The Power of an Inquiry-Driven Education: Words from Nelson Mandela


Last year, I read Nelson Mandela’s transcendent autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom. The book was a Christmas gift from my daughter who was studying Zulu in college and serendipitously, is now studying in South Africa during the second most seminal period in the country’s history. Mandela and I share a birthday and I’ve always identified with him because of his humility and palpable Moses-like sense of purpose, qualities with which I can identify.

As the world mourns his passing, I went back and reflected on the notes I made in the book and reread a quote about the transformative power of education during the account of the resistance to the Government’s forced removal of the people of Sophiatown in 1955:

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 farm workers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.[1]

Mandela advocated for the ownership of education that leads to personal development—not what we are given, but what we make of what we have. His authoritative words were further developed by the Brazilian sociologist, Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, who similarly wrote to inspire and transform the permanent underclass in his country, arguing that human agency separates the Objects—people who allow circumstances to act on them, and Subjects—those who lead change. In his classic text, Freire made the case that freedom from poverty and oppression will be the result of informed action, an action that applies theory to practice in education; when the teacher and the student mutually construct new knowledge rather than the former assuming that the student is an empty vessel waiting to be filled.

Mandela and Freire define the true purpose of education, and form the backdrop for Clifton Conrad and Laura Dunek’s recent book, Cultivating Inquiry-Driven Learners. In it, the authors argue that many colleges have lost sight of the original purpose of education—to shape minds, not careers. They make the case that institutions of higher learning must do a better job of preparing young people for higher learning in the dynamic nature of the global society, and not just the marketplace. In other words, rather than preparing them for jobs that exist today, giving them the intellectual tools—critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem-solving and communication skills—that will position them to create and lead new jobs, industries, or movements. Or as Nelson Mandela put it, education must be the “the engine of personal development” that would put a learner on a path to lead, not just to follow.

Avoiding the Tim Tebow Effect

At the risk of being trite, I am a big fan of the two-time national college football champion and Heisman Trophy winner, Tim Tebow, the former University of Florida quarterback. Tebow has the heart of a champion, leading the National Football League (NFL) Denver Broncos to the playoffs in 2011 after being inserted as the starting quarterback in the sixth game of the 16-game season. However, he’s since had a spotty career in the NFL. Critics claim that his greatest liability is his inability to anticipate a receiver’s route when passing. In other words, Tebow throws to where a receiver is, and not where he is going. In a sport that relies on precision timing plays between quarterback and receiver, the most effective quarterbacks know how throw to where the receiver is supposed to be, and thereby thwarting the defense. Tom Brady of the three-time Superbowl-winning New England Patriots comes to mind.

Colleges that focus their education on preparing graduates for the extant marketplace are guilty of the Tim Tebow Effect. For instance, the share of manufacturing jobs in the United States has dropped from 17.3 percent in 1998 to 14.2 percent in 2008 (on the verge of the Great Recession). And, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the these jobs are forecast to comprise just 12 percent of all jobs by 2018. Preparing students for jobs in the manufacturing industry in America (as one example) suffers from the Tebow Effect. Preparing them to anticipate or better, to create the future as Freire would say is what’s needed.

We are rapidly becoming a knowledge and innovation economy, one that is dynamic and global in nature and characterized by speed. Think about how quickly Facebook has changed commerce, not to mention how we network with “friends.”

“Universities are the Smokestacks of the Century”[2]

Citing Thomas Friedman, Conrad and Dunek issue a clarion call for higher education as the key component in America’s success in the global marketplace.

Friedman argues that colleges and universities must focus upon training students to create new and innovative ideas because once students enter the workforce they will have to “find their extra” in order to compete. For in our hyper-connected global economy, American workers easily can be replaced by computers, robots or foreign workers.[3]

To avoid producing human commodities, colleges must therefore move away from the tendency just to fill students with preexisting content knowledge—the classic Western canon of the liberal arts—or the acquisition of professional skills that sharpen the “education-to-work trajectory.” In addition, the undergraduate education should prepare students for the “sweeping and constant change that has become a distinguishing feature of the global world that is emerging.”[4]

Stated more poignantly,

In time of change, the learner shall inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.[5]

Cultivating Inquiry-Driven Learners

So, what does an inquiry-driven learner look like? I started this post with a reflection on Nelson Mandela who happens to exemplify that of an inquiry-driven learner. Throughout the apartheid struggle, he persistently positioned himself as a pupil and repeatedly remade himself, from a son of a farm worker disinterested in racial struggles, to the president and an international statesman who modeled racial reconciliation for the world.

According to Conrad and Dunek, an inquiry-driven learner has three critical qualities:

  1. Critical thinking skills that enable the learner to frame their “burning questions” using credible evidence and sound reasoning;
  2. Expertise in divergent modes of inquiry; that is, they study and engage in two or more interdisciplinary fields of study, rather than narrowly focusing on one domain or set of ideas; and
  3. The capacity to express and communicate ideas, giving expression in words that efficaciously convey meaning.

A college education must place inquiry-driven learning at the center of its education, and thus empower its graduates to have richer lives and solve the world’s most intractable problems, many of which have yet to present themselves. And while this post is about postsecondary education, I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest that ALL Education should adopt this posture.

While uniquely prepared for his ascendancy born out of struggle, Mandela has proven to us that education, when not short-sighted and content-centric, can the focus is not just on properly structured and seized by individuals, can transform a nation and a world. Rest in Peace Madiba. Rest in Peace.

[1] A Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, 1994. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

[2] E. Gordon Gee, former President of Ohio State University, in Cultivating Inquiry-Driven Learners”, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, p. 31.

[3] Ibid, page 29.

[4] Ibid, p. 46.

[5] Eric Hoffer, Ibid, p. 61.

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