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Exploring Myths of Mentor:

A Rough Guide to the History of Mentoring from a Marxist feminist perspective

Helen Colley


Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Cardiff University, September 7-10 2000

This is a draft paper - critical comments are welcomed

Helen Colley
Institute of Education (Crewe Campus)
the Manchester Metropolitan University
Crewe Green Road
Cheshire CW1 5DU

Mentoring is highly popular...

Mentoring is the "in" thing. It has become highly popular in the last decade, increasingly de rigueur as an ingredient of policy solutions in a wide range of contexts (Gay and Stephenson, 1998, Piper and Piper, 2000). It is now a key feature of initial training in public service professions, for example in the fields of teaching (Kerry and Shelton Mayes, 1995, McIntyre and Wilkin, 1993), nursing (DeMarco, 1993, Standing, 1999), and careers guidance (Wiggans, 1998), as well as in the development of business managers (Megginson and Clutterbuck, 1995). Mentoring is also moving centre stage in many of the UK government's initiatives in both compulsory and post-compulsory education, particularly those which address social exclusion among young people (DfEE, 1998a, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c, Education & Employment Committee, 1998, Golden and Sims, 1997, Gulam and Zulfiqar, 1998, Piper and Piper, 2000, Skinner and Fleming, 1999). From its emergence in the mid-1990's in localised schemes funded through short-term, non-core sources which swam against the tide of government policies in education and guidance (Ford, 1999), mentoring has become mainstream. It is appears in all major new youth transition programmes, such as the New Deal and the Learning Gateway, with their networks of personal advisers and proposals to involve volunteer mentors as well (Bivand, 1999; DfEE, 1999d). The ConneXions strategy (DfEE, 2000) represents the culmination of this trend, proposing to create a new profession of Learning Mentors (for young people in school) and Personal Advisers (for those in post-16 transition). Since academic investigations into mentoring first began in the late 1970's, where it appeared as a sporadic and usually informal phenomenon, these developments show that, especially over the last 10 years, mentoring has been transformed onto a systematised and official level of organisation.

...but weakly conceptualised

This surge forward in the phenomenon has not, however, been matched by similar progress in its conceptualisation. An early literature review noted the uncritical nature of the available work on mentoring, which even then was described as reaching "mania" proportions:

The literature on mentoring is biased in favor of the warrants neither the enthusiasm about its value, nor the exhortations to go out and find one...[M]entoring is not clearly conceptualised... The majority of published articles consists of testimonials or opinions...[T]here are no studies...of the negative effects of mentoring, or [its] absence... (Merriam, 1983: 169-170)

Almost 20 years later, and after an exponential increase in the volume of literature, the same complaint is still being raised:

The concept of mentoring remains elusive and in relevant literature its discussion and evaluation has tended to be programmatic and anecdotal...with relatively slight coverage in formal publications and journals. (Piper and Piper, 2000: 84)

A review of the journal Mentoring and Tutoring reports that, with the exception of two articles:

there was nowhere any real critique of ideology, the political economy or prevailing social constructs surrounding mentoring and education. (Gulam and Zulfiqar, 1998: 41)

Given the plethora of ways in which mentoring is defined as a practice, it may also be seen as an "essentially contested concept" (Gallie, 1956), about which a clear consensus may never be reached. The available definitions of mentoring are too numerous to recount here (see Gay and Stephenson, 1998, and Philip and Hendry, 1996, for broad typologies of mentoring), but their very multiplicity reflects the way in which political and social contexts determine meaning differentially as those contexts themselves change (Gilroy, 1997). Trying to grapple with this multiplicity began to raise a number of questions for me, not least because I wanted to avoid producing a review of the literature which would read like a litany. Is there something essential about mentoring per se, which defines it apart from other activities such as coaching, guidance, tutoring, pastoral work? Does mentoring have a distinctive essence which unites its diverse appearances in various contexts? In the first part of this paper, I wish to explore briefly a thread of meaning which is common to all contexts of mentoring, in pursuit of some kind of answer to these questions, and address the methodological issues which this exploration has raised for me along the way - for is not essentialism a serious charge in the court of our postmodern (educational research) world? In the second part, the philosophical conclusions drawn will be applied to mentoring, to provide an account of its history.

The myth of Mentor

Increasingly in academic literature, practitioner journals and promotional literature aiming to attract volunteers to mentoring schemes, Homer's Odyssey (Butcher and Lang, 1890)(1) (an epic poem from Ancient Greece thought to date back at least 3,000 years) is cited as the original source for the concept of mentoring. Such references usually appear at the start of a work, or as the introduction to a chapter or section on the mentor's role, and are used to convey a definition of mentoring, often in a highly rhetorical manner. Let us begin with a brief review of the characters, for those not familiar with the Odyssey.

