Twilight of the Mentors

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my gatekeeper

Mentors have a dubious lineage. Since the 1980s, when the corporate world co-opted the concept, mentoring — long a synonym for teaching — has come to stand for almost any kind of professional guidance, and especially that which rank-and-file employees provide to one another. As mentoring has become increasingly linked to workplace diversity initiatives, a mentor is more likely to be the person sitting next to you than a CEO, a shift that echoes the economic devaluation of historically male-dominated jobs now occupied by women. As Helen Colley, a professor at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Education and Social Research Institute has argued, mentoring is no longer a system in which powerful people support other structurally powerful people but a burden passed on to the masses. Though presented as an unalloyed good, mentoring is an additional encumbrance, a way of shifting what should be the responsibility of the institution to the individual.

It might be tempting to view this now ubiquitous corporate mentoring model as further evidence of capitalism’s capacity to extort our emotional labor, but it’s more accurate to say that corporate culture’s embrace of mentorship surfaces the extractive, obfuscating qualities that have always been integral to the concept. Mentors enable and thrive in systems of obstruction and privilege. By embracing them now as vehicles of ostensible inclusivity, companies, nonprofits, and schools gesture to diversity while shoring up the opaque gatekeeping structures that keep power consolidated. Meanwhile, as mentorship becomes increasingly inseparable from its corporate repurposing, the term itself has come to subsume other forms of teaching and caregiving, blurring the lines between labor coerced and labor freely given. Now, we are all the conscripts of mentorship.
Mentorship has become so pervasive, such a taken-for-granted value, that the shallow history of its contemporary meaning has gone strikingly unremarked. Though articles about mentors like to say that they started with Homer’s Odyssey, where Athena disguises herself as someone named Mentor in order to tell Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, to kick Penelope’s deadbeat suitors out of the house, the mentor as it exists today is a uniquely late-capitalist construction. Mentors start popping up with frequency in 18th century literature, where the term means something like “stern but well-intentioned teacher.” In The Task, William Cowper’s charmingly meandering 1785 epic on, among other things, nature, sofas, and God, the speaker describes a thin board frequently strapped to aged backs in the service of posture as “a Mentor worthy of his charge.” By the 19th century, a mentor is as likely to be a piece of instructional literature as a person. The Bible is a “mentor.” So too are didactic texts on everything from fashion to marriage to living a moral life. In the early 20th century, the Mentor is the title of a popular American magazine charged with giving its readers “knowledge that they all want and ought to have.” Here, “mentor” suggests a kind of anonymous trustworthiness and authority, like a particularly salutary encyclopedia.

Something changes, however, in the 1970s. A search for “mentor” in the Google Books Ngram Viewer — a convenient tool for charting broad shifts in printed English — shows a modestly steady increase in the word’s usage from 1800 to the earliest years of the Reagan era, when the graph starts to mimic a textbook illustration of exponential growth. “Mentoring” is almost nonexistent until the mid-eighties or so, when it too sees a similar spike. For comparison, a search for “adviser” (a common synonym) in the same period yields a graph that looks like a mountain range. 

What shifts in these years? One clue exists in a 1980 installment of William Safire’s On Language column in the New York Times, where Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter, practiced his layman lexicography for nearly three decades. In a characteristically tongue-in-cheek piece titled “Perils of the Fast Track,” Safire codifies the new meaning of “mentor” by close reading a recent exposé of what was arguably the first corporate sex scandal: A 29-year-old VP, Mary Cunningham, was accused of a “romantic liaison” with her mentor, William Agee, who also happened to be her CEO. She was forced to resign; Agee stayed on.

“Today,” Safire begins, a mentor is “a senior management figure who takes a younger person under his wing, risking rumor and innuendo if the protégée, or mentee, is an attractive woman.” Safire goes on to explain that though the word comes from Homer, it’s been “adopted” by the corporate world to signify “‘career guide and executive nurturer.’” Safire’s point is that, despite mentor’s new status as business-world lingo, its fundamental meaning hasn’t changed. “Here’s the beauty part,” he writes in the column’s kicker. In the Odyssey, Athena uses Mentor’s identity as a disguise. Thus, Safire concludes, “It was all a trick. . . . As Mary Cunningham learned, at the start of her own odyssey to CEO, mentors can be trouble; even Homer shook his head.”

Safire sounds authoritative — his prose tends to have the air of someone with a comment rather than a question. But his closing “gotcha” nod to Homer is an empty rhetorical flourish. While it’s true that Athena disguises herself as Mentor, the aim isn’t mischief. Taking on his appearance allows her to overlap her identity (all-powerful goddess of wisdom and strategy) with his (a nobleman and guest), which is capable of setting the young Telemachus at ease. When Athena/Mentor takes leave of Telemachus, now buoyed on praise for his bravery and manhood, he has himself become “godlike.” Mentorship here looks not like a “trick” but like a subtle, enlivening transfer of power.

