Do students know about Nelson Mandela?

That seems like a ridiculous question — how could you *not* know about Nelson Mandela? He died yesterday at age 95 and is being lauded on the front cover of news publications around the world.  He’s an inspiration to me and to many people around the world.

But most young people have never learned about Mandela.  And I’m guessing that few (if any) schools will take time to stop and think about Nelson Mandela in a meaningful way.  If you are reading this blog, you are likely involved in education in some way, and you know that this is a crazy time of year in schools.

With only a few days left before winter break, teachers are struggling to get students to complete just one more test/paper/project while also juggling various holiday traditions and assemblies that disrupt normal class meetings during these final days of the year.

There’s simply no time to unpack Nelson Mandela’s struggle in apartheid South Africa and the gracious way helped his country to heal.  To do that thoughtfully would take several hours — you can’t do it with a 10-minute mention in a social studies class or a brief discussion during advisory (sandwiched around other announcements). So for most students, it’s as though nothing happened. They are focused on the big math and biology tests coming up next week. If you don’t believe me, ask and see what they know about Nelson Mandela.

It’s not their fault.  Students are stressed and ready for a break, so they are not likely taking time to think about the news right now (when do they take time to think about the news?)  Most of them are of course aware that Mandela died — but they don’t quite know what he did.  They know he did something that somehow helped South Africa become more racially tolerant, but when pressed for details, most students could not tell a coherent story about Nelson Mandela’s life.

Do students have any idea what life was like in South Africa under that regime from 1948-1994? (and how that 46-year legacy reverberates in modern South Africa)? A new movie about Mandela’s life, Long Walk To Freedom, was just released, but I’m guessing that only a few middle and high school students will see that movie.

When I was teaching at Cary Academy, I was shocked at how little my 9th grade students knew about current events. One year, around 9/11, I asked students what they knew about those attacks; most students told me they had never talked about 9/11 — either at school or with their parents.  They mostly had a memory of heading home early from first grade without knowing why.

One student informed me — with typical 9th grade bravado — that people from Iraq were responsible for 9/11. That’s why we attacked Iraq in 2003.

When I told him that 15 of the 19 attackers were from Saudi Arabia, and none were from Iraq, he was shocked and did not believe me. He did not understand why the US would invade Iraq in response to 9/11.

Of course, our class session ended and he had to move on to his next class — and we never had time for a meaningful discussion about 9/11 or the US invasion of Iraq.  Those events, like the life of Nelson Mandela, were “not part of the curriculum,” even though students wanted to learn about those topics.

The AP US History curriculum barely touches on 9/11.  There are 28 topics on the exam, and one sub-topic of topic #28 does touch on “domestic and foreign terrorism.” Here’s an excerpt from the official AP course description:


But any teacher who spends more than a few minutes looking at 9/11 would jeopardize her students’ preparation for the other 27 topics and sub-topics on the exam. So it’s not taught. And most students don’t know much about it.

But students can answer stuff like this, since it might be on the exam:


Here’s a newsflash for the folks who make up the AP exam — most people don’t care about the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. If they did want to look it up, kids today have access to this thing called the internet.

If you Google “Roosevelt Corollary,” you get this:


I’m concerned that we are producing students who can tell you that the correct answer is “D,” but still don’t know what happened on 9/11.  This may be going out on a limb, but I’d say that understanding 9/11 and the US response to 9/11 is a bit more relevant to a discussion of US foreign policy today than the Roosevelt Corollary.

And I’m sad that most students don’t know much about Nelson Mandela.

If we don’t slow down and take time to help students learn about what’s going on in the contemporary world, how can they be empathetic global citizens?

Ten days ago, I happened to teach a full-day enrichment session about South Africa.  It was the day before Thanksgiving, and a group of 5th grade students wanted to learn about the world. Okay, their parents signed them up — but we had a great session.

We had a two guest speakers — one who lives in South Africa and another who visited recently for business — and we spent about five hours learning about South Africa, seeing various cities around South Africa on Google Earth, and exploring the history of apartheid and its aftermath. The students’ questions guided our discussion (imagine that!)

I just followed up with those students by sharing this 12-minute video the New York Times made to honor Nelson Mandela.

One of the fifth grade students just emailed me back:

Interesting video! Ironic that last Wednesday we researched him, and I had never heard of him, and then a week later, he’s all over the news!

When a bright fifth grader who actually follows the news a bit has never heard of Nelson Mandela, we’re doing something wrong.

We need to change our approach.

At TLC Middle School (opening in Fall 2014), we will start most mornings by reading, discussing, and writing about world events for two hours.  We would take a few two-hour morning sessions to begin to empathize with Nelson Mandela and his legacy.

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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3 Responses to Do students know about Nelson Mandela?

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post, as usual, Steve. Question: What do you do when students are researching Mandela, say, and come across the debate over whether he was a hero or terrorist? For example, check out Worth digging into?

    • Steve Goldberg says:

      Hi Scott. Thanks for your comment. As they say, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” George Washington and his friends, from a British perspective in the 1770s, was a terrorist and a traitor. It’s all about perspective.

      So yes, we would definitely dig into that part of Mandela’s life — particularly if a student brought it up. It’s my job, however, to make sure students don’t *end* their research by reading that one source you cited. They should have some sense of why leaders from around the world are heading to Mandela’s funeral and what his life and his 27 years in prison symbolized for so many people around the world.

      We want history, not hagiography — Mandela wasn’t perfect. But we also want students who are well-informed about some of the basics of Mandela’s life.

      A more interesting question, I think, is whether I would bring that aspect of Mandela’s life up on my own if students were just finding the mainstream western praise of Mandela.

      That would depend on who the students are and what we’ve done to that point in the year. That’s where you have to trust my judgment as a teacher, I guess 🙂

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