Odysseus was the king of Ithaca, a small city-state in Ancient Greece. He left his wife Penelope, and infant son Telemachus, to fight with the Greek alliance in the Trojan War. He entrusted guardianship of his son and his royal household to an old friend, Mentor, no doubt anticipating a swift return. However, the Trojan War lasted ten years, and for a further ten years Odysseus was prevented from returning home, having incurred the wrath of the sea-god Neptune. Meanwhile, young nobles had long occupied Odysseus' palace, demanding that Penelope choose one of them in re-marriage, in the hope of usurping control of Ithaca, and denying Telemachus his birthright. Eventually the goddess Athene interceded to ensure Odysseus' safe return. She appeared to Telemachus, by then aged 21, in a number of human and animal forms, including that of the ageing Mentor, to prepare him to be reunited with his father. After their reunion, father and son repelled the usurpers and order was restored. Let us see how some of the modern literature presents this myth before outlining Homer's own account.

Articles on mentoring tend to draw on this myth in one of two ways. Some focus on the figure of Mentor himself (e.g. Anderson & Lucasse Shannon, 1988/1995, Haensley & Parsons, 1993, Merriam, 1983, Tickle, 1993). He is referred to as a wise and kindly elder, a surrogate parent, a trusted adviser, an educator and guide. His role is described variously as nurturing, supporting, protecting, role modelling, and possessing a visionary perception of his ward's true potential. This is seen as demanding integrity, personal investment, and the development of a relationship with the young Telemachus based on deep mutual affection and respect. However, most descriptions of the character of Mentor reflect the way in which early literature on mentoring, as it emerged in the late 1970's and through the 1980's, tended to define mentoring in terms of the functions performed by the mentor (see for example the nine functions of mentoring outlined by Alleman, 1986). Others identify that it is not Mentor himself, but the goddess Athene, albeit at times disguised as Mentor, who represents the key figure in the mentoring activity described by Homer (e.g. Ford, 1999, Megginson & Clutterbuck, 1995, Roberts, 1998, Shea, 1992, Stammers, 1992, Wiggans, 1998). As befitting a deity, most of these accounts focus on Athene's "specialness" and her inspirational character. They also tend to evoke notions of "selfless caring" (Ford, 1999: 8) and self-sacrificing commitment "beyond the call of duty" (Ford, 1999: 13) or "above and beyond" the existing work role (Shea, 1992: 21). Such evocations, usually highly rhetorical, go beyond a definition based on functions. They prescribe the attitudes and emotional dispositions (Anderson and Lucasse Shannon, 1988/1995) that mentors are supposed to display.

Some feminist critiques of mentoring have also used reference to the Odyssey within their arguments, which seek to challenge a dominant concept of mentoring that they identify as hierarchical and/or directive, based on assumptions of paternalism and models of male development, even in all-female dyads (Cochran-Smith and Paris, 1995, DeMarco, 1993, Standing, 1999). DeMarco (1993) appeals to the vision of Athene as a "feminine archetype" of an alternative paradigm of mentoring based on "reciprocity, empowerment and solidarity" (p.1243), "authentically sharing her voice with ours, while we mutually listen for answers" (p.1249). Standing (1999) objects that Athene's appearance in male disguise presents mentoring as a controlling rather than nurturing process (p.4-5), although paradoxically she appeals to the (male) character of Mentor as the original archetype embodying both aspects. In a similar argument for combining (male) power with (female) nurture, Roberts (1998) uses the image of (female) Athene disguised as (male) Mentor to advocate the ideal of mentorship as "psychological androgyny" which can provide both instrumental and emotional support for mentees. Interestingly, of these critiques it is only Standing (1999) who alludes, albeit briefly, to the often unrecognised burden that fall upon the mentor in addition to her normal duties (p.15).

Homer's version

Before moving on to theoretical questions, I want to offer a very brief summary of the way that mentoring is portrayed in the original text of Homer's Odyssey (for a much more detailed analysis of mentoring in the Odyssey, see Colley, 2000a). It tells a very different story. As the action of the Odyssey opens, the royal

household of Ithaca is in utter disarray. Telemachus appears severely depressed, in an identity crisis, and unable to make the transition to adulthood. Mentor has presided over this havoc, and is a public laughing stock. As Roberts (1998) points out, he is not portrayed as mentoring Telemachus in any meaningful way at all. This is a far cry from the wise and nurturing adviser we have seen in some modern renditions.

Athene has to step into the breach - an omniscient and omnipotent deity. She is not, however, typically female. Athene had no mother, but sprang forth, fully formed, from her father Zeus's head, and as such, in her role as the god of wisdom, represents the embodiment of male rationality (Thomson, 1950: 190, cited in Reed, 1975).

