Mentors, they are invaluable. Without them, we are bound to fend for ourselves and rediscover the wheel time and time again. The collective memory makes us progress in how we work and live. This collective memory is passed on and expanded by mentors. However, younger generations receive less and less mentoring, as education systems and workplaces become increasingly impersonal and professionalized.
Throughout human history, people learned and grew in their capabilities by means of mentoring. A mentor would take a younger or less experienced person under his wings and, based on his/her experiences from the past, would train this person.
The first and basic form of mentorship, and education altogether, was parents training their children in fending for themselves as well as learning the family business. Farmers would take their kids out in the fields and let the plow along. Black smiths took their sons with them in the workshop and taught them the ropes of working metal.
During ancient times it was also normal for a “teacher” to be surrounded by “disciples”. This was the case for Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians and Hebrews alike. Most of these teachers were generally respected wise men (although some were also women). They were philosophers, scribes, prophets and priests, who often also fulfilled offices of councilors and judges.
These teachers would train the students in skills the parents didn’t have, or for which they lacked time. Importantly, these teachers had a close relationship with their students. They knew them well. They didn’t just speak into the matter taught, but they also spoke into their moral and relational well-being.
Ancient teachers didn’t just speak into the matter taught, but they also spoke into the students’ moral and relational well-being. – Click to Tweet this
Later on, during mainly Roman times, the rich assigned well-educated slaves. Although they weren’t free, they were very much part of the family household.
The guilds of the Middle Ages further professionalized the teacher-student relationship where a master would train and educated an apprentice in the arts and secrets of his craft. Although a son would be trained in his father’s occupation, usually the master was a different person of the same craft.
This master-apprentice relationship also occurred in the training of knights and later on academics. Universities still apply the same model in postgraduate studies (master’s and doctorate degrees). Although inspired by ancient Greek philosphical schools, there never really developed close master-student relationships marked by strong ties of loyalty.
As more typical Western schools developed initially within the confines of churches and monasteries and then taken over by government agencies, the teacher became increasingly more distanced from the student. Focus was more on knowledge and art and much less on life application.
Now, our education system is highly professionalized. However, it is as far removed from any true form of mentorship as possible. With the digital revolution and open access to a world of information, this trend is set to continue further.
Now, our education system is highly professionalized. However, it is as far removed from any true form of mentorship as possible. – Click to Tweet this
Within the family atmosphere, there is little provision for true mentorship either. Due to work loads, parents don’t always have the time and energy to fully train their offspring in essential interpersonal and life skills. In addition, children often move in fields of interest to which their parents can offer them little advice or guidance.
What next? How can we turn the tide?
As interpersonal skills weaken in younger generations and educational systems become increasingly impersonal, mentorship should happen in the workplace. Managers can build effective relationships with their team members and help them grow in their jobs and in teamwork. Companies investing in mentorship will benefit in increased productivity and improved workplace culture.
Another form of mentorship is possible where people in later stages of their lives engage with younger people. Grandparents are ideal mentors, but also other senior people can do the same. Social organizations like churches or schools could play a big role in this, facilitating building relationships across generations.
There is still hope, as long as there is a will to invest. Mentorship is an investment, but one with a massive return both on the short term and the long term.
This article is part of the series Mentors Wanted: We All Need Mentors