On a Mission: To Uplift through Education

Educators are missionaries, and they become more relevant when they realize their mission: to provide dignity and uplift people through education.

Headmaster Temba Maqubela drew on his own family’s history in apartheid-era South Africa to deliver that message to the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS) Heads Conference in Chicago on February 1.

“Let us really do the work we set out to do when we took up the mantle,” he urged about one hundred heads of school attending the ISACS conference. ISACS, which invited Mr. Maqubela to deliver the keynote address, represents schools in thirteen Midwestern states.
His address, titled “From Apartheid to Inclusion: Regaining Dignity through Education,” covered stories of his ancestors, his personal history, Groton’s story of inclusion and its GRAIN (GRoton Affordability and INclusion) initiative, and the appeal that educators build more inclusive communities.
John Strudwick, head of Lake Forest Academy in Illinois and a former teaching colleague of Mr. Maqubela’s at Phillips Academy Andover, provided the introduction, recalling Mr. Maqubela as a “young, fresh-faced chemistry teacher” and describing a summer science program in South Africa, “highlighted by a personal tour of Soweto from Temba, including him showing me the various houses that he had hidden in back in 1970s.” Mr. Strudwick suggested that the headmaster’s work at Groton serve as a model. “Since arriving in Groton in 2013, Temba has made it his mission to focus on inclusion at U.S. private schools. His work, I believe, is an example for all of us in independent schools.”
Mr. Maqubela began his talk by transporting listeners to the town of Alice, in South Africa, where his great-great-grandfather, Jacob Bokwe, sued a white man for publicly calling him a “gross liar.” He was the first black to sue a white for defamation. Because Bokwe was educated, he declined the services of a white translator. “The twin act of being the first African to take a white man to court and dismissing a white translator was a humanizing act for the colonized and dehumanized Africans,” Mr. Maqubela said. “While he lost the case, he had demonstrated to his descendants how to use education as a weapon to regain his dignity.”

Schools built by missionaries had educated Bokwe, as well as revolutionaries such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Steve Biko. The missionaries did not realize that “those like Jacob Bokwe, who were among the first to get a high school diploma, would use their education as a spear against the settlers, whose sole aim was to occupy and plunder,” Mr. Maqubela said. “Imagine the juxtaposition of the British settlers using weapons of mass destruction against the natives and the missionaries who gave us weapons of mass instruction.”
Education, he explained, became “a tool of liberation”—and still can serve that purpose today. Mr. Maqubela provided snapshots of his own story of liberation, beginning in his native South Africa: he described his arrest for anti-apartheid activism in 1976 while in his high school biology class, which was taught by his mother; his exile to Botswana and how he escaped death during the infamous raid on Gaborone, despite being on a South African “hit list”; his immigration to New York, where he, with his wife and infant son, first lived in a homeless shelter; and, ultimately, how they lifted themselves from poverty through their education.

Mr. Maqubela also explained the tool used by Groton for change and inclusion—the GRAIN initiative, which has ensured that all applicants are considered without regard to their ability to pay and which froze tuition for three years, resulting in a precipitous drop from #1 highest tuition among forty peer schools to #38.

“Here is a scary statistic,” Mr. Maqubela told the educators. “Since 1983, the consumer price index is 250 percent whereas the higher education price index is 350 percent.” He urged the school heads to “form a vanguard of dedicated educators who will answer the question of access, affordability, and inclusion—especially the inclusion of the talented missing middle.” He explained strides Groton has taken to admit families in the middle of the socioeconomic spectrum, strengthening the center of what is sometimes referred to as a “barbell,” with rich and poor on the ends and a slim “missing” middle.
As he often does at Groton gatherings, the headmaster repeatedly asked the crowd, “Who is here and who will not be here?” referring to their school populations. At one point, he asked conference attendees to look at themselves and ask that question.
“I am making a case for our schools to agitate for positive change in order for us to be relevant,” he said. “In particular, heads like you who have a bully pulpit should use it for inclusion rather than to maintain the status quo.”
Inspiring the heads of school to take steps, even small ones, to offer broader opportunity within their communities, Mr. Maqubela admitted his own desire to move quickly, and his hope that others will do the same. “I guarantee when I look at every one of your missions, it’s calling on every one of us to be missionaries,” he said. “… We’re just missionaries. Let’s just get on with it.”