She does indeed carry out a number of the functions that have been variously ascribed to mentoring - advising, role modelling, advocating, raising the young man's self-esteem. Yet Athene only undertakes these interventions as a subsidiary aspect of her principal efforts to restore Odysseus to his throne. Her relationship with Telemachus is highly impersonal, and there is no sense of any deep emotional bond.

It is, however, the dénouement of the Homeric myth that stands in starkest contrast to modern re-writings of a happy father-and-son reunion. Telemachus' successful transition to adulthood, to become truly his father's son, is achieved through the slaughter of the usurpers, the sexual torture and execution of the handmaids who had consorted with them, and the assertion of his and his father's rule in a final battle.

The outcome of mentoring in Homer's epic is political, military and sexual domination. The myth of kindly nurture and self-sacrificing devotion, whether by Mentor or Athene, is a modern creation, contrasting starkly with the brutal processes of the ancient myth. It is a simulacrum, "an identical copy for which no original has ever existed" (Jameson, 1984, p.68) - the present according to a past we never had. The present is presented as filtering down from the past - yet this "past" is itself a social construction filtered through the prism of the specific socio-historical context of the present, the past(iche) of a "prequel".

Some theoretical considerations

Before analysing this historical transformation in the myth of Mentor, I need to digress towards the methodological concerns I referred to earlier. In my previous paper analysing the contrast between modern and Homeric accounts of mentoring, I drew on arguments from Marxist, feminist, anti-racist and other critical theorists (Barthes, 1972, Bernal, 1991, Conkey, 1991, Reed, 1975, Samuel, 1999) to discuss the ways in which myths are commonly used to legitimise and secure consensus for dominant discourses. In doing so, they obscure, and simultaneously reinforce, unequal social relations in capitalist society. Myths deny the influence of context upon meaning, and conflate form and substance, as they represent historical phenomena as natural, and their contingent appearance as an eternal and immutable essence.

The critical approach I used to call for the use of mentoring interventions to be based on research and theory, rather than mythology (Colley, 1999) has itself been criticised from a postmodern perspective as implicitly foundational, presuming a possible social and epistemological location from where myth has no purchase, invoking polarities in a ritual/mythical way, and therefore undermining its own argument. I have no doubt worsened matters by my appeal to notions of appearance versus essence. I could, of course, defend myself by a rearguard action, claiming (quite genuinely) that I contrast my interpretation of Homer's text with that of others solely for a heuristic purpose, and that in "righting re-writings", I do not claim mine as the one "true" account to be rendered. However, this merely side-steps my own interest in the "why" and "how" of these re-writings as a phenomenon in themselves. My critic rightly pointed out that to explore these questions involves a standpoint, but seems to imply that such a standpoint cannot lay claim to any ontological and epistemological justification, and this became the deeper philosophical problem that I set out to pursue. On the way, it provided tools which will return my argument to the nature of mentoring. For the moment, I will describe my attempts to find an authentic (if not "valid") theoretical position which avoids the twin polarities of ultra-relativist idealism or positivist realism, both of which seem inadequate to me as approaches to explaining social phenomena.

All research involves the researcher - [who] must take a stand as a political actor, not hide behind the supposed neutrality of "science"... The relativist view that one person's purpose is as good as another's, and that differences among research frameworks are simply a matter of personal political preference, trivialises the most important questions about our commitments as researchers and educators. To justify one's research choices is to engage in discourse about political questions, about the nature of good education in a good society. This dialogue is a critical one. It brings political discussion to the heart of the academic process. (Gaskell, 1992: 31-32)

The view that researchers cannot be neutral or objective or detached from the evidence and knowledge that they themselves generate is now well-argued within the field of qualitative research (e.g. Mason, 1996, Sparkes, 1992, Wolcott, 1994). If research offers social explanations rather than descriptions or nomothetic prescriptions, it always involves choices about the questions to ask, as well as the particular lens through which we view potential answers or pose new questions. This places an obligation upon the researcher to engage in reflexivity about the ways that these choices were made, and what informs them (Mason, 1996). Personal experiences inevitably colour that perspective, and my own history means that I approach educational research from questions about fundamental issues of oppression and the operation of power within society, which I cannot divorce from considerations such as class, gender and race.

However, Gaskell (1992) argues that reflexivity is not a question of "personal confessions" (p.32), but of the logic of the moral and political arguments used to justify explanations and strengthen their academic value. Postmodernists propose the toleration, rather than attempted resolution, of tensions and incommensurables through notions of "trangressive" validity (Lather, 1993, Lyotard, 1979, Stronach and MacLure, 1997), but this is a position which seems to me unsatisfactory, although I have much sympathy with its mission of avoiding the reduction of complexity in social phenomena. As well as the positivist/realist tendency to hide behind "scientific neutrality", which Marx derided as "mystical" (Bottomore and Rubel, 1956), the ultra-relativist idealism of standpoint epistemologies and of postmodernism also seem to hide behind a mystical façade, one of supposed invincibility conferred by lived experience or by the universality of difference. Despite the urging of my colleague simply to accept irreconcilables, I find myself unable to abandon the search for a logic which can both be coherent, and at the same time reflect the deep complexity of social phenomena. I am convinced by arguments that post-structuralism, while embracing diversity, particularly for the marginalised in the face of tyranny, goes too far in elevating diversity to a tyranny of its own, which undermines anti-oppressive theory and practice (Humphries, 1998, Haber, 1994). Where else can I position myself beyond or between?