Why does Safire mention the Odyssey at all? Because aligning the fundamentally new meaning of corporate mentorship with Homer is an ideological move, part of the larger linguistic project of Safire and other conservative commentators such as William F. Buckley and George Will, who seek to revive the conservatism that had fallen out of favor since the 1960s by linking it to free market economics, reframing American identity as a matter of Christian faith, “Western Civilization,” and capitalism. In this context, classical learning serves as a form of arbitrary clout, a way of invoking time-honored authority for extant power structures. Things have always been so, says the reference. Who are you to think they could be otherwise? It’s certainly true that men in positions of power have long cultivated the careers of their successors, entrenching their own control by choosing their likenesses to carry it on. But calling this practice mentorship is, in 1980, a new evolution, a way to elide the less savory aspects of business-world patronage by associating it with the term’s blandly benevolent connotations, articulating a vision of corporate life that is not profit hungry but humane, generous, and invested in individual success. At the same time, portraying mentorship as part of a timeless tradition makes it easier for Safire to blame Mary Cunningham for her own termination. The fault lies not with her boss, or the board of trustees who forced her out, but in her own naive assumption that mentorship at work might mean anything other than the same old patriarchy. 

It’s tempting to read Safire’s casual endorsement of mentorship’s worst impulses as quaint anachronism, but the Janus-faced definition he helps to shape continues to inform the concept today, overwriting things we used to call teaching, counseling, advising, and friendship. We talk easily of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jesus as mentors and the solidarity practiced by people of color, women, and LGBTQ communities as mentorship; at the same time, official mentorship programs syphon up the language and labor of these informal networks, turning their aims not to structural change but to objectives such as employee retention and professional success. Or, as a 2019 Forbes article puts it, “Employees are happy, engaged, and productive when their individual needs and the needs of the organization are in sync.” Like company softball leagues and team-building retreats, mentoring has become another cheap substitute for the structural transformations needed to upend entrenched injustices, superseding tangible forms of support such as money, time, health care, and job security. Even in government and philanthropy, mentoring’s primary aim is economic advancement. In 2002, George W. Bush endorsed January as “National Mentoring Month” in an effort to bolster the professional prospects of youth from underprivileged backgrounds, a cause later taken up by Barack Obama. Granted, when we talk of community and social-justice leaders as mentors, we don’t usually mean “executive nurturers.” We use the term to capture a sense of an affective heritage, in which the meaningful work of social change gets carried forward. And yet, that we turn to “mentor” at all is largely thanks to the term’s Reagan-era reclamation. However much we might want to claim “mentor” for other uses, its every application to the labor of solidarity, caregiving, and comradeship refracts back on its corporate context. Like so much of what was formerly grassroots organizing and activism, it too has become professionalized.

There is one additional feature of the Odyssey’s mentor scene that Safire leaves unremarked. There, as Athena guides Telemachus, preparing him to fight alongside his father, the mentee looks less like an apprentice or a novice than like someone ready to assume the mantle of responsibility, a sharp difference from contemporary corporate mentorship. This is the torch-passing version of the mentor-mentee relationship still common in Hollywood blockbusters and video games, where it’s so frequent that it gets its own mention on the pop-culture wiki — think of the Jedi masters of Star Wars, or Morpheus tutoring Neo in The Matrix. It’s an archetype that still informs how we often think of the relationships between teachers and students, raising up the young to take over from the old. But it’s an anachronistic fantasy in an era when the structural forces that enabled older generations’ well-being no longer exist — when, in fact, the material comforts of past generations bear responsibility for a climate crisis that will be borne largely by generations to come. In these circumstances, a meaningful transfer of power between mentor and mentee might look less like a torch passing — a replication and renewal of extant practices and beliefs — than like a wholesale rethinking of what power meant and entailed. 

Academia, a system with its own long mentorship history, is especially useful for thinking about how conditions of scarcity and upheaval have changed the concept’s meaning. Here too, “mentor” has typically bled into other offices — those of teacher and advisor, which recall the mentor archetype. It’s common for academics to refer to their “mentors” with reverence, as if the term connoted a specific kind of guidance and personal instruction. The term speaks to the idea of intellectual legacy, the way that advanced graduate study was, in a less precarious era, an induction into a genealogy of thought that one would eventually pass on to one’s own mentees.

But academic mentorship has never been perfect, often replicating the same inequalities present outside its walls, and its contemporary application has only heightened its propensity for exploitation. In an era in which the gulf between well- and underresourced institutions has become increasingly stark, mentorship is often uncompensated labor, a trait that compounds the arbitrary ways it has long been dispersed. Mentorship is something many professors can fail at or excel in, disperse with equity or bias, wield as a cudgel or dole out as a gift, often with little penalty or risk to themselves. Students and colleagues rely on such support for their advancement, yet they are often without recourse if they don’t receive it. While some schools and programs might assign mentors, others leave it up to the student to find their own support, whether by networking, charm, or nepotism. The fuzziness of mentorship as a category of academic labor perpetuates this inequality. How do you measure it? What does it involve? What kind of training does it require? What does it even mean? Though the academy has become increasingly willing to use the same productivity quotas honed in the business world, it has remained stubbornly resistant to quantifying the work of mentorship in meaningful ways. 

