1. Fictional constructs
Mentor was a character in Homer’s The Odyssey and it is often assumed that his role was one of a guiding, experienced hand for his son and family. This is false. Mentor was simply an old acquaintance, ill-qualified play a protective role to his family, and worse, turned out to be a patsy for a hidden force, the God Athena. A similar tale has unfolded in recent times, with mentoring being revived on the back of late 19th century psychoanalytic theory, where the original theory has been abandoned but the practice upon which it is based survives.
There is another later work of fiction that resurrected the classical model as a source for the word ‘mentor’ in education, Fenelon’s Les Adventures de Telemaque (1699). This is a tale about limiting the excesses of a king but it did reinforce the presence of the word ‘mentor’ in both French, then English. Yet Mentor in this ponderous novel is prone to didactic speeches about how a king should rule (aided by the aristocracy), hardly the egalitarian text one would expect to spark a revolution in education. Interestingly, it pops up again as one of two books given to Emile in the novel of the same name, by Rousseau.
2. Psychoanalytic veneer
Mentoring came out of the psychanalytic movement in education with Freud and Rogers. Nothing survives of Freud’s theories on the mind, education, dreams, humour or anything else for that matter. But Rogers is different. His legacy is more pernicious, like pollution seeping into the water table. His work has resulted in institutional practice that has hung around many decades after the core theories have been abandoned. We need to learn how to abandon practice when the theories are defunct.
3. Mentoring is a trap
As Homer actually showed, one person is not enough. To limit your path, in work or life, to one person is to be feeble when it comes to probability. Why choose one person (often that person is chosen for you) when there are lots of good people out there. It stands to reason that a range of advice on a range of diverse topics (surely work and life are diverse) needs a range of expertise. Spread your network, speak to a range and variety of people. Don’t get caught in one person’s spider’s web. Mentoring is a trap.
4. People, social media, books etc. are better
You don’t need a single person, you need advice and expertise. That is to be found in a range of resources. Sure, a range of people can do the job and hey - the best write books. Books are cheap, so buy some of the best and get reading. You can do it where and when you want and they’re written by the world’s best, not just the person who has been chosen in your organisation or a local life coach. And if you yearn for that human face, try video – TED and YouTube – they’re free! I’d take a portion of the training budget and allow people to buy from a wide reading list, arther than institute expensive mentoring programmes. Then there's socil media a rich source of advice and guidance provided daily. This makes people more self-reliant, rather than being infantalised.
5. Absence of proof
Little (1990:297) warned us, on mentoring, that, “relative to the amount of pragmatic activity, the volume of empirical enquiry is small [and]... that rhetoric and action have outpaced both conceptual development and empirical warrant.” This, I fear, is not unusual in the learning world.
Where such research is conducted the results are disappointing. Mentors are often seen as important learning resources in teacher education and in HE teaching development. Empirical research shows, however, that the potential is rarely realised (Edwards and Protheroe, 2003: 228; Boice, 1992: 107). The results often reveal low level "training" that simply instruct novices on the "correct" way to teach (Handal and Lauvas, 1988: 65; Hart-Landsberg et al., 1992: 31). Much mentoring has been found to be rather shallow and ineffective (Edwards, 1998: 55-56).
6. Fossilised practice
Practice gets amplified and proliferates through second-rate train the trainer and teacher training courses, pushing orthodoxies long after their sell-by, even retirement, date. Mentoring has become a lazy option and alternative for hard work, effort, real learning and reflection. By all means strive to acquire knowledge, skills and competences, but don’t imagine that any of this will come through mentoring.
Conclusion: get a life, not a coach
I know that many of you will feel uncomforted by these arguments but work and life are not playthings. It’s your life and career, so don’t for one minute imagine that the HR department has the solutions you need. Human resources is there to protect organisations from their employees, so is rarely either human or resourceful. Stay away from this stuff if you really want to remain independently human and resourceful.
English translation of Les Adventures de Telemaque https://archive.org/stream/adventuresoftele00fene#page/41/mode/thumbLittle, J.W. (1990) ‘The Mentor Phenomenon and the Social Organisation of Teaching’, in: Review of Research in Education. Washington D.C: American Educational Research Association.
Warhurst R (2003)Learning to lecture Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.