HL90 EY: Human Rights and Humanitarianism

Now that registration period is open, do you know what courses you’ll be taking this fall? We’ve got lots of great HL90 seminars this year, including Yan Slobodkin’s Human Rights and Humanitarianism, which meets Wednesdays, 12:45-2:45.

What inspired you to teach this class?

The past few years have given us plenty of opportunity to ponder the question of why and how we care – or not – for other people. All too often, we see the coexistence of the language of human rights and humanitarianism with the most appalling cruelty, and this strikes me as an important problem to explore. Appeals to humanity and rights carry a heavy load, humanitarianism as the first duty of social beings and human rights the last line of defense. But what exactly are human rights and humanitarianism? How effective are they at preventing suffering? What happens when they fail? Are there better ways to safeguard human dignity and prevent suffering? These are the questions this course will consider.

What’s a text you’re excited to share with students?

Can I choose two? “Killing a Chinese Mandarin” by the historian Carlo Ginzburg is one of my favorite essays. It’s a beautiful thought experiment exploring the moral implications of distance in space and time, asking what we owe people who are far away from us – perhaps a mandarin in China, or people who lived thousands of years ago, or those not yet born who will live in a world shaped by our decisions. Sindiwe Magona’s novel “Mother to Mother,” on the other hand, is grounded in a particular time and place, the South African township of Gugulethu during the tumultuous end of state apartheid in South Africa. For those living through such moments, the abstract reflections of people like Ginzburg are overwhelmed by the urgency of the moment. Part of what this course seeks to do is explore this distance between the theory and practice of care.

What’s something surprising students might not know about this topic?

What’s so interesting to me about this topic is how ideas that can seem timeless in fact changed through history. Being called a humanitarian today is taken as an obvious compliment, but in the 19th century it was often used as an insult for a silly, naïve person who let emotion overpower reason. The myriad ways these concepts were deployed can help us better understand how they function in our own world.

How can students learn more?

You can visit the course Canvas page, attend the HL90 seminar preview event on August 23rd, or get in touch over email.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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