Understanding the Wonders of Mentorship


In Homer’s masterpiece The Odyssey, when Odysseus leaves Ithaca to travel to Troy to fight in the Trojan war, he leaves his son Telemachus with a character to look after him. His name is Mentor. Athena, the Goddess of wisdom, disguises herself as Mentor to pass on a message to Telemachus: he is not to trust the suitors trying to seduce Penelope and should find out where his father is and what happened to his father. Indeed, Homer’s epic poem is not only about the yearning of Odysseus to return to his home island but equally the yearning that his son, Telemachus has to find his father. As such, The Odyssey sets out a voyage for the eventual meeting of the two souls.


This reminds us of the reciprocal relationship between two people in the episode of learning; the necessary dialogue that forms the educational substance of intellectual and social exchange. As is the case with all of Homer’s extended metaphors, the significance of the story is rich: the mentor is a custodian but also someone who passes on words of wisdom. More intricate still, messages of wisdom might resonate more deeply with the learner when they come through the mentor, which explains why Athena comes to Telemachus through the mentor. The mentor expresses at once the necessary distance but also the proximity needed for a message to pass well.


Education, ultimately, is an act of mentoring: the teacher is a guide, a voice of wisdom, someone in whom parents have entrusted their child. Post-1970s rhetoric plays down this role, describing teachers as facilitators on the side, using minimally invasive techniques to help the student learn, but this can lose track of the more enduring and simple truth: that an apprentice can benefit from a master, a child needs to be looked after by an adult, a teacher brings experience and wisdom to the student. This has been the educational paradigm since the Ancients and there is still much truth in it.


Mentoring goes beyond what happens in schools: adults need coaches, friends need advice, and we all require that helping hand to get us through a threshold to the other side. Much of the modern educational systems and workplace environments we have designed are less focussed on mentoring and more on either anonymised, massive structures or individualistic, competitive environments. In order to contribute to societies where compassion, teamwork, and support are core, mentoring can be a powerful expression of learning and growing. 


Who is your mentor and for whom are you a mentor? When will you next meet? 



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