12/06/2013 10:44 am ET | Updated Feb 05, 2014

Nelson Mandela Reached Me

Nelson Mandela has died. We extend our condolences to his family and his nation well. And, we stop and reflect on what he has taught us both as a person and as a part of a social movement.

At least three things stand out for me:

First, and most importantly for me, Nelson Mandela's ideas changed over a lifetime. We all say it, but not all of us manage to avoid undue certainty that our ideas are -- and always have been -- right. Most obviously, Mandela revised his views on the place of violence in political struggle. Reading his speech at the Rivonia trial alongside the many times he spoke against violence over the subsequent decades illustrates the importance of reflection, experience, and growth in his role as prisoner and as leader. This is not the only way in which Nelson Mandela's example illustrates the importance of learning over a lifetime, but it exemplifies a genuine open-mindedness to which we might all aspire.

I aspire to it. As a a relatively well-educated, but not very cosmopolitan American academic, I learned of Mandela's changing views about violence when my assumptions were challenged. I assumed -- knew -- that Mandela stood for nonviolence. And, so I was startled when I participated in what I think of as a "liberal education bootcamp" now known as the Arden Seminars. I was a participant on the weekend after September 11, 2001, when a group of us gathered in Chatham, Massachusetts. We had been planning to come together for months and were, of course, unprepared for the context in which we met. Among the huge set of readings assigned -- and read and discussed -- was the Mandela speech I just mentioned. In it, he argued quite directly for violence. I was shocked, especially in the historical moment in which I was discussing the text with others. But in helping us understand when violence is necessary, Mandela contributed to deepening our sense of the world.

Perhaps the educational setting of what I have just said hints at the second point I want to make. Nelson Mandela's leadership connected social justice, his educational background, and engaged citizenry. He repeatedly noted the importance of education to all of this, including the formal education available through institutions like colleges and universities. Having attended many such institutions and helped to change them in dramatic ways in South Africa and beyond, he is often quoted as saying, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." He also practiced this approach, changing access to education and the forms and content of education across South Africa and thereby the globe. What began on some U.S. campuses as discussions of divestment in South Africa in order to reject apartheid has become a commitment to just education, to access, and to much more, including educational partnerships with South African universities.

Finally, Mandela's impact on others within higher education is itself transformative, and not only for individuals like myself. His impact is not linear but geometric in its reach. That is, he has influenced many -- and those have influenced many more. An instance must stand for what I assume, and hope, are many stories of this across the globe. In my case, the experience involved an organization, HERS, which has made a principled link between higher education leadership in the United States and higher education leadership in South Africa. As both a participant and a leader, I met many women leaders in colleges and universities across South Africa.

Most memorably, I was reminded during a discussion of generational difference that not many Americans remember the death of Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s and 70s as a crucial moment in their lives; all of the South African women I know have done so. And, for many, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison was also a crucial historical marker -- one that few of the American women in our group noted as influential.

Through the voices of such women, who pushed us to see how education is both local and global, Nelson Mandela reached me.