The scars from nearly two decades of military rule still distort relationships in Chile's classrooms, even though an elected government replaced the military regime four years ago. Today, thanks largely to the persistence of human-rights activists and a nucleus of committed teachers, the system is beginning to change.
"Human rights is an issue that is deeply affected by people's own personal histories," said Claudia Duenas, a young teacher working with the Interdisciplinary Program for Studies in Education (PIEE), an educational research institute.
PIEE has a staff of four, which has been using workshops with teachers and other educators to bring human rights into the classroom.
"We find that our workshops bring together teachers who were fired for opposing the military regime, teachers who bit their tongues and said nothing, and people who worked with the regime, spying on their colleagues. Some teachers cry, others express terrible guilt, still others see themselves as heroes," said Claudia Duenas.
After the 1973 coup, tens of thousands of Chileans were arbitrarily arrested and tortured. Many died or were forced into exile, while rights organisations documented more than a thousand cases of people who disappeared after arrest. The Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, which investigated human-rights violations during the military government, concluded that lack of education on the issue contributed to the violence unleashed by the coup and that education was crucial to ensuring that such extreme brutality did not happen again.
Teachers complain that they spend as much as a quarter of class time on discipline. Pupils are hit, threatened and coerced and, according to a United Nations' study, almost two-thirds of primary children are physically abused at home.
"What good is teaching the Declaration of the Rights of Children, then sending students home to a beating?" Claudia Duenas said. "Our approach views human rights as a prism that allows people to question their reality and search for solutions within an ethical framework."
The 60-hour workshops use games, dance, movement and physical exercise together with conversation to help resolve conflict and to engender tolerance and respect. They begin with the participants defining what human rights and related concepts mean to them. The workshop leaders provide further elements for analysis, looking at how what goes on in the classroom contrasts with human-rights theory. The participants then write a report suggesting how these ideas and principles can be applied to the curriculum and a school's culture.
PIEE is preparing guides for literature, philosophy and history classes, while later this month the National Corporation for Reparation and Reconciliation will launch a series of texts and booklets. These materials include cue cards, aimed at getting workshop discussions started. Each one contains a question such as: "What do human rights mean to you? Do you think the rights of one group can annul those of another? How do you feel when you enter your school?"