If Nelson Mandela learned this, who taught him? ‘Courage may be taught as a child is taught to speak’ according to Euripides, so perhaps Mandela learned this definition of courage from observing those around him and imitating their actions. There is a problem here, however, as it is difficult to observe people conquering fear, the struggle being an internal one. Provision of examples would not be sufficient to impart this particular message, suggesting that the role of education may be to explain what cannot be explained by mere mimicry. Assuming that courage is a desirable characteristic, Mandela’s statement is therefore a ringing endorsement of the role of education. An active effort must be made using language to engender courage in other members of the human race.
Perhaps, however, the revelation was the result of sustained original thinking or a spontaneous flash of insight, and if so then the relevance of the quotation to the role of education would be effectively nil. There can be no doubt that Nelson Mandela was blessed with considerable intelligence and may solely from the experience of his existence have been able to reason his conclusion without the need for anyone to attempt to pass on their knowledge. His use of the word ‘learned’ suggests that this was not the case but the word does not necessarily imply knowledge gained from others. Mandela during the course of his life was often in a situation requiring courage and his personal experience of having conquered fear may have led to a generalisation which provoked the statement. If Mandela’s statement is true, then it is quite possible to acquire courage without the need for education.
Just because it is possible, however, does not mean it will occur in every case and therefore the statement may still provide a justification of the role of education even if a rounded character can be formed without it. The statement itself may indeed be an attempt to educate; the personal revelation of an intelligent man being articulated so that future generations need not wait until their own judgement is formed. The role of education is indeed well justified if it can be shown that the wisdom gained from years of independent cogitation can be passed on through two sentences.
The broad support for the presence of education provided by the statement thus established, the consequences for the nature of this education must now be examined. If the universal key to courage were contained within the quotation, then no further schooling in the principle would be required, and it would also be the case that, by extension, there would be few problems in this world as the pithy proclamations of men such as Mandela would have proved sufficient to solve them. This world not yet having achieved the status of an earthly paradise, it would thus be foolhardy to filter our view of the role of education solely through the interpretation of Mandela’s assertion.
There is little, therefore, in Mandela’s statement, to suggest that the role education currently serves in our society ought in any way to be adjusted. Before this can be assessed further, however, this role must be determined. Education is the dominant force in the lives of most young people across the world, and those who do not receive it at least to a rudimentary level are a prime target of a plethora of international human rights agencies. In the developed world, it is usual for education to be pursued full time between the ages of four and sixteen; in the UK the school leaving age is now eighteen, and an increasing number of individuals undergo tertiary education until the age of twenty-one or indeed older, post-graduate study up to the age of twenty-seven now hardly anomalous. Education is an occupation, knowledge so worthy a goal as to consume perhaps twenty-three years of young people’s lives. It is an industry worth hundreds of millions of pounds and a key constituent of government policy.
The role of education may therefore be generally defined as a facilitator to development, and an important one at that. It is doubtless the case that those undergoing, and those who have passed through the various stages of, education, each have their own, perhaps radically different, view of the role of education. The ubiquity of education or the aspiration to it, however, can be ascribed to its image, justified or not, as a vital contributor to economic growth and associated improvements in the standard of living.
Given the degree to which society has accepted education in its present role, it is unlikely that a significant challenge to the nature of this role could be mounted in 32 words, particularly ones not uttered with a specific focus on the role of education. It is also the case that Mandela’s claim provides no suggestion that the current motivation for teaching embraced by the people of the world ought in any way to be altered. Whether true or not, the advice he gives is utterly tangential to the question of how or why the populace ought to be educated. No critical assessment of courage as a characteristic is incorporated; Mandela’s words may help us all become brave men, but how they relate whatsoever to a serious discussion of the role of education is beyond the power of my intellect.