Dialectical materialism

Marxist philosophy has been much distorted and misrepresented throughout the last century, diverging toward two extremes of structural determinism or mechanical materialism on the one hand, and idealist voluntarism exemplified by the Frankfurt School on the other (Novack, 1978, Timpanaro, 1980, see also Anderson, 1989). This has been exacerbated by the political climate of demoralisation among much of the Left, including within academia, since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, which seems to have made the very mention of Marxism or of dialectical materialism deeply unfashionable at the moment.

It is not surprising that this tendency is reflected by those who commentate on research paradigms. Sparkes (1992) categorises positivist, interpretivist and critical paradigms according to their ontological beliefs. His typology presents a similar "either/or" for critical theories, to which Marxist theory is assigned, stating that some adopt an external-realist ontology while others adopt an internal-idealist approach. Notwithstanding Sparkes' own admission that such typologies are always reductive and to a certain extent distorting of what are, in fact, complex philosophical theories, in the case of dialectical materialism, it could be argued that this is a simplification too far. While intended to facilitate both understanding and tolerance of different paradigms, it actually obscures some of the most important ways in which Marxist philosophy attempts to explain the social world. In challenging this dichotomy, I shall draw heavily on the arguments of Novack (1978, 1986).

The key question in determining specific research questions and design is regarding the nature of the social phenomena we want to investigate - what can we know? (Mason, 1996). Marxist philosophy suggests that any social phenomenon has both an essence and an appearance, and is interested in the dialectical relationship and interplay between social relations, the material world and the evolution of thought (reflected in cultural elements, human consciousness and agency for transformation). The notion unique to dialectical philosophy is that essences are neither eternal nor immutable, expressed in Hegel's dictum that that "In essence, all things are relative" (Novack, 1986: 121). Marx took up this philosophical revolution, while rejecting Hegel's idealism, and created a radically different form of materialism, in which essences are neither absolute nor foundational, and in which anything can be transformed, under given conditions, into its opposite (Lenin, 1964: 203, cited in Novack, 1986: 47). Essence maintains a complex relationship with appearances, which are themselves immediate and absolute when considered in abstraction from essences:

The essence of a thing never comes into existence by itself and as itself alone. It always manifests itself along with and by means of its own opposite. This opposite is what we designate by the logical term appearance It is through a series of relatively accidental appearances that essence unfolds its inner content and acquires more and more reality until it exhibits itself as fully and perfectly as it can under the given material conditions. (Novack, 1986: 113, original emphasis)

There is, then, no absolute truth or perfect knowledge, since we are confronted by a world that is in a permanent state of transition. However, the complexity of the relationship between essence and appearance raises two problems. The first is to avoid the superficiality of assuming that the essence of a thing is one and the same as its particular appearance at any time. We therefore need to distinguish essence from appearance.

The second is more difficult, in that at the same time appearances will change and even contradict each other as the relative essence of a thing shifts and develops. There is therefore also an "equally urgent need to see their unity, their interconnections, and their conversion - under certain conditions - into one another" (Novack, 1986: 114). This identification and opposition between essence and appearance throughout the development of a phenomenon is described as an iterative process moving from an initial point of unity, at which the appearance subordinates the essence, through a phase of divergence, to the apogee of development at which essence and appearance are re-united, but in which the essential nature of the thing becomes transparent and dominates all of its particular appearances.

Novack (1986:116-121) gives the example of money to illustrate these difficult philosophical concepts, and it is worth briefly recounting some of his argument - not least because it will lead us back to the concept of mentoring. Money has not always existed. The need for it only arose with the beginnings of trade and the need for a common equivalent in the exchange of diverse products between different communities. In the early stage of its existence, money took on many appearances, as any individual commodity (various forms of food, raw materials, tools or artefacts) could be used as a measure of value. But the nature of money changed as trade widened and markets grew. Precious metals replaced this diversity of commodities. With the introduction of coins, money became a universal form of exchange, and its essence as coinage (or ingots or, later still, notes) was established. A further development was the gold standard, which asserted itself as the most essential form of money. This still allowed other, relatively less essential forms of money to circulate, with which gold maintained definable relations, in particular determining their specific value. In one sense, gold represents the height of essence coinciding with appearance in the case of money. Yet this proposition is itself superseded if we consider that, in capitalist society, money in fact "represents specific economic relations between people. These relations constitute the essence of money" (Novack, 1986: 121, emphasis added).

