democratic societies. The influence thereof on relations with different others (who do not possess equal power or money) will inevitably result in marginalisation. The facilitation of human rights literacy towards the continual process of becoming an open and democratic society is, therefore, even more important. As students gain informed understandings of dignity, equality and freedom as rights and values, marginalisation - as a social construction reflecting power relations -needs to be questioned critically as a dehumanising practice (Dale & Hyslop-Margison, 2010). Student teachers need to understand that the representation of others (or themselves) as "less human" is "partial, interested and potentially oppressive" (Elssworth, 1989:324).

There are many variants within human rights education that may and ought to influence human rights literacy and the movement towards rights-based education and transformative action. Most scholars agree that human rights education, enabling human rights literacy, should include both the content and the processes related to human rights (Bajaj, 2011; Roux, 2010). Although many approaches to human rights education focus on a universal and global stance to human rights in education and rights-based education, scholars have recently also turned towards distinguishing human rights approaches in education from the global towards the local. Different societies, and particular contexts, result in a difference in emphasis on a given set of rights, such as socio-economic rights and/or political and civil rights (Bajaj, 2011).

Our findings from this project clearly indicate a need to focus on socio-economic rights and social and restorative justice in the South African context. To this end, Heyns (2006:3) argues that human rights should be understood in terms of a "struggle approach". This approach emphasises experiences of injustice (such as the non-realisation of socioeconomic rights) as the starting point of understanding human rights or, in the context of our article, understanding dignity, equality and freedom. Following a 'struggle approach' to rights-based education therefore, would require addressing the need for the realisation of socio-economic rights, social justice and restoration within the South African education context.

We argue that a suitable approach for facilitating human rights literacy in the South African context would be Human Rights Education for Transformative Action (Bajaj, 2011). Such an approach would focus on radical action towards inclusion, social justice and restoration, revealing elements of critical theory. It correlates with the conception of human rights as the aspirations of the oppressed and aids understandings of human rights within a "struggle approach" (Bajaj, 2011; Dem-bour, 2010; Heyns, 2006:3).

Thus, we argue that following a Human Rights Education for Transformative Action approach facilitates human rights literacy and emphasises the processes and consequences of human rights implemented both vertically and horizontally, as well as the internalisation of human rights and human rights values. The approach requires an analysis of historical and present conditions, the gap between the guarantee of human rights and realities, and actual power relations that sustain this gap. Such an approach would advocate for collective action in society, schools and the classroom. It requires teachers to enact responsibility for the freedom, dignity and equality of all the children in a classroom through caring and humanising practices and would become possible when human agency and solidarity within open and democratic societies are actively promoted (Bajaj, 2011). In focusing on specific, personal and concrete experiences of human rights violations, the processes and consequences of non-applications of human rights can be both taught and learnt. Exploring personal experiences of the realisation and non-realisation of human rights opens up possibilities for teacher and learner to be received as a subject and not an object, and ultimately to be cared for as someone with equal dignity and worth (Noddings, 2007).

Conclusion and Recommendation

Human rights literacy could aid rights-based education and transformative action towards an open and democratic society, if it moves away from teaching-learning knowledge about human rights, towards acting collectively in solidarity with the marginalised towards a humane society through humanising educational practise (see Bajaj, 2011; Freire, 1993). Within the South African context, education as a transformative humanising practice of freedom ought to focus on teaching-learning, towards a sense of critical consciousness shared by both teachers and children, resulting in the humanisation and transformation of the world they share (Freire, 1993).

Human Rights Education for Transformative Action within a "struggle approach" (Heyns, 2006:3) could aid both the processes of facilitating human rights literacy in teacher training and in teaching-learning, as student teachers will implement their understandings of dignity, equality and freedom in rights-based education. To reach this aim, tertiary institutions need to facilitate human rights literacy as involving understandings of dignity, equality and freedom as both rights (legal claims) and values (normative relations), with horizontal and vertical applications, within the South African socio-political and economic context. This would include knowledge about human rights and understandings of the processes, namely the influence of power relations, historic and on-going poverty and marginalisation on vertical and horizontal applications and the consequences of human rights in terms of the (non)realisation of equality, dignity and freedom.

