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What Higher Ed Can Learn From Nelson Mandela Turning Robben Island Prison Into the "University of the Struggle"

What Higher Ed Can Learn From Nelson Mandela Turning Robben Island Prison Into the "University of the Struggle"

It seems trite and presumptuous to try to add anything to the cornucopia of praise for one of the world's greatest leaders, thinkers, activists, heroes, Nelson Mandela. And yet not to take his passing as an injunction to all of us to work on behalf of justice seems the grossest disrespect.  His passing marks both a terrible loss and an insistent reminder that others must take up the challenges set by his greatness, in however modest, simple, imperfect, limited, and partial a way.  Not everyone can be a hero.  Everyone can be inspired by a model of heroism and, in turning inspiration to some real action in the world, pay tribute and pay that legacy forward.

In watching and reading so much that has come out in the last twenty-four hours about Nelson Mandela, one thing that particularly strikes me is how much faith he placed in the importance of education.  "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."  I am inspired by the fact that, spending twenty-seven years (TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS!) in Robben Island Prison, much of that breaking rocks by hand in a quarry or being isolated in solitary confinement, he insisted on the importance of this time, this place, these people.  He called it “The University of the Struggle.”

Surely that is humbling, surely that is inspiring.  Every student, every professor, every administrator, every legislator should pause and take in what it means to turn the enforced incarceration of tens of thousands of people over more than quarter of a century "The University of the Struggle."  By all accounts, Mandela didn't intend a metaphor but an injunction.  You could not be part of the struggle against apartheid without reading, studying, learning in a deep and serious ways, inventing your own university (if society tried to exclude you).   You had to learn the past, learn culture, learn the models of activism and heroism and politics (revolutionary and practical, idealistic and pragmatic) in order to reshape the future. 

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As we prepare, next month, to embark on HASTAC's biggest initiative yet, our collaborative, international #FutureEd project on "The History and Future of Higher Education,"  it is humbling and inspiring (both) to think about the University of the Struggle as one model of what higher learning might aspire to.   It is also sobering to think of how far the traditional contemporary university (worldwide) is from the University of the Struggle that Nelson Mandela created from enforced incarceration of himself and others who worked against the injustice of apartheid.   

If we were building a university from scratch --one of the projects of the #FutureEd Initiative--would we really need the medieval monastery-like fortresses of the contemporary Western (and sometimes non-Western) research university?   Or, sometimes, is a mission, justice, vision enough, even in the worst possible physical situation?

Could we rebuild from scratch using the resources around us?  Think about all those labs and libraries, classrooms and museums that go empty at night, on weekends, over school breaks?   Could they be repurposed as the University of the Struggle--however closely or loosely one might define "struggle"?  

Think of all the arts institutions--from a local community center to the Metropolitan Opera--barely making ends meet.  Could we join with them to make a public university based on institutions often already supported by public funds? 

What are the essentials of a university?   Clearly there are different essentials in different environments, in different worlds, for different purposes. 

Why, one might ask, is standardized testing used on everyone, even if post-secondary education might well have many different purposes? We know how discriminatory and inequitable such testing is, the vast numbers excluded by such testing as the single most prominent method of "sorting" who deserves higher education.  What if fortitude, not SAT scores, were our entrance exam at the University of the Future, the university we're building from scratch?

All of these things are inspiring. All make me wonder about the gap between Nelson Mandela's University of the Struggle and the modern elite university.  is the modern university a way to move beyong inequality or, as recent demographic and economic studies show, now a great contributor to inequality?  How can we reverse this terrible trend by rethinking what higher education is, means, does, and should do?  

Sadly, these are not questions often raised in the Faculty Commons.   They are not often raised in graduate education. What is learning for?  Who is served?  How?  To what end?  For what purpose?  And in what struggle, as part of what process, for what vision of society?


Here are a few of the inspiring quotes by Nelson Mandela that have been circulating today.  Maybe these are the kinds of ideas we should be thinking about as we rethink the future of the university.   This is just a small collection of quotes (there are many more on their website), courtesy of the Daily Beast.

"I was made, by the law, a criminal, not because of what I had done, but because of what I stood for, because of what I thought, because of my conscience.” (Statement during trial, 1962)

“Social equality is the only basis of human happiness.”  (A letter written on August 1, 1970)

“Difficulties break some men but make others.” (From a letter from Robben Island, February 1975)

“We are fighting for a society where people will cease thinking in terms of colour.” (March 8, 1993)

 “When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace.”  (Interview for Mandela, 1994)

"Reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice.”  (December 16, 1995)

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." (From Long Walk to Freedom, 1995)

"If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner." (From Long Walk to Freedom, 1995)


May you rest forever in peace and in protest, Mr. Mandela.  Thank you.



Image courtesy of Wikimedia, Creative Commons, Share Alike License



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