Money has been used here as a philosophical example - but this consideration of its various transformations reveals an important aspect of the current social and economic context in which education and educational research take place. The role of money indicates that we live in a society where exchange-value has replaced use-value (Marx, 1975). This applies to labour power itself, which has become exchangeable for money, and as result of becoming a commodity, has become alienated and dehumanised, so that there is "no other nexus between man and man than...callous 'cash payment'" (Marx and Engels, 1977: 44). Money, through exchange-relations, has thus become the essential social bond, as well as determining social power relations (Bottomore and Rubel, 1956). In this way, social bonds have been reified. They appear as independent things, and as the direct personal relationships implied by the concept of "community" are ruptured, "society" has come to represent impersonal and especially economic relationships.

Harvey's (1997) insightful interpretation of Wim Wender's film Wings of Desire underlines this point. The story is of an angel, Damiel, who chooses to come to earth. His transformation into human status is symbolised repeatedly in the film by the need for and exchange of money. He has to borrow from a stranger, sell the ancient piece of armour that fell to earth with him, buy food, drink, clothes. He seeks out another former angel, played by Peter Falk, for support and advice on how to function in this new, human form. Falk's response is to offer him money, though, as Harvey notes, "with kind and gentle humour...Damiel's entry into this human world is now firmly located within the co-ordinates of social space, social time, and the social power of money" (1997: 319).

In a sense, we can see Falk's act as one of mentorship - the exchange of money as social bond, as support for survival, and as initiation into the essence of human existence - bringing my argument full circle. How can we consider the historical development of mentoring in terms of the shifting relationship between its various appearances and its developing essence?

Historical transformations in the concept of mentoring

I will argue that four stages can be distinguished in the development of mentoring, all marked by temporal, spatial, and contextual transformations in its meaning, which might be termed significant redefinitions (Gilroy, 1997). They are presented here not in strictly chronological order, but one which reflects the way in which the concept of mentoring itself has oscillated back and forth.

The Homeric stage

Reed (1975), through a Marxist feminist approach to anthropology, argues that Greek mythology reflects the turbulence of the struggle of patriarchal forms of society to defeat the earlier matriarchy: "In patriarchal terms a man without a son is not fully a man, and to die sonless is to suffer the annihilation of the line" (p.451). Greek myths are:

a reflection of the enormous difficulties involved in consolidating the father-family and the line of descent from fathers to sons...Ignorance of a man's kinship and family ties at this critical juncture, when the father-family must win supremacy over the matriarchal divided family, can result only in disaster. (Reed, 1975, p.457).

This allows a more emic interpretation of the original story. Unless Odysseus has a worthy son and heir, he cannot be a worthy king, and his kingdom will be destroyed. Thus the stakes involved in the successful mentoring of Telemachus relate to the survival of the state on a vital cusp of the social order, at which gender relations and political power have become intertwined. The role of the gods in Greek myth is to intervene to prevent disorder. In this instance, Athene intervenes not only to end the chaos that has reigned in Odysseus' absence, but also to ensure that his wife Penelope does not re-marry. This would re-instate the matri-lineage - anathema to a goddess whose own birth represents the absolute rupture of matrilineal society.

A distinction can therefore be made between the appearance and the essence of mentoring in Homer's Odyssey. Its appearance, like the early appearance of money, is relatively weak. Mentor himself has made a poor job of taking care of household and ward. Athene intervenes in Telemachus' fate in diverse and contradictory ways, only in order to further her central purpose (the restoration of his father to the throne). This reveals the essence of her mentoring: the powerful mentoring the powerful to ensure the continuation of the nascent patriarchy and the suppression of matrilineal social forms .

The "classical" stage

Despite the tendency to portray mentoring as some kind of innate human function which has endured thousands of years since Homer's time (as in, for example, Stammers, 1992), it can be seen as almost disappearing for a very long period. Gay and Stephenson (1998) point to many types of relationship which might be compared to mentoring, and which were based in important practices in certain cultures and historical eras, such as that of religious master-disciple, or craftsman-apprentice. Representations of mentoring itself, however, became characterised as a quasi-parental relationship between exceptional individuals, such as Socrates and Plato, or Haydn and Beethoven, and contain an element of emotional bonding that is entirely absent from the highly impersonal relationship portrayed in the Odyssey:

From the legacy of famous mentoring relationships comes the sense of mentoring as a powerful emotional interaction between an older and younger person, a relationship in which the older member is trusted, loving, and experienced in the guidance of the younger. The mentor helps shape the growth and development of the protégé. (Merriam, 1983: 162).

