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The power of mentorship

Who we learn from can, sometimes, make all the difference

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We spend a lot of time talking about curricula, though when we ask people, later in life, about their education, we typically don’t ask “what curriculum did you learn through.” Rather we ask, who was the teacher that had the biggest impact on who you were, and who you’ve become? Were we to pose both of those questions, we’d likely also find that the second one has the much more interesting answer, delivered with a far greater passion.

Part of that passion is derivative of the impact of mentorship. The greatest teachers are the ones who approach us as equals, who obviously share our passion, recognizing it within us. They were able to fuel those passions, giving them direction, purpose, and inspiring an ongoing curiosity and interest.

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Some, however, believe that the effect of mentorship goes even further than that. One of them was the French historian, critic, and philosopher Rene Girard. Over his career he developed the concept of mimetic desire, one that contrasts starkly with didactic instruction (learning what is presented to us) and even constructivist instruction (learning through experience). Girard believed that, while we learn in a variety of ways, the most profound learning comes from mimetic desire: we learn because we want to be like those from whom we learn.

While Michelle Wille likely wasn’t thinking Girard or his work specifically, it’s an understanding of that mimetic aspect of learning that informed her decision to enroll her daughter at St. Margaret’s in Victoria, BC. “We’ve been there many times for open houses,” Wille commented at the time. “The teachers are all well-dressed, well-spoken, and they’re strong women — and those are the kinds of people I want to teach her.”[1]

How we learn, who we become

For Girard, that concept sits at the very heart of how we learn and who we become. We all formulate a persona, in his view, through imitation of the people we come into contact with throughout our lives. Ultimately, that persona provides that sense of what it means to be you, including a sense of the space you occupy in your community, and the world.

That persona can be expansive, providing a sense of possibility. It can be in our nature to ‘become someone,’ that the world truly is our oyster. For others, that persona is reductive, providing an ongoing sense of inevitability. They may be brought up to believe that their place in the world is determined, that their vote doesn’t count, that truth is a delusion. Girls may assume a passive persona, while boys assume an active one. They may be brought up to believe that their ideas are second-rate, and that the only things they can achieve are those that they wrench, forcibly, from others.

Providing an example

Girard’s idea can be seductive, and it’s perhaps easy to take it too far, or to extrapolate only the extremes rather than the moderate middle ground. Girard was careful to note that the process wasn’t just the one that created leaders and criminals, teachers and rebels. He suggested that it’s also the process that explains, for example, why children of artists and musicians are more likely to become, themselves, artists and musicians. Levar Burton, the great proponent of life-long literacy and host of PBS’s “Reading Rainbow” (and, yes, the actor who portrayed Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation) recalled that his mother not only “read to us when I was growing up, my mother [also] read in front of me, and that was a very important example.”[2]

No doubt, this is one of the concepts that Edward Harkess was thinking about when designing the Harkness tables: to allow a greater opportunity for teachers to lead by example, rather than through an explicit demonstration of authority or expertise. Speaking with students, rather than at them, can be an important means of developing their autobiographical narrative person. It can also disrupt the style of discourse based in conflict that dominated public discussion in the later part of the 20th century.[3] Likewise, the means of assessment in the past—one based solely in testing—can unwittingly create an understanding in students that they will be judged more on their level of failure than their level of success. An expansive form of mentorship allows them opportunity to demonstrate and celebrate their successes, rather than creating anxiety around the marks they lost or the questions they answered incorrectly. 

Glen Herbert

[3] The documentary ‘Best of Enemies’ is an excellent example of the conflict/ad hominem mode of discourse that developed in the 1960s and 1970s, and which continues to cause so much trouble for us today. 

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