To this end, working actively from a "struggle approach" (Heyns, 2006:3) towards humanising and understanding human rights within a common human ontology by means of Human Rights Education for Transformative Action, will not only afford student-teachers the opportunity to question marginalisation as a social construct, but likewise with the opportunity to conceive their own responsibility in reconstructing and humanising society (Dale & Hyslop-Margison, 2010).


The research embodied in this article has been conducted within the realm of a research project funded by the National Research Foundation of South Africa. The authors wish to acknowledge and thank the Human Rights Literacy research team for collaboration in planning and conducting the research.

i . Yacoob made this statement during his keynote address at the Annual North-West University Human Rights Conference in Vanderbijlpark in 2014. See also S v. Makwanyane 1995 (3) SA 391 (CC) para 230 and 305, where it is noted that constitutional rights are for the protection of everyone, including the "weak, poor and vulnerable".

ii . The South African Schools Act, No 84 (RSA, 1996c), the National Education Policy Act 1996, Act No. 27 of 1996 (RSA, 1996b), White Paper 6 on Inclusive Education (DoE, 2001a), the Manifesto on Values, Education and Democracy (DoE, 2001b), the Guidelines for Inclusive Learning Programmes (DoE, RSA, 2005), the Strategy for Racial Integration (DoE, RSA, 2006) and the Bill of Responsibilities for the Youth of South Africa (DoE, RSA, 2008).

iii . The restructuring of higher education in 2001-2007 aimed to break down apartheid's racial divides, unifying the fragmented systems inherited from the previous dispensation, and eradicating the in equalities and distortions of the inherited systems (Wyngaard & Kapp, 2004). In terms of organisational culture and ethos, the former 'white' universities were perceived as elitist and colonial, while their merger partners were regarded as a place of teaching and learning for the historically disadvantaged - often associated with political and economic oppression.

iv . The term ubuntu is a Southern African concept that refers to 'human-ness', translated as 'humanity towards others' and relating to a belief that all humanity is connected by a universal bond. Also translated as 'people are people through other people' (Nguni) or, from an isiXhosa proverb:' 'umuntungumuntungabantu ' as 'a person is a person through his/her relationship with others'. See Gade (2011:303-322) for a historical development of written discourses on Ubuntu.

v . Verbatim quotation was edited for the publication.

vi . Verbatim quotation was edited for the publication.

vii . Verbatim quotation was edited for the publication.

viii . Verbatim quotation was edited for the publication.

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One to Grow On / Dignity in the Classroom

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.css-191dech{margin-top:16px;margin-bottom:16px;display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;} .css-12z0wuy{margin-right:8px;} • .css-16w6vyg{margin:0;font-family:'Poppins',sans-serif;font-weight:400;font-size:0.875rem;line-height:1.43;font-size:1rem;font-weight:400;line-height:1.625rem;letter-spacing:0.2px;} 1 Gates, V. (2017, September 14). My personalized learning approach isn't about tech. It's about dignity. EdSurge . Retrieved from www.edsurge.com/news/2017-09-14-my-personalized-learning-approach-isn-t-about-tech-it-s-about-dignity

how to promote human dignity as a student essay

Carol Ann Tomlinson  is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development. The author of more than 300 publications, she works throughout the United States and internationally with educators who want to create classrooms that are more responsive to a broad range of learners.

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Dignity and Respect in the Classroom

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Dear Diane,

I’ll be in Chicago when you get this letter. But I’m writing it a week before—while news from Egypt is still up in the air, but democracy seems a less likely outcome every day.** But those who were involved had an experience, I suspect, that has forever changed them. If they survived, they have a sense of dignity, of having stood up to a bully and spoken their minds.

Somewhere recently I read an article which claimed that a study done across national borders showed that people, when offered liberty, freedom, and dignity as choices, picked dignity as the thing they wanted most. I thought that was interesting. Being treated with dignity is, I suspect, part of our natural aspiration as humans. And while it can be crushed, it can also be restored. My experience in schools that placed faculty, family, and student dignity above all else was reassuring. Students came to us without expecting that this was ever likely to be found in schools; families who had similar experiences at being disregarded, patronized, talked down to, and shut out of their children’s school lives responded when schools changed, too. Not immediately, but over time.