As Levinson et al (1978) have argued, this may be seen as the classical archetype of mentoring, a form of platonic love - its appearance is an ideal image that holds a strong romantic attraction. Yet Levinson's own study reveals contradictions within this ideal appearance. He cites Erikson's (1950) theory of generativity to show the self-interest in self-reproduction that may motivate older people to mentor the younger. This in turn is shown to create conflict and bitterness in the ending of relationships as the mentor may find themselves in competition with their mentee, and the mentee may come to find the relationship no longer developmental but restrictive. Levinson's (1978) own evidence indicates that only the wealthier members of his sample described successful mentoring relationships as crucial to their career and life development - the one in-depth case study of a working-class man reveals his failure, despite some efforts on his part, to secure the support of an effective mentor. In this respect, there is some continuity with Homer's tale, in essence if not in appearance. Mentoring appears to continue to operate as an activity carried out by the powerful on behalf of the powerful, in order to preserve their dominant social status. Of course, this works not just in favour of certain class interests, but also of white males, against the interests of other oppressed groups such as women and ethnic minorities. Its essence is thus an intra-class and gendered reproductive function, the transmission of cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986), including through the competition that it stimulates as members vie for dominance and status, which in turn belies its romantically benign appearance.

Levinson's (1978) work stimulated an interest in the United States in the phenomenon of mentoring, and it is from this point that we begin to see the emergence of a body of literature focused on mentoring within US business management. Influential articles, notably Roche's report Much ado about mentors (1979), claimed to have "discovered" the phenomenon of mentoring as an important but usually informal element of successful business managers' careers, and Megginson and Clutterbuck (1995) note that in Britain in recent years, the increasing use of mentoring has been seen as an "American import" which has required adaptation to British cultural contexts. However, as Strathern (1997) commented on the history and travels of the concept of "audit" between the world of education and of business as well as between Europe and America, such imports often consist in the unrecognised return of earlier exports. She points to "borrowings and crossings of domains" (p.306), "extension and return, or loop through another area of activity...[as v]alues cross from one domain of cultural life to another and then, in altered form, back again" (p.308), oscillations through which "practices both return with new meanings form this other domain, to reinvigorate the old, while in another sense they never come back to their original source"(p.309). Such a description seems to key into the shifting relationship between essence and appearance that a dialectical materialist approach provides, and affirms the importance of context to conceptualisation.

The Victorian stage

If we consider the historical, geographical and social travels of the concept of mentoring, we can trace just such a process. Freedman (1993, 1995), commenting on the explosion of fervour for mentoring disadvantaged young people in the US in the 1990's and the growth of the Big Brothers Big Sisters movement there, identifies its roots in the "Friendly Visiting" movement a century earlier. Friendly Visiting was itself a direct export from England, and was based in particular on the ideology and work of the Charity Organisation Society (COS) during the Industrial Revolution. Novak (1988) describes how widescale poverty and destitution affected the English working class in this period, causing ruling-class concerns about levels of public spending on Poor Law relief, and about the control of social unrest in recurrent crises of mass unemployment and starvation. Initially, the bourgeoisie attempted to respond to these problems by dispensing money through charity. However, it became increasingly evident that this was unsatisfactory in the longer term, for both economic and ideological reasons. The philosophy of the COS, whose influence was "pervasive and significant" (Novak, 1988: 97), was that poverty was caused not by material conditions, but by the moral turpitude of the poor themselves:

...the poverty of the working classes is due, not to their circumstances...but to their own improvident habits and thriftlessness. If they are ever to be more prosperous, it must be through self-denial, temperance and forethought. (Charity Organisation Review in Jones, 1978: 50, cited in Novak, 1988: 97)

Indiscriminate charitable donations were therefore seen as simply exacerbating the problem, obscuring the need for a moral response by the middle and upper classes.

Accordingly, the activity of the COS was to organise a massive, nation-wide programme of voluntary work. The overt purpose of this work - its appearance - was for middle class mentors to befriend working class families in order to uplift them by presenting a moral example of the worth of diligence, self-discipline and thrift. Its more covert purpose was to control the dispensing of alms. The role of volunteers was therefore also to determine and report who were the deserving poor (to whom charity would be given with the goal of re-educating them back to independence), and who the undeserving poor (who would be dealt with through the Poor Law system and dispatched to the workhouse). Interestingly, both Freedman (1993, 1995) and Novak (1988) ascribe the fairly rapid demise of these initially powerful movements primarily to vigorous resistance on the part of working people (see Colley, 2000b for evidence about similar processes of resistance from my own current research into the mentoring of "disaffected" young people).

