John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The Life and Times of Nelson Mandela: Who Are YOUR S/Heroes?

December 9, 2013John N. GardnerInsights0

Nelson Mandela’s death evokes so many thoughts and reactions on my part. And I think all of them apply to our work with college students today.

For my entire 32.5 year career of teaching undergraduates every term, I don’t think I ever failed to work in some way into every course I taught the question posed to my students: “Who are your S/Heroes?” It never failed to be provocative. The death of Mr. Mandela raises this question anew.

I was touched by the early reporting of his death to learn that our President Obama has a picture of President Mandela on his desk in the oval office. Do our students have pictures in their private spaces, including their smart phones, of any heroes?

My wife and I had our first and only opportunity to visit South Africa, three years ago this January. I think my most overriding memory was how frequently I heard mentioned over ten days time in that country a phrase I almost never hear mentioned in my own country now: “social justice.” Unlike for us, social justice remains an ever present societal objective in that country.

Mandela’s death, comes closely on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of one of my heroes, President Kennedy. Amazingly, Mandela did not die through assassination. So I have been recalling lately my own thoughts as a college student about my heroes of that time. I definitely had them. I knew who they were and how they were influencing me. I wish I could say the same for more of our college students today.

In recent years in my work on student success it is my sense that there is much greater attention being paid to the influence on students and student success, from mentoring, especially peer mentoring. It has become an accepted conclusion, research based, that the greatest influence on students is that of other students. I used to be amazed when I would hear students talk of their student mentors in near heroic terms. This no longer amazes me.

I believe it is very important for us to lead our students in structured analysis of and reflection on s/heroes. As I think about Mr. Mandala, in addition to his never changing single focused vision for a different kind of society, his courage, his perseverance, what strikes me as most noteworthy, is his belief in the power of reconciliation. Unlike so many tumultuous societal revolutions, the one he led did need lead to violence inflicted by the new regime against the ancient regime. His capacity for forgiveness and drive for reconciliation is unparalleled amongst my heroes.

As you talk about his life and times with your students, ask them to try to imagine what our own country could be like if both red and blue Americans committed to reconciliation. In both countries we have had a transformative figure who symbolizes a dramatic shift in power—in the case of South Africa, a shift that has taken place. In the United States a shift that is underway and is being stubbornly resisted by older, predominantly white, predominantly southern males. The differences and similarities between both our countries are significant and deserve to be understood by our students. Just think what we could be like if we could produce graduates more committed to reconciliation, Nelson Mandela style.

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