Curriculum Opinion

Three Perspectives on Teaching the UN

September 28, 2015 6 min read
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This month, the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly opened with the historic announcement that its Member States were adopting 17 ambitious Sustainable Development Goals. Despite the continuing influence of this organization around the world, it is not studied in most American classrooms. Laurence Peters, Associate Professor of Education at Johns Hopkins University, shares engaging ways to teach about the UN.

by guest blogger Laurence Peters

Next month, the UN turns 70 years of age—yet it is doubtful that many schools will celebrate UN day or teacher will make a point of reminding students about the UN’s impressive record over those three score and ten years to keep the world safe from a major world wide conflict. While we can debate why the UN brand no longer excites the news media the way it once did—a bloated bureaucracy, a complicated slow process of deliberation, concerns about sovereignty—it is undeniable that the UN’s popularity has not waned among the young, with 73 percent of young people (18-29) still holding a positive opinion of the UN, as opposed to about half (49%) of those ages 50 and up. One of the reasons for the UN’s popularity among youth may be due to the fact that many of our politicians have refused to even acknowledge global challenges like climate change and have been slow to recognize the need for multilateral rather than unilateral solutions on a whole host of issues from the refugee crisis to rising global inequality.

Challenge of Teaching the UN
The advent of the 70th anniversary of the UN’s founding should allow all teachers, regardless of subject area to do more to recognize the importance of the UN. Part of the challenge in teaching about it is that we find it difficult to capture the organization’s varied roles: resolving global conflict; a humanitarian agency addressing hunger, disease, and poverty; a world think tank helping to build consensus around how we address climate change; enforcer of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights working to end slavery and human trafficking; and the World Court capable of bringing even heads of state to justice for crimes like genocide.

Where to Begin

Given this multiplicity of roles a good question arises as to how to begin? Simulations provide an excellent way into the teaching about the UN as they are both fun, interactive, and help to make the work of the UN relevant to students’ lives. The United Nations Global Classrooms Project has teacher lesson plans, activity guides, and even a Model UN app for your phone providing “step-by-step tools to engage your classroom with the vital work of the UN. Real-life examples are used to explore today’s most pressing issues.” There are lesson plans on human rights as well as Common Core aligned curriculum that provides step-by-step lesson plans including an introduction to the United Nations and a simulation of the Security Council.

World History Connections
Another entry point is through world history. Our tendency is to teach the UN as a modern 20th century invention—more or less as FDR’s legacy and a nice bookend to World War 2. However as we noted above, the UN is more than just a way of resolving international conflicts, it can do much more, as a form of world governance (not government) that could address refugee crises, pandemics, fraudulent elections, human rights abuses, etc.

To properly comprehend this role, it is necessary to understand at least 2,000 years of the cosmopolitan thought that we have a duty to care for one another regardless of where we were born or the color of our skin. Key figures in this drama include Diogenes of Scope who, when asked where he was from replied he was a citizen of the world. This was a subversive, even radical, idea for the Ancient Athenians whose entire identity was place based and remains so to this day. So the idea of global citizenship has traveled underground for a large amount of time, appearing within the Stoic philosophy but then disappearing from view until Kant, who established human beings as citizens of particular countries and (as he writes in Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch) that we both have “common possession of the surface of the earth, where, as a globe, they cannot infinitely disperse and hence must finally tolerate the presence of each other. Originally, no one had more right than another to a particular part of the earth.” President Woodrow Wilson was greatly influenced by Kant and first came up with the League of Nations which would serve as a way for states collectively to guarantee peace.

Awareness of this tradition can help students understand that sovereignty need not be conceived as a zero sum game and that they are connected both to the UN as a global citizen and by extension to the world community as a whole. Facebook, Instagram, video, music, and Skype know no international boundaries, and neither do challenges such as climate change, conflict, poverty, and disease. In recognition of this the UN invited young people to take part in a global survey, Vote My World, on the new list of Sustainable Development Goals which will replace the highly successful Millennium Development Goals this year. One of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals in education connects directly to the need for students to develop the understanding, skills, and values required to cooperate in resolving the interconnected challenges of the 21st century—a concept called global citizenship education.

A third entry point is through the history of religion and how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) reflects the best teachings from each of the major faith traditions, including Confucianism. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the most translated and widely published document in the world, “translated into more than 300 languages and dialects: from Abkhaz to Zulu.” However, according to a recent report only 22 states even mention the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in their social studies curriculum frameworks and few go beyond a brief mention of the UN’s creation.

Unlike the UN Charter which was largely the creation of two of the “big five” countries who currently sit on the Security Council, the US and the UK, the UDHR was only made possible through the tireless work of international non-governmental organizations and the support they found from the largely disenfranchised and, at the time of its creation, largely colonized third world. The story is well told in A World Made New, by Mary Ann Glendon. Studying the masterful way former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped bring this world historical document into existence, can form the basis of an excellent AP history class. But before that elevated pinnacle is reached, all students need a thorough grounding in human rights and their importance world wide—particularly the plight of girls denied an equal education as well as the continuing realities of slavery, human trafficking, and child soldiers. There are plenty of well-organized and high-quality websites that provide teachers with materials on these issues for all grades and subject areas. A group called the Advocates, manages a page which contains many resources.

Once we begin to see the UN not as a monolithic and impenetrable bureaucracy, but as a dynamic and very human organization, deeply rooted in our past, we can begin to prepare students for their challenging global futures.

Laurence Peters is the author of The United Nations, History and Core Ideas and you can read more about the book by going to his website.

On Tuesday, September 29, tune in to AsiaSociety.org/Live at 11:30am E.T. for a free live video webcast of Asia Society’s roundtable dialogue on global citizenship education with world leaders including Mr. Svein Østtveit, Director of the Executive Office of the Education Sector at UNESCO’s Headquarters. Learn more.

Connect with Laurence and Heather on Twitter.

Photo credit: Heather Singmaster.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning 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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