John Humphrey’s Speech To The Students Of Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School: Will The Kids Be Alright?

By Isabel Plaa

John Humphrey’s speech “Talk to the Students of Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School” is a call to action to youth to understand the importance of keeping peace through the notion of a universal set of human rights. His speech is based on his absolute conviction that everyone deserves the right to be treated equally and that youth had an important role to play. Humphrey reminded the students that they would be the ones creating the future. However, let us not forget that his audience members were high school students and that this undertaking is not as simple as it sounds.

Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School opened its doors in the 1970’s for both English and French speaking West Islanders[1]. In the 1980’s it became an English school that remained Catholic until 1998, when Quebec’s Catholic and Protestant schools were replaced with a secular system[2]. Why was Humphrey asked to educate the students of this school in particular? Although Humphrey was not a strongly religious man himself[3], it was important for him to spread the message about educating oneself about rights and how the Declaration of Human Rights would play into the students’ lives in the future.

The Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948. According to Humphrey, the document represents an “international consensuses regarding those basic human rights and fundamental freedoms without which there can be no human dignity and which belong to everyone without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”.

On September 24th 1982, Humphrey began his speech to the students of PCHS by stating that “there is be no peace unless there is also respect for human rights.” In doing so, he was informing the PCHS students about the absolute importance of knowing ones rights and striving for peace. Without the hope for peace, Humphrey argued, society would cease to function. He then went on to explain to the students that they should “learn (the Declaration) by heart” in order for the students to understand that without respect and without peace, there can be no rights.

However, Humphrey remains vague throughout his speech as he advocates for the students to learn about their rights but refrains from providing practical guidance. How can they put the theory into practice if they do not know where the theory applies? Building Classroom Discipline discusses educational scholar Fred Jone’s main strategy, which is “keep[ing] students actively and purposefully involved in lessons and enable them to follow directions of their own.” [4] Such interaction is clearly missing throughout this speech.

Humphrey emphasized throughout the speech the significance of the students’ roles in the future of society. He states, “The reason I am emphasizing the connection between human rights and peace is because your generation has a greater interest in the [connection] of peace between nations then any other generation that has ever served on this planet.” Humphrey began his call to action regarding the future of society by informing them on their rights and the absolute necessity for them to understand what the Declaration of Human Rights could do for the world. Humphrey stresses this point throughout this speech because he wants the future citizens to understand that “where there are rights there are also duties”.

The Declaration of Human Rights created a customary law through which all states are united. In creating this “customary law of nations”, the Declaration has enabled violations to rights to be brought forward to the General Assembly. Humphrey’s speech to the students of PCHS stresses that their voice is protected as a result of these customary precedents.  Even though the Declaration is not bound absolutely in law, it is proof that international organization and agreement is more than possible. Humphrey acknowledges in his speech that though the world is not perfect, without striving for peace and the respect towards it, it will not have a future.

Yet, the idea that these students are the ones forming the future is a big jump. Throughout the speech there is a lack of clarification about what Humphrey means by “voice”, “respect” and “rights”. Students do not witness much politics during their education, and if they do, it is very generalized. There is also a gap between what the students can do (because it is their right) but what about after that? Educational researcher H.C. Edwards discusses in his book Classroom Discipline and Management that students are allowed freedom, but they are “expected to assume responsibility for what they do [or say][5]”. But Humphrey does not mention this. There is a lack of information in this speech on where and how these rights and freedoms apply to the kids. Does it apply when Sally hits Bobby?

John Humphrey’s speech to the students of Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School is a vague call to action to youth. He sees them as the future and argues that they need to strive for respect and for peace in order to have a peaceful society. He does not tell them how to apply this theory in practice but declares only that the students will inherit the future and will be faced with many more challenges. Humphrey concludes that if they keep some “dedicated, faith and hard work”, their work will give the generation after them a future worth working towards. While this represents a heavy responsibility, the spirit Humphrey’s speech is in the right place. He understands that the next generations need to be educated on topics such as human rights, but there is a gap between the “do” and the “how”.

[1] “Our History.” Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School.Feb. 22, 2016.

[2] Bordonaro,Tino. Lecture. Policy Issues In Quebec Education. McGill University, Oct. 29th 2014

[3] Hobbins, A. J. “Guest Lecture on John Humphrey.” Lecture. Topics In Canadian Political History Human Rights In Canada: A Rights Revolution? McGill University, Montreal, Feb. 1, 2016.

[4] Charles. Building Classroom Discipline; Fred Jones On Keeping Students Willingly Engaged in Learning p.138-155.

[5] Edwards. Classroom Discipline and Management: Logical Consequences: Rudolf Dreikurs. 24.


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