(Re)visioning Human Rights, Democracy and the Liberal Arts

Kahn Institute Long-Term Project, 2023-24


Organizing Fellows

Loretta Ross, Study of Women and Gender
Andrea Stone, English Language and Literature
Carrie Cuthbert, Project Advisor and Research Associate, Study of Women and Gender


Institutions of higher education are uniquely situated to promote human rights values and principles through teaching, research, policies, practices, programming, and campus life. While a human rights lens is essential to equip students to address the most complex issues facing humanity, human rights education in the United States is anemic, including among liberal arts colleges.

The time is right to bring robust human rights education to the Five College Consortium. The battle between democracy and authoritarianism is a defining issue of our time, playing out globally and within the United States. Given the strong correlation between democracy as a form of government and the protection and realization of human rights, human rights institutions, laws, standards, movements—and education—play a vital role in this landscape, where an array of actors are needed to claim and safeguard rights and address the sovereignty, legal, institutional, and humanitarian issues at play.

In the United States, the Trump presidency unleashed a rising tide of anti-democratic and authoritarian forces at all levels of government and society. In 2021, for the first time, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance included the United States in its list of “backsliding democracies”. Despite the central role of human rights in the geopolitical landscape and the future of democracies, few small liberal arts undergraduate institutions in the United States offer dedicated human rights programs or courses of study. A 2018 report submitted by U.S. educators to a United Nations committee found that “[T]he U.S. is not keeping up with international standards with respect to human rights education.”

Anchored in Smith College’s mission to develop “engaged global citizens and leaders to address society’s challenges”, and building on the work of the College’s Year on Democracies 2021–2022, we envision a project that serves as an unbounded space for developing new research, teaching and practice models at the intersection of liberal arts education, human rights, and the future of democracies. The project will offer a generative space to identify avenues of inquiry and research questions, and to explore, collaborate and experiment across and between disciplines.

We invite participants in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM to join us in exploring questions about the role of liberal arts education in the future of human rights and democracies. How might a human rights lens shift our understanding and teaching of history; movements for justice and liberation; scientific research; business; art, architecture and culture; philosophy; journalism; religion? How might it inform and address the impacts of rising anti-democracy forces on academic freedom, free speech, and campus safety?

We’re also interested in questions around what a human rights lens can offer U.S. movement leaders, policymakers, artists, scientists, and educators when it comes to solving the most pressing issues of our time. And we’re also interested in exploring what human rights education methodologies have to offer faculty and students in a small liberal arts environment in the United States.

Because the human rights framework not only addresses violations but also provides a blueprint for positive action—what we’re working for—it points us toward questions of what’s possible. What would animate a future where everyone’s human rights are realized? What shape might everything from narrative and storytelling, the built environment, science and medicine, arts and culture, international relations, and social movements take in such an imagined future? Could human rights be the basis of a post-liberal democracy future?

In considering all of these questions, we will address a full spectrum of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights as well as community and group rights. Through this year-long project we aim to lay the foundation for an Institute for Human Rights and Democracy at Smith. 

The project is open to a select number of paid student fellows. Applications are due February 21, 2023.

Faculty Fellows*

Kuukuwa Andam, African Studies
Shannon Audley, Education and Child Study
Şebnem Baran, Film and Media Studies
Alexis Callender, Art
Shinyoung Cho, Computer Science
Rachel Conrad, Hampshire College, Childhood Studies
Lauren Duncan, Psychology
Zümray Kutlu, Government
David Mednicoff, UMass-Amherst, Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, School of Public Policy
EJ Seibert, Associate Director, Disability Services


*as of 12.07.2022