Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.
In September 1998, my wife Pat and I had the great privilege of visiting Robben Island. As most people know, Nelson Mandela was incarcerated there for 17 years in a prison notorious for its cruelty and inhumanity. Our experience that day was emotionally draining. But it was also inspirational for many reasons. Among them is the tale of how Mandela – through persistence, ingenuity and guile – transformed a limestone rock quarry into “the University.” Recalling Mandela’s passionate pursuit of learning is a tonic to the partisan and ideological din engulfing education in New York and across the country.
From Pat’s journal entry that day:
“For South Africans, Robben Island is more than Nelson Mandela’s prison. It is almost a holy place because it symbolizes the victory of the spirit over the evils of apartheid.” Our tour guide is Patrick Matanjana, who spent 20 years in a cell next to Mandela’s. “Patrick speaks with almost no bitterness toward those who stole from him the prime years of his life. His philosophy – inspired by Mandela – is to rise above your persecutors, convince them of the justice of your cause by persistence and by maintaining your spirit, dignity and humanity in the face of evil.
“Patrick tells us of the physical pain and degradation experienced by him and the other political prisoners: confined to cells that seem to be like closets, having to break stone in the hot sun of the courtyard, experiencing torture and degrading conduct from the guards. But what seems most painful to Patrick is his memory of the mental and emotional suffering: only 12 letters received per year; having your letters “edited” so as to leave you practically no words from home; guards informing you – falsely – that your loved one is no longer true to you. However, the worst punishment of all was being deprived of the opportunity to study, to learn.”
Then Patrick tells us how Mandela’s insatiable thirst for knowledge drove his determined, creative efforts to establish a culture of learning and scholarship within the prison.
Each day the prisoners were sent to a quarry where they spent the day breaking limestone into piles of rocks. The work was exhausting and dehumanizing. However, over time Mandela transformed the quarry into an engaging classroom. Through subterfuge and repeated requests to the Red Cross and others, Mandela was able to acquire the great books of literature, history, politics and philosophy. Each prisoner was given a text. Their assignment involved not just reading and understanding but also leading a seminar on the text for all the other prisoners. Here, in this limestone quarry, a place of brutality and humiliation, Mandala brought the “Univeristy of Robben Island” to life.
As he recounts in Long Walk to Freedom: “In the struggle, Robben Island was known as the University. This is not only because of what we learned from books, or because prisoners studied English, Africaans, art, geography, and mathematics, or because so many of our men…earned multiple degrees. Robben Island was known as the University because of what we learned from each other. We became our own faculty, with our own professors, our own curriculum, our own courses…Teaching conditions were not ideal. Study groups would work together in the quarry and station themselves in a circle around the leader of the seminar. The style of teaching was Socratic in nature; ideas and theories were elucidated through leaders asking and answering questions.”
According to Patrick, for most of their years, these seminars had to be delivered secretly. Getting caught with the texts or avoiding work would result in punishment. But over time, the Africaans guards – most of whom were uneducated and all of whom were bored with their jobs – were complicit so long as they, too, could listen in to the seminar discussions.
At the University of Robben Island, there were no standardized tests, no professional performance reviews, no Common Core curriculum, no Pearson and no inBloom. There was instead a passionate love for the great books and a vigorous pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. What a refreshing picture.