Remembering Nelson Mandela

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Among the many wise insights of Nelson Mandela, that quote about the transformative power of education holds special meaning for me. It points to the noble goal to which I have dedicated most of my professional life.

The passing of the former South African president has prompted at outpouring of affection and reminiscences. It’s not hard to figure out why. Mandela fought for what he believed in, paid an extraordinary price for it and still managed to retain not only his humanity and dignity, but the kind of grace and good will that most political leaders find illusive. Despite spending nearly three decades behind bars, he never lost his sense of compassion for his fellow human beings, even his jailers. Mandela rose above his own hurt and went on to serve the greater good. That he was able to do without bitterness is truly remarkable.

One of my favorite stories involves the British interviewer David Frost, who asked Mandela how he could come out of 28 years of wrongful incarceration without feeling bitter. “There is no time to be bitter,” Mandela said. “There is work to do.”

As someone who references Mandela frequently, I believe his legacy to the world rests at least partly in the way he looked at the world. There is a timelessness to the lessons he derived from his experiences, a moral sensibility that all of us can benefit from. His views on education are particularly relevant. Take this quote, for example:

“A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”

From my perspective as the chancellor of a community college, those words speak directly to our mission. At Pima we provide our students with the skills they need to either enter the workplace or continue their education at a four-year institution.

Or consider this quote:

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

Considering that Tucson’s poverty rate in 2011 was nearly 16 percent, making it the sixth-poorest of the nation’s large metropolitan areas, Mandela here is reminding us that we can improve our community if we make it a priority. And because of the direct correlation between poverty and educational attainment, this too is something that speaks to Pima’s mission.

Included among the many lofty tributes to Mandela over the past few days were comparisons to Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Historians and journalists can have that debate. For me and probably many others, it’s clear that Mandela simply was a good man who accomplished great things. The lessons he can teach us will be around a very long time.

2 thoughts on “Remembering Nelson Mandela

  1. Brian Johnson

    I visited Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island in 2002 and departed the experience chanting “Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage”. Marina transformed a prison into a university.

  2. Francisca James Hernández

    I have been following the many tributes to Nelson Mandela on public radio over the past week. I don’t remember the last time any “story”, let alone one so inspiring, has lasted so long in the news cycle. I am very gratified by this and appreciate your contribution to it. I esp love the quote, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice.” I, too, see education as a most powerful medicine in this act of justice.


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