The same is true for the adults who work in a school—from custodians to secretaries to paraprofessionals and teachers. And principals.

I came into teaching in the early 1960s as a substitute teacher in South Side Chicago’s K-8 schools. Then I became a kindergarten teacher—a position I held for many years. From the very moment I began the journey I was struck by the ways in which I was disrespected, as though that was the norm.

Getting my license was conducted with a disrespect I had literally never before experienced. Some said: “It’s as though they think we are 5-year-olds.” But I hadn’t been so badly treated even as a 5-year-old. Sometimes I got the feeling that “they” were trying to weed out those who found the process too offensive—that this was a screening device of sorts. But I doubt it. I’ve written about this many times because it came as such a shock. It included everything from the language used to the tone of voice. In 1962—at the age of 31—I expected strangers to call me Mrs. Meier, but the voice that announced the school where I was to sub always referred to me as Debby! Not even Deborah.

I witnessed the way teachers were treated in many schools and realized soon that I could not remain in the field if I was faced with this day after day and if my future depended on responding “appropriately” to such rudeness. I was mostly lucky at finding principals who treated me differently, perhaps because of my age and background, because some were quite typical in the way they addressed my colleagues. And parents. And, of course, students.

Nor did the outside world seem to take my decision to teach seriously. My friends and family were dismayed, viewing the teaching of the young as something to which women once aspired because there was nothing better in sight. But, as the dean of education at Temple University said to me: “Why do we bother to educate people like you if you’re going to end up as kindergarten teachers?” When I got a MacArthur Fellowship in 1987, reporters said the same thing: “Now that you have this award, what will you go on to do in the future?” “Teach,” I replied, “of course.” But they found that inconceivable.

It may have been slightly more acceptable to teach older children, especially a real academic discipline in high school. (Although they, too, were assumed to be chosen from those who couldn’t get a job on a postsecondary level. A high school history teacher wasn’t assumed to belong to the academic world of historians, for example, even though many had the same credentials as their college colleagues.)

It was only with the coming of unions—rather late in the game—that being a teacher didn’t suggest that one was, more or less, a glorified babysitter, governess, etc. It hadn’t been long since teachers were expected to behave themselves according to 19th Century norms before, during, and after school hours. Married women couldn’t teach in St. Louis until about the time I began teaching. Pregnant women were required to quit when their pregnancy “showed.” Insubordination was the No. 1 sin a teacher could commit, even with unions to back him (usually her) up.

We hid in our classrooms, kept an eye out for the principal when escorting children to the bathroom, and never asked for help for fear it would look like you were incompetent.

I cared a lot about kids. Yes, yes, “children first.” But I believed then as now that young people should not be surrounded by fearful, timid, obedient adults. They needed to witness adulthood as something worthy of aspiring to. They needed to be surrounded by adults who enjoyed adult company, who took social and intellectual pleasure amongst adults, and who engaged in the kind of adult conversation—dialogue—at which they, too, were working to become expert.

I cringed when my colleagues spoke about the principal as though she were a mother figure, trying to assess her every mood—when best to ask a favor, when best to hide. I wished we’d not become such experts at the polite lie, the polite smile when treated as we did not deserve, and all the other habits teachers in K-6 schools had developed to protect themselves. Children admire power. I do, too. To have to disguise that was dismaying and explained perhaps why “control” becomes such a holy grail within the classroom—the only place where many teachers could act grown-up!

It’s this culture that I was determined to change; and when I became a director or school principal, whether K-5 or 7-12, I was determined to create a school which treated everyone as I would want to be treated. I think we came close to doing so at Central Park East I, at the Central Park East Secondary School, and at Mission Hill in Boston. But it’s getting harder, not easier, to do so these days.

Enough for now. No, “children first” is not what I want to see happen—but rather a setting in which everyone’s self-respect comes first.

** EDITOR’s NOTE: Events in Egypt changed dramatically after Deborah Meier submitted this piece.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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Developing and Assessing Respect for Human Dignity in College Students

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