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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Three Thoughts on Mandela

By Rick Hess — December 09, 2013 2 min read
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Nelson Mandela passed away last week. The encomiums have been touching, plentiful, and, in a case like this, inevitably unequal to the task. There’s nothing that I can usefully add on that front. It has struck me, though, that amidst all the touching reactions, there are a few instructive takeaways for those involved in schooling that haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.

First, it’s useful to keep in mind how much views of Mandela changed over time. Remember, the U.S. and Great Britain had labeled him a terrorist in the 1980s. For decades before that, in the long years of the Cold War, he’d been regarded by the West as a communist sympathizer and a threat to an ally. He was well into his 60s before more than a handful of Americans had ever heard his name. For all that, Mandela would eventually become an icon, with those who had doubted him, or cheered his persecution, eventually feeling compelled to shamefacedly revisit their opinions. Those in today’s vitriolic edu-debates would do well to recall that absolute judgments about people we don’t really know (or have never even met) may lead us astray. That would seem to recommend (especially for those involved in education!) less time spent vilifying those with whom we think we disagree and more spent understanding, unpacking, and answering their claims.

Second, when Mandela was ascendant after finally being released from prison in 1990, he took pains to cooperate with Afrikaners in dismantling apartheid--working with some of the same men who had helped lock him away for nearly three decades. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that Mandela and South Africa’s last apartheid-era president, F.W. de Klerk, shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. A year later, Mandela became president. As president, he appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to chair South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, forsaking show trials or payback. Mandela seemed to hold that, for all their spoils, Afrikaners were as trapped in the legacy of apartheid just as were their black countrymen. His leadership and vision suggested that many whites also yearned for a chance to throw off the yoke of the past. He recognized that we are all products of the culture and institutions we inhabit, and that blaming individuals for that may feel good but serve no productive purpose. It’s worth reflecting on Mandela’s civility after all he had endured. It just might encourage those passionately concerned about the Common Core, teacher evaluation, and all the rest to adopt a tone more worthy of important debates and more likely to help them win allies and their hoped-for outcomes.

Third, it’s useful to be reminded of the historic scope of Mandela’s patience. Mandela’s activism started in the late 1930s, when he was still in college at Fort Hare. It would be more than a half-century before his cause triumphed over colonialism and then apartheid. Indeed, Mandela had spent more than two decades in jail before his lifelong cause seemed to have any real chance of succeeding. Education today is full today of well-meaning people who believe deeply in what they are doing and who will brook no delay in pursuing their course, even though it strikes me that much of what they push is less self-evidently “right” than Mandela’s war against apartheid. Do they have the patience to stay at this decade after decade; to value incremental victories and frustrating setbacks; to understand that real victories are not the product of PR or quick policy wins but of a patient, persistent fight on behalf of powerful ideas? I guess we’ll see.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.