Education Opinion

Lessons from Nelson Mandela

By John Wilson — December 10, 2013 3 min read
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Alan Blankstein, founder and president of the HOPE Foundation, shares some powerful thoughts about Nelson Mandela in this guest blog.

Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama will join millions to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela today and attempt to capture the essence of his greatness. Arne Duncan began the week with this quote from the extraordinary world leader: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world,” and indeed Mandela did. When asked to boil the essence of the man by John Anderson this week, Maya Angelou did not hesitate: " He had enough courage to stand up and say ‘I am one’... to say I am a person who dares to care for other human beings... Courage is the number one virtue without which you can’t practice any of the others.” In the award-winning Failure Is Not an Option, I drew from Angelou, Mandela, our Honorary Chair Arch Bishop Tutu, and other great leaders across time to decipher the essence of “Courage” and return it to those who “care for other human beings” as part of their profession -- educators. Thus Mandela’s passing reminds us of this greatness within, distilled in these five axioms:

1. Getting to your core -- clarifying as leaders and stewards of our children’s future who you are and why you have endeavored education as your life’s work. Mandela made his quest for social equity clear in his famous trial of 1964: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” What is at your core?

2. Assuring Constancy of purpose -- following closely with the first axiom, this allows sway in strategy but not in mission. After the killing of 69 innocent countrymen at Sharpville township in 1960, Mandela led the ANC on a new road to armed insurrection. He later forswore violence and explained that violence “was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.” So whether we use Common Core, STAR, Project-Based Learning or the latest tech as our strategy, it is essential to hold tight to our vision and mission that defines us and success with our students.

3. Create organizational meaning -- Incoherence and multiple, even competing priorities, are challenges for educators today. Likewise, Mandela had many competing interests and voices to take into consideration as he and his team formulated their focused strategy for advancing their cause of freedom. As Arch Bishop Tutu shared with me, quiet and reflective time -- even while under perilous fire -- is essential to long-term success.

4. Facing the facts and your fears -- The common competitor to this axiom is hubris and emotion. Few believed that South Africa would avoid what ArchBishop Tutu recently referred to as a “Blood bath” (invitational symposium October 8, 2013; Capetown, S.A) following the collapse of Apartheid. Yet in 2007, when asked about forgiving his captors, Mandela replied: “Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.” The facts were clear to him as was the strategy for moving forward. How and when do school leaders clarify what are those vital facts are and how then to best proceed?

5. Creating sustainable relationships -- Many of our politicians divisively use education as a tool for professional advancement; and some corporations see it as an industry to tap. Mandela, by contrast valued education to the point of helping from “Robbin Island University” in which prisoners taught one another various skills and languages including Afrikaans -- the languge of their captors. When his lawyer first visited him in prison, Mandela shocked the eight guards around him by introducing each by name and referring to them as “my guard of honor.” His long term vision led him to invite one of those guards to his inauguration, an act few in US politics would even consider for colleagues across the isle. Yet is was these and so many such relations that allowed Mandela to advance toward actualizing his personal mission which was the greater good of his people, the country, and luckily, the rest of us.

May Mandela’s lessons prevail over the pettiness that divides us. And may he rest in peace as we act on those lessons.

The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed 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.