From this perspective, the model I have termed "Victorian" transformed the essence of mentoring from an intra-class mechanism to an instrument of domination of one class over another - yet with the same essential goal as the classical mentoring model, namely the preservation of the status and power of the ruling class. The key appearance of mentoring remains the bonding of relationship and individual development thereby. Yet its essential functions become surveillance and control. What is generally assumed to be essential to mentoring in both the classical and the Homeric models - the dyadic nature of the relationship, and the identity of purpose shared by mentor and mentee - is reduced to appearance only. The dyad is in fact disrupted by the intrusion of third-party, institutional goals (a factor noted more recently by Gay and Stephenson, 1998) which determine its essence. Thus we see how the process of divergence between essence and appearance has further taken place.

The modern stage

The most recent voyage made by mentoring has found it sailing into the high seas of New Labour's social exclusion agenda. Although I will return to the significant developments which have also taken place in other fields, as I highlighted in the introduction to this paper, mentoring is currently developing most rapidly as an intervention among socially excluded youth (see Skinner and Fleming, 1999). (I cannot enter here into a discussion of the specific problematics of this agenda, but see, for example, Hodkinson et al, 2000, Piper and Piper, 1998, Williamson and Middlemiss, 1999.)

Freedman (1993) refers to the similarity in economic and social context which prevail for this growth in mentoring as for that in Victorian times: unemployment and poverty caused by technological change, the migration of working people, and capitalist economic competition, resulting in governmental concerns to reduce public expenditure, particularly on welfare, and to combat the attendant threat of social unrest. If we adopt a strongly negative critical stance towards mentoring of socially excluded youth today, we can identify further parallels. The targeting of mentoring for those variously identified as "disengaged" (Ford, 1999), "non-participating" (Social Exclusion Unit (SEU), 1999), or "hardest to help" (DfEE, 1999e) could be compared with the investigation, sifting and categorisation of the poor by the volunteers of the COS. Mentoring of this kind has become openly associated with the moral aim of altering the attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviour of the targeted group (e.g. Ford, 1999, DfEE, 1999e, Skinner and Fleming, 1999) in line with employment-related goals determined by welfare-to-work policies (DfEE, 1999e, Education and Employment Committee, 1998, Employment Support Unit (ESU), 2000, SEU, 1999). As such, mentoring has been criticised, both as stigmatising, and as a form of social or ideological control (Piper and Piper, 2000, Gulam and Zulfiqar, 1998). The essence of Victorian mentoring is more nakedly apparent in this model of mentoring, perhaps suggesting the re-unification of essence and appearance, with essence dominating particular appearances, at the height of a phenomenon's development indicated in Novack's description of its trajectory (1986).

However, the story, unsurprisingly, is more complicated. As noted previously, the proliferation of different definitions of mentoring point to a fragmentation of its appearances in multiple and at times contradictory directions. Government guidelines advocate that Personal Advisers need to adopt a more directive and controlling approach to mentoring socially excluded young people (DfEE, 1999e), and explicitly argue against the counselling-type intervention exemplified by Rogerian approaches (Rogers, 1951). On the other hand, it has been argued that such methods are counterproductive, and that notions of empowerment through non-directive styles of mentoring should be emphasised (Ford, 1999, Freedman, 1993, Grossman and Tierney, 1998). Some recognise the tensions involved in balancing the befriending role of the mentor with the contracted goals of institutional mentoring projects (e.g. Skinner and Fleming, 1999); while others point to the very limited and individualistic concept of empowerment in such a context, as mentoring aims to "fit" young people into society as it exists, rather than equipping them with a critical understanding of society or of any means by which they themselves might seek to change it (Merton and Parrott, 1999). In instances too numerous to reference here, there are endless disputes about the appropriate functions of a mentor: professional or voluntary, to act as role-model or not, to challenge barriers presented by the young people or by the institutions that confront them, to target mentoring to specific groups (if so, which?) or not to target at all...

A distinctive element in modern mentoring, however, is a shift in one aspect of its essence. Homeric and classical mentoring were instances of the powerful mentoring the powerful, while Victorian mentoring represented the powerful mentoring the weak and oppressed. Modern mentoring, in contrast, might demonstrate a trend towards the weak mentoring the weak. As the mentoring of socially excluded youth expands rapidly to unprecedented proportions, with concerns being raised about the allocation of resources to match this expansion (Institute of Careers Guidance, n.d.), non-professional staff, with less qualifications and training and lower pay, are increasingly being use for this work. So too are volunteers, with some reports indicating that almost half of these receive no initial training at all, while minimal in-puts are provided for the majority in comparison with the lengthy education and training undergone by, for example, professionally qualified careers advisers or counsellors (ESU, 2000, Skinner and Fleming, 1999). Even for those professional staff engaged in mentoring, the resource-intensive nature of the work, and the emotional demands it places upon mentors, risk creating high levels of stress (DfEE, 1997, Ford, 1999).