At the same time, mentors bear the weight of institutional efforts to increase diversity. Here, perhaps even more than in the corporate world, it’s often treated as a form of charity, a service obligation one can assume or disregard, reserved mostly for those who see inclusion as an ethical and political obligation as much as a professional one. While universities may pay lip service to its virtue and form committees to facilitate its practice, it usually counts for little in the tenure process. The labor and value of mentoring is a dominant theme in Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure, English professor Patricia A. Matthew’s indispensable collection of interviews and essays on the experiences of the “diverse” faculty academia claims to celebrate. Here, as sociologist Andreana Clay suggests, being a mentor is often “inextricably linked to the position of the educator,” encompassing mutuality, allyship, friendship, activism, and role modeling. But ambivalence and frustration are equally part of the job, the consequence of institutional unwillingness to give time or recognition to work disproportionately performed by faculty of identities historically marginalized in academic life. Meanwhile, academia largely excludes the ever growing number of contingent instructors — the majority of teaching faculty at colleges today — from formal and informal support. This doesn’t prevent their students, who see no difference between them and tenure-track professors, from seeking their time and care. If, at some point, for some people, academic mentorship offered an archetype of the concept, as close as anyone outside a Homeric epic might get to godlike guidance, that day is long past.

And yet. The ideal of the good mentor persists. We reify the term even as it grows increasingly imprecise. Much like the 20th century ideal of the perfect spouse, the mentor in 2020 houses a seemingly endless and incompatible cluster of desires, everything from understanding to support, friendship, motivation, protection, advocacy, leadership, deference, generosity, power, nurturing, care, and collaboration. The mentor stands for the best version of who we want to be, while promising to see us as the best version of ourselves. As in the Odyssey passage Safire references, we might as well ask for a divine protector. Even in its originating appearance, the mentor is an impossible hybrid, as much a fantasy as a source of guidance.

Such desire speaks to another aspect of the mentor ideal: the potential for mutual fascination, as mentor and mentee find in one another both a reflection and an exemplar, sharing the charged pleasure of mutual recognition. Affect theorist Eve Sedgwick gets at this kind of exchange best in her description of the teacher-student relationship in Western appropriations of Tibetan Buddhism. Reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, a popularization of The Tibetan Book of the Dead written largely for American readers by Sogyal Rinpoche, a charismatic Buddhist teacher, Sedgwick considers the distinctive phenomenology of reincarnation in descriptions of the teacher-student bond. As a young child, Rinpoche was identified as the reincarnation of a renowned Buddhist teacher by the man who would become his own “master,” Jamyang Khyentse. He was raised and taught by Khyentse, in the same way Khyentse had been raised and taught by him, in his prior life. In Rinpoche’s description, it’s a kind of teaching that, as Sedgwick suggests, “thrives on personality and intimate emotional relation,” even as it also “functions as a mysteriously powerful solvent of individual identity.” Here, temporal and interpersonal boundaries blur: One is always both teacher and student to an intimately connected other, who is also always one’s own teacher and student. A version of this interchange exists in the transactional language of mentoring today. Mentoring, we are often told, is a two-way street: The mentor stands to gain as much as the mentee, who should in turn consider themselves a mentor in training. Sedgwick reminds us of the emotional intimacy of such work. The will to mentor and to be mentored often comes from a sense of identification: This is who I was; this is who I want to be. It’s a relationship engaged with obligation and care, even as it’s not so much selfless as deeply, disorientingly self-entranced.

There is a coda to Sogyal Rinpoche’s story. In 2017, a quarter century after The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying became an international phenomenon, and nearly 15 years after Sedgwick wrote about it, decades of abuse suffered under Rinpoche came to light in Rigpa, the international Buddhist network he founded, along with evidence of a longstanding cover-up. In a public letter written by his former students, they describe physical, psychological, and sexual manipulation explained away as instruction, concealed by Rinpoche’s “public face” of “wisdom, kindness, humor, warmth and compassion.” 

It’s a conclusion that today feels almost expected. Post #MeToo, the ability of powerful men who claimed to be mentors to exploit the trust that came with that role appears unnervingly commonplace. Looking back to Safire’s deeply sexist telling of Mary Cunningham’s experience, or to the many similar stories found in academia, there’s another account of mentorship to be told, one in which the role’s queasy combination of benevolence and power excuses manipulation and abuse. In this version of mentorship’s history, we might see its current association with inclusion and diversity as a kind of sea change, a way of shifting power away from those who have wielded it for too long. Here, the identificatory ideal of mentorship becomes relevant again, promising a way of retelling history, making wisdom from suffering, celebrating those who broke the paths we tread. 

Or we could imagine different kinds of solidarity. As much as we might want to, it’s impossible to unwind contemporary mentorship from a worldview that blames individuals for their own subjugation and absolves the company and the state of the burdens of meaningful social change. Before the mentor’s rise, we had language for this. Maybe it’s time to reclaim it.