Student Engagement

Lessons From Nelson Mandela’s Life and Legacy

December 6, 2013
Photo credit: iStockphoto

I knew, like so many of us, that Nelson Mandela's days were coming to a close. And still, when I heard on yesterday that he had passed away in his home in Johannesburg, South Africa, sadness of a particular kind and magnitude washed over me.

I reflected on what he meant to me, to South Africans, to those fighting for peace and justice around the world, on the role he played in transforming his country and the minds and hearts of millions, and on the legacy he leaves. I am in awe, I recognize, for what one human being did in the course of a lifetime, for his unwavering compassion in the face of brutality, and for his courage and commitment.


No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. -- Nelson Mandela

On the evening of his passing, my ten-year-old son and I sat close together on the couch and looked at images and video of Mandela on the Internet. As the tears streamed down my face, I tried to explain what it was about this man that evoked such emotion in me. "It was his kindness," I said. I told him the story of when Mandela was in prison (for 27 years!) the white guards had to be constantly replaced because Mandela quickly gained their respect and they became ineffective at upholding the regime. Mandela was unwavering in his compassion for human beings -- even those perpetuating cruelty. And he was unwavering in his commitment to create a more just society.


This kind of courage is rare, I told my son, but we can all learn from it and emulate it. I have been thinking a lot lately about what's going on in our education system, about what feels like the increasingly hostile and intense attack on public education, teachers, and on efforts to offer a holistic, meaningful education to all children. I see myself in this equation. I can see the glimmers of my complicity, the moments when I haven't stood up forcefully enough and said, "No. I won't do that. I won't participate in that because what you're asking me to do conflicts with my core values."

Mandela's life reminds me of the choices that I can make, of a moral mandate to hold tight to my core values and to refuse to act in violation of them. My core values are justice, compassion and community -- I can see instances where my compassion wavers or when I've been asked to act in a way that dehumanizes another person. I could say no; I can, and I will. In a context that was far more dangerous, Mandela took risks and held tight to his values for years and years.


I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended. -- Nelson Mandela

The lessons we can draw from this quote are many and it offers an entry into rich and meaningful conversations with young people. My son and I talked about the need to rest and appreciate the view. Resting is essential on this journey, I've discovered. We also discussed Mandela's suggestion that we "look back on the distance." As a historian by training and nature, I know that with the study of history, reflecting on the past is essential. That's how we see our successes and failures, how we make course adjustments and corrections, how we acknowledge our hard work.

And finally, we talked about Mandela's injunction to go on, to continue the long walk to freedom, and about what this means for all of us who have a degree of freedom and power. In our own communities and country, for whom do we need to be advocating for? Whose rights and freedom are vulnerable here, in our own cities? What responsibilities do we have? What does that mean we have to do? These are questions to pose to students of all ages.

Lessons and Legacies

If I were in the classroom, I'd buck my lesson plans for next week and teach a mini-unit on Mandela, leadership, and compassion. I say this knowing full well what's at stake for teachers around the country right now, of the potential consequences of "bucking the lesson plans." I know that there are pacing guides and curriculum to cover, I know that teachers are under pressure to cram more into our weeks than ever before, I know that some administrators can be scary and even mean.

But inspired by Nelson Mandela's courage and commitment, I hope I'd make the decision to teach what feels like an invaluable lesson on a rare and phenomenal human being, to honor his life, and memory, to teach our children about courage and commitment and the kind of leadership that transforms. This is far more than a "teachable moment" for our children: it's also one for us, as educators; it's a moment when we can reflect on our core values and the struggles for justice and equality within our own field of work.

Teaching Resources

Nelson Mandela Digital Archive Project. It is a very compressive bank of archival materials related to Nelson Mandela with some fantastic resources.

Music from South Africa and about Nelson Mandela that communicates in a way that words and images can't sometimes.

Read aloud all of or parts of a powerful obituary from the New York Times.

Videos of Mandela for discussion, and a beautiful book with stunning art. Also consider Mandela's autobiography, appropriate for high school students.

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