As a child and as a teacher, I learned early on to value the wisdom and experience of others, and to respect and learn from their insights and perspectives. As such, I have been able to “stand on the shoulders of giants.” There have been so many teachers in our lives, with their perceptive wisdom and accumulated expertise, their captivating stories and prodigious insights, their radiating passion and force-of-will power, their subtle pushes and their forceful encouragement. Each has made an enduring difference in our lives and in the lives of untold thousands. This is no small endeavor and no inconsequential responsibility. There are few responsibilities more paramount. And it often feels that the weight of the world is upon our shoulders.
The southern African philosophy of ubuntu has various translations and interpretations, In essence, it means, “I am who I am because of you.” This concept, perhaps, is best realized in our schools and classrooms, and in our connections with our students as we help and watch them grow. Our kids. If what we do each day is not designed and intended to improve the human condition, then what are our values and goals? If we do not utilize our position, our roles, and our influence, then what is our mission? Educational excellence means nothing in the absence of a fundamental, driving desire to make democratic values and universal human rights a reality for all.
Given the tenor of our times, we must renew our commitment to carry out what we all believe as educators – to cultivate critical thinking and lifelong learning, to nurture knowledgeable and active citizens, to engender compassion and global awareness, and to support our students, help them find their voice, and help them grow. This is not just a stance that educators should take; it is one that all humans should embrace. These are not just educational ideals; these are human ideals. It is inspiring to know that so many educators pursue these ideals tirelessly and selflessly, and that someday, they can become a reality.
Ubuntu is often translated as “humanity towards others.” To me, it doesn’t matter where you stand on the spectrum of politics; it matters where you stand on the spectrum of human decency and human dignity. As educators (indeed, as human beings), we must be sure that everyone – all of our students, all of our neighbors – feel welcome, safe, and respected. It is no longer enough to recognize bigotry in it many forms. We must confront it. We must denounce it. It is in these moments that we must do what we do best – to educate, to enlighten, to change the world for the better.
Just as we want our students to understand the world beyond the textbook, so too should we strive to impact the world beyond our classrooms. We must move from feeling to conduct, from words to action. Only with our collective will can we be the change we wish to see. Only with our collective commitment can we shift from rhetoric to reality. Our students need this. Our world needs this. But the world needs giants.
A short while ago, I came across a quote that epitomizes this new era in which we found ourselves and reflects what those of us who desire a better tomorrow must do. It reads: “The person who is just and resolute will not be moved from his settled purpose, either by the misdirected rage of his fellow citizens or by the threats of an imperious tyrant.” Giants are resolute. We shoulder the burden.
Desmond Tutu, in discussing ubuntu, said, “We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.” President Obama, speaking at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, explained that ubuntu is “recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.” This, in essence, is what we do as educators, with those who came before us and with those we will come to know, nurture, and inspire.
We have a profound moral obligation to ensure that each day, the ideals of our work are made manifest, in the classroom and in the larger community. As educators, we make the difference. Know thy power. Our students will become what they aspire to be because of us. We are who we are because of each other. We are giants. And in the end, we will become something better and greater because of each other.