12/30/2013 03:12 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2014

No Brief Candle: Lessons from Madiba

Life is no "brief candle" to me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it over to future generations.

~ George Bernard Shaw

I was in South Africa when Nelson Mandela died. I was on a tour of township schools, working on a project to donate iPADS to students in South Africa. A joint project, entitled Courageous Conversations, sponsored by LIU-Post in New York and the University of Stellenbosch, just outside Capetown, is in its fifth year. Our goal is to work with educators in both the United States and South Africa to directly address the toxic effects of poverty on schooling.

I knew that Madiba (Mandela's clan name) was behind every dream that the good folks in South Africa had for their country. I could envisage his beneficent smile in every stunning mountainous landscape. I could detect his spirit in the laughter and playfulness of school children, astonishing attributes in light of the neighborhoods in which they live. Despite the official end of apartheid in 1993, the ravages of hundreds of years of colonial rule and white privilege persist. Their communities, known as informal settlements, are marred by crushing poverty where there is often no running water or electricity and unimaginable violence.

What I did not know, until the moment that I heard of his passing, was that the spirit of Nelson Mandela was also behind my goal to fight educational initiatives that are destroying schools in this country and around the globe.

I have been on a tear against the neoliberal agenda, with its emphasis on bringing business-style accountability and competition to schooling, which many of us believe needs to be confronted resolutely and with passion. Sometimes I am discouraged -- with the likes of Bill Gates, Pearson Inc. and politicians of all stripes supporting more and more number counting and ranking of students and teachers. The task to halt, or at least slow down, the juggernaut seems daunting at best.

Then I remember that Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years, never gave up, because as he recounts to his friend and biographer, Richard Stengel, when he saw the injustices heaped on his countrymen he reminded himself, simply and elegantly, "That is not right."

Every time I hear of another dedicated teacher who is demoralized or decides to leave teaching or another eager student who is demotivated or discouraged by misbegotten educational policy, I know "That is not right." I have learned that we need to keep on fighting, despite overwhelming odds, if we believe that we are on the right side of history.

I do not mean for a moment to equate Mandela's struggle for equality for 90% of his countrymen with the overthrow of testing regimes and the push back against corporatization of US schools. Certainly, Mandela and his compatriots were up against poisonous laws enforced by riot police and a vicious white supremacist culture which treated people of color with vile disregard.

What I do mean to take away from Mandela after his passing is his example of unwavering tenacity and sacrifice for his beliefs; the torch has been passed to those of us who need to be reminded to stick with a cause if we believe it is right. If Mandela can endure 27 y ears in prison demanding the end to social policy that is not right, I can certainly endure more writing about, speaking against, and rallying support to challenge educational policies that are not right.

And Mandela leaves us plenty of eloquent reminders to keep up the fight. One particularly appropriate one for those involved in the educational struggle is his perspective on a society's priorities: "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children."

And, I am emboldened by the implications of his message on courage: "Courage is not the absence of fear; it is inspiring others to move beyond it." Here he invokes one of the keys to an activist spirit -- inspiring others to be unafraid.

The abiding passion and sacrifice with which he devoted himself to the cause is no more unequivocally stated then in this 1964 comment: "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

As an educator for 44 years, I have cherished the ideal of an open space for children to be free to think and act and speak their minds, where young voices are respected and nurtured , where teachers are free to create environments and opportunities for students that are developmentally appropriate, offering safe passage for new thinking and risk taking. It is an ideal that I hope we will someday see in our schools. In the meantime, Mandela inspired, I will keep on fighting for it.

I can only hope for a fraction of the resolve of Madiba and a wish for his lessons to penetrate my soul and become animated through my actions. I know he has passed a brightly burning torch to us. Not briefly, but for the long struggle, we need to use it to light our way.