The Tradition of Mentoring Part I: Mentoring the Researcher

By Cheatham, Wayman Wendell | Journal of Research Administration, April 2010 | Go to article overview

The Tradition of Mentoring Part I: Mentoring the Researcher


Cheatham, Wayman Wendell, Journal of Research Administration


Lecture Summary and Reflections

Origins

Although the term mentor is used widely in a variety of implied connotations, few understand its history and the context of its classical definition. It is this definition that provides the basis for creative freedom to spawn the purest of scientific research, well supported by ideas already tested.

Mentor comes to us from the reservoir of Greek mythology, where the story is told of Odysseus as he prepares to leave for the Trojan War. He entrusts Mentor, his closest friend, with the primary responsibility of guiding and developing masteries in his son, Telemachus. During the course of the story, Athena, the goddess of wisdom and a particular patron of Odysseus, comes to Telemachus to pass on the gift of wisdom. At that time Odysseus had been at war for over 10 years, so suitors were pursuing his wife, Penelope, in an attempt to convince her that her husband was dead. As a result, Athena, finding herself the target of collateral attentions, needed to protect herself from these suitors, who were always nearby. She therefore took on the form of Mentor, who the citizens knew to be training Telemachus. In becoming Telemachus' mentor, Athena provided him with wisdom, the inspiration to learn of his father and to emulate him in providing protection for his mother. Interestingly, what arises from the story is that Mentor (Athena) seeks to instill in Telemachus a sense of protecting that which is good and learning that which is best. It is a story of teaching someone to prevent harm and advance the good.

Where this classical definition is retained in modern use, the term mentor implies a trusted friend, counselor, or teacher---one who is more experienced and who may have a traditional opinion, but tests the application of divergent opinions through elaboration, as they develop, in the mind of her or his protege.

Examples from Philosophy

The three greatest philosophers, writers, and scientists of all time--Socrates, Plato and Aristotle--were in direct lineage of a mentoring thread. Socrates mentored Plato, who mentored Aristotle. We do see differences in the philosophical treatises of these three great figures, however, so it goes without saying that mentoring does not equate with copying or developing sameness. Instead, mentoring is a determinant of discipline and the ability to apply knowledge to skill.

For example, Socrates, Plato's mentor, held in highest priority ethics, the ironic method of teaching and adherence to truth, in its most uncloaked clarity. He employed the teaching method of illustrating, which is akin to parable telling, but used actual fact in demonstrating a poignant twist of motive, cause and effect.

Plato subsequently led the development of what we know as Western Philosophy. Although he was like a conjoined twin to Socrates, he did not copy his mentor. Instead, he expanded and developed the concept of applied ethics and the application of logic while suggesting that the basis of what was true in this world, from which logical explanations were to be based, was a portion of gifting from the higher beings or gods.

Aristotle, in turn, could never be accused of copying Plato as he stirred the origins of the scientific method by promoting the value of the empirical rather than accepting what is as a gift from on high. While he applied the ethics and morality of Socrates and the logic of Plato, his use of science and empirics was his own. He went on to develop the application of these concepts into politics and metaphysics. He did not believe that one waited for the passive expression of science and empirics, but vigorously espoused scholarship.

A fourth great figure in the ancient world of Greek and Macedonian civilization was Alexander the Great. This astounding military leader was mentored by Aristotle who, after 10 years, realized that had had completely "filled" Alexander with his formulas, and so passed him on to Leonidas for further mentoring. …

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