Mandela Reveals the World’s Most Powerful Weapon
By Dr. David Nunan
SOME of the best teachers are not professional educators. On the surface, this statement might seem a paradox. Educators are defined by their work as teachers. I’m not trying to suggest that the many people who make their livings as educators aren’t great teachers. It is that some of the most instructive lessons I have learned about living and learning haven’t come from people with formal teaching qualifications nor from people who have worked as teachers, but from people who have nevertheless changed the world. One such person is Nelson Mandela: a great teacher, a great leader and one of the most powerful people of the modern era. Mandela valued education above all else. He once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” In an interview, when asked what is the single greatest problem facing the world right now, he replied at once, “Poverty and lack of education – these two problems combined. It is important for us to ensure that education reaches everyone.” (Interview in the Reader’s Digest, July 29, 2013.)
Former United States President Bill Clinton, another powerful global figure, said of Mandela, “Every time he walks into a room, we all feel a little bigger, we all want to stand up, we all want to cheer, because we’d like to be him on our best day.”
I know exactly what Mr. Clinton meant when he made this statement because I experienced it first-hand. It was in the early 1990s. I had flown 16 hours from Los Angeles to Australia. My destination was Sydney. As the United Airlines flight made its final early morning descent into Kingsford Smith Airport in Sydney, fog descended and the flight was diverted to Brisbane. We deplaned and were herded into the transit area. We were told that we faced an indefinite delay because the crew were out of their hours and were not allowed to fly us back to Sydney. A replacement crew would have to be flown in from Sydney.
Dispirited, we disported ourselves around the cramped transit lounge. As there were no available seats, I sat on the floor with my back against a wall. I was dozing off when I sensed a commotion at the far end of the lounge. People were craning their necks. Spontaneously, they leapt to their feet and began applauding as they realized who was coming towards them. I did the same. I can still remember the hairs on the back of my neck rising as Nelson Mandela passed by and shook my hand as well as those of all the others in the room. I don’t remember the exact date, but I believe that it was his first global trip after having been released from 27 years of incarceration.
Most people would have been destroyed by being unjustly incarcerated for nearly 30 years. Mandela was not destroyed by the regime that locked him up for all those years. Rather, he was strengthened. He spent his time educating himself (although he was by no means ill educated prior to being imprisoned). The first thing he studied was the language and culture of the people who had taken away his liberty. Learning Africans was invaluable in helping him to deal positively with the prison guards and surviving their brutal system.
Once released from prison, Mandela made history by becoming the president of South Africa. In this role, he made good on his promises to unite the country and make education a priority. Through his leadership and vision, he was able to show that education is not only nor even necessarily what happens within the four walls of a classroom. Every waking moment of our lives offers opportunities for education. If we can understand and accept the idea that opportunities for education are all around us and that education is a life-long process, and if we realize that education must come from within, that no one else can do our learning for us, then like Mandela we possess the tools for personal transformation. tj
The original article appeared in Issue #272. Click here to order from Amazon