In !990 the activist, former president of the African National Congress and the first South African president (1994 – 1999), Nelson Mandela made a speech at Madison Park High School, Boston and made the statement:
“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”
This quote underpins the idea that the power of Education extends beyond the development of economic success to nation-building and reconciliation of conflict. Along with these high expectations it also reveals Nelson Mandela’s meaning-making in relation to change and the role of violent activism.
There are many theories about change, particularly in relation to political and organisational change and within person change also gets extensive coverage. Most of the burgeoning self help sections in book shops suggest that many of us are looking to change ourselves and our lives. The idea that education is important in bringing about change makes sense. Obviously any experience that opens people ’s minds, expands their thinking, addresses ignorance and helps communication has to be helpful. But is the analogy of a weapon helpful?
Nelson Mandela’s quote is made in relation to world change rather than individual change. It is a very different viewpoint to that contained in the quote, often attributed to Ghandi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” The latter is more about personal change and this, of course is what education can bring about, over time. Nelson Mandela’s weapon-based change is a very different matter and in a world where wars are being waged in different places every single day at immeasurable cost to life and long-term harmony and deep and not producing lasting and systemic second-order change, I’m uneasy about this weaponry analogy being used in relation to education.
However, there is no question about the power of education and I was reminded of this when I recently re-read Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’, first published in 1962. It is an environmental science book, which changed the world. The author took on the chemical industry , accusing it of lying about the ill effects of pesticide on both the natural world and the human world. She wrote: “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.” She then continued to highlight the selective, partial and parochial, i.e. commercial, interests of the specialist and industrial personnel who developed, produced, marketed and distributed these potent chemicals across the globe. Apart from educating the world about the effects of the unregulated, selectively and partially researched and entirely commercially motivated pesticide industry on the environment Carson showed how change could be effected without warfare and violence through altering the direction of our thinking about our world.