Sara and I recently went to the cinema to see the Nelson Mandela “bio-pic” Long Walk to Freedom. I first read the book of the same title when it was published in 1996 and found great inspiration from the account of Mandela’s life and more especially from his humanity. The film is very powerful with wonderful performances from all the cast, but in particular the two leading actors Idris Elba as Nelson and Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela. The depiction of the violence inflicted on individuals because of the colour of their skin was harrowing, but the way in which Mandela and his associates managed to rise above this and maintain their dignity I found moving beyond words.
When I originally read the book upon which this film was based a particular passage stood out for me. I made a note of this and have often returned to it for the message it conveys about the empowering nature of education. Mandela states that:
“Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another”.
The ability of education to improve lives is something in which I believe implicitly. Throughout my career as a teacher I have seen individuals whose lives have been transformed by the opportunities that education has provided. One such example is a colleague now working as a tutor on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education Programme in Bangalore.
Johnson was born and grew up in a fishing village near Trivandrum in Kerala, one of the poorest communities in that state. Through his own endeavours and with the support of teachers in that community he succeeded in gaining an education through his school years and demonstrated his ability as an intelligent and effective learner. Following his schooling he went on to train as a teacher and work in schools, and a few years later took the initiative to find the MA programme at the University of Northampton. Arriving in England, largely naïve about western culture but eager to learn, he studied hard for a year to gain his MA degree in education. Teaching him was easy. He soaked up knowledge and questioned everything. Such was his enthusiasm and determination to learn that he was encouraged to enrol as a PhD student and I was fortunate enough to supervise him through to completion of his research and the award of the doctorate. The thesis that he wrote for his PhD has recently been published as a book, the cover of which appears at the head of this brief article.
After a period of post-doctoral work here in Northampton, Johnson returned to Kerala to work with the community from which he originally came, in order to support teachers and encourage more children to benefit from schooling. His own experiences serve as an example to children and their parents in the fishing villages who are beginning to understand that they too may progress to a more comfortable life if they engage with education. Johnson also now works alongside myself and other tutors as a valued colleague as we teach on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education in Bangalore. He can provide first hand insights into the experiences of excluded children in India in a way that I can never achieve.
I checked with Johnson to be sure that he is happy with what I have written about him here. He is rightly proud of his achievements and continues to make a significant contribution to his community and beyond. But what I have written here is not simply penned to extol the personal virtues of a single student, but rather to illustrate the transformative power that an inclusive education can have. Many young people in Johnson’s community have been written off as unlikely to gain a great deal from formal schooling. Within his village school attendance is erratic and the resources available for supporting education are minimal. Yet with the right encouragement and the provision of opportunities Johnson has already reimbursed through his actions the faith placed in him by teachers.
It is unlikely that Johnson will ever become the president of a great nation – though I wouldn’t entirely rule this out. But as Mandela states “it is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another”. This is certainly true for Johnson.
Empowerment comes with the provision of opportunity. This in turn comes from the creation of an education system that espouses principles of inclusion and justice. There remains a long road to travel before freedom is achieved for all, and it will need many good teachers to ensure that those who are currently marginalised are able to even begin the journey.