It is this shift in the essence of mentoring which returns us to the modern simulacra of the myth of Mentor. If the appearance of mentoring is weak in terms of its functions, fragmented by myriad definitions which lack consensus, it is strong in terms of the emotional disposition it demands of mentors through rhetorical and mythic representations. Great emphasis is placed upon the quality of the mentoring relationship, and upon the achievement of empathy with young people:

Mentors befriend the young people by getting to know them and trying to understand their world view... (ESU, 2000: 3)

A mentor may offer advice, but has first to earn... the client's trust and respect. This normally means standing alongside the client, and being prepared to share the client's burdens (at the least in terms of empathy, which is genuinely experienced by the mentor, and transparent in its genuineness to the client). (Ford, 1999: 8)

As we have seen, defining mentoring according to the level of emotional commitment staked by the mentor is characteristic of those more recent accounts which refer to Athene's role in the Odyssey. These figure not only in the literature on mentoring socially excluded young people, but also in the field of professional training. Moreover, one element that specifically distinguishes these modern myths from Homer's original is their completely erroneous portrayal of the goddess. Saintly devotion and intimate bonding replaces Homer's impersonal and ruthless efficacy, and a stereotypically feminine construct of care, epitomised by self-sacrifice, replaces Athene's aggressively androcentric allegiances. As I have argued in more detail elsewhere (Colley, 2000a), from this point of view, the essence of mentoring may be seen as directed not so much towards the surveillance and control of the mentees (as in the Victorian model), but towards (self-)surveillance and control of the mentors themselves. The covert outcome sought in this case might be the intensified productivity, worsened working conditions and post-Fordist super-exploitation of public service workers, internalised and self-imposed through dedication to an idealised image of client care. As emotional disposition has come to dominate over multiple and fragmented of definitions, mentoring no longer has meaning as a function, but only as a slogan instead.

There is one further contradiction at the heart of modern representations of the Mentor myth. The denial of self in such feminine, rather than feminist, paradigms of care may actually serve to undermine the possibility of interpersonal connection and bonding (Gilligan, 1995) - negating the very essence of mentoring that such evocative appearances seek to convey. The liberal and radical feminist critiques considered earlier (Cochran-Smith and Paris, 1995, DeMarco, 1993, Standing, 1999) are inadequate, because they continue to buy into that very myth of feminine care. As such, they only re-frame the modern myth in utopian ways, and fail, fundamentally, to challenge its enslaving essence.


I have undertaken here an historical analysis of the concept of mentoring through its official representations in academic literature, policy and documents aimed at practitioners. This analysis has portrayed mentoring as travelling through different stages in a series of oscillations which have transformed both its formal appearances and its essential meanings.

I have not attempted here to address specific instances of mentoring in practice. Through my research into individual case studies of mentoring "disaffected" young people, there is already evidence of yet more "oscillations", which pose other questions about the essence and appearance of mentoring, in particular the power dynamics of mentoring, and the ways in which young people themselves exercise agency (see Colley, 2000b). As Hodkinson's work has shown (1996, Hodkinson et al, 1996), the operation of structure upon agency in youth transition systems and interventions are far more complex than a question of straightforward constraint and limitation, but at times enables and facilitates young people's exercise of positive agency, not just negative resistance. There are, of course, many other manifestations of mentoring which, for reasons of pragmatism and subjective interest, I have chosen (sometimes reluctantly) not to explore.

Nonetheless, my argument here is that the appearance of mentoring - in the form of its official discursive representations - is shaping and strengthening its structural essence, in ways that work against both mentors and mentees in current implementations of policies for education and youth transition.

Research which can go beyond myths of mentoring is a preferable basis for developing education and guidance policies than folklore. In my own quest for a defensible philosophical methodology for this purpose, dialectical materialism, and especially its notion of the relativity of essence, allows me to find some kind of satisfactory way of staying with the historical oscillations of mentoring's development. If not the comfortable equilibrium my fantasy might desire, at least it provides a coherent space between critical realism and interpretivist idealism in which I feel I can operate as a researcher. I hope the way that I have applied its analytical tools to the concept of mentoring has demonstrated it is fit for purpose.

Acknowledgements: My thanks are due to my supervisors, Jane Artess and Mary Issitt at the Manchester Metropolitan University, and Prof. Phil Hodkinson at the University of Leeds, for encouraging me to enter this minefield and persevere in picking my way through it; to Profs. Ian Stronach and Peter Gilroy, also of MMU, the former for not letting it drop, and thereby pushing my thinking further than I ever thought it would go, and the latter for helping me be less afraid of philosophy; finally, to the members of the Bladerunner group, for allowing me to present an early draft of these ideas, commenting on them, and showing encouragement.


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1. All references to Homer's Odyssey are to this text. This translation is used, despite its rather archaic literary style, because of its attempt to convey the original with the greatest possible degree of historical accuracy, rather than more poetic translations which often lead to radical misinterpretations of the content (Butcher & Lang, 1890, p.vii-viii).

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