Mentoring is both ancient and modern.

Although the word “mentor” made its first appearance in the English language in 1750[1], the concept itself was not established there or then.

It appeared for the first time in antiquity, in “The Odyssey” by the Greek writer and philosopher Homer. The story, created around the year 700 BC, featured a character named Mentor, who was a friend of Odysseus. Mentor was an Ithacan elder who was the incarnation of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom.[2]  In the famous story, when Odysseus leaves to fight in the Trojan War, his son Telemachus is left in the care of Mentor who has to take care of him and protect the boy as he grows and develops into manhood.[3]

Elsewhere, the economy of medieval England survived and thrived on craftsmanship. Craftsmen passed on their trade, knowledge, and experience to their pupils, in a process very similar to the modern concept of mentoring. Such apprenticeship to a master would normally last for 12 years, or until the apprentices reached 21 years of age. The Industrial Revolution put an end to many of the craftsmanship traditions and with it, the informal system of mentoring that they promoted fell into disuse. In the emerging industrial world, young men found their way to the factories and were put through an impersonal system of training, rather than an individual teacher-pupil relationship.
In the year 1699, the French book “Les Aventures de Telemaque”, written by François Fénelon as an homage to Homer’s classic, made the concept of mentorship popular in modern times. François Fénelon was the tutor to the grandson of King Louis XIV, and the lessons that he expounded in the book were developed to educate his pupil to become a peaceful and wise monarch, as Nayab discusses further.

Looking forward, one model, which stood the test of time in the United States, however, is an organisation founded in 1904 by the Men’s Club of the Central Presbyterian Church of New York. The organisation, called Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America (BBBSA) is a community-based mentoring program in which mentoring relationships are developed on a one-to-one basis, with the mentor and mentee belonging to the same gender, with the goal of helping youth in the community. BBBSA still exists as a successful mentoring organisation, it has almost 500 local agencies and millions of children and young people as mentees in all states of the USA. The organisation is used as a model for start-up community mentoring programs and frequently cited in research because of its good practices.[4]

A study of prominent figures throughout the course of world history reveals that most of them had mentors who took care to oversee their progress. Alexander the Great had Aristotle, King Arthur of England had Merlin, Chandragupta Muarya of India had Chanakya, Paul of Tarsus, the famous Christian bishop of the first century AD, had Timothy, the poet T. S. Eliot had Ezra Pound, Martin Luther King had Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, Beethoven and Mozart had Haydn. The list goes on. A form of mentoring has always been practiced in monasteries, as illustrated by Saint Bede in his “De Corpore” and many other narratives, and continues to this day.

Since the 1980s, mentoring has been an essential part of management training in commercial organisations. Companies such as Xerox, General Electric, Kodak, Intel, and Avon all have well-established and popular mentoring programs.[5]

Today, mentoring is recognised as a highly effective tool for training and development and it is widely used in educational and governmental institutions, universities and business corporations, as well as a bridge between them. Mentoring programs are becoming ever more popular and there is an emerging trend of establishing mentoring as a modern communication tool.

Modern organisational mentorship takes place in the environment of the learning organisations and focuses on developing competence, leadership, and lifelong learning. The concept of the ideal mentor is now that of an experienced person who can act as an objective sounding-board with the power to influence events; a person who can help and support people as they manage their own learning to maximise their potential, develop their skills, improve their performance, and become the persons whom they want to be. All this is in contrast to the earlier notion of providing guidance in accordance with preconceived societal norms of excellence.[6] In support of the modern perception of mentoring, about 70% of Fortune 500 companies today offer mentoring programs.

The evolution of the concept of mentoring from ancient times until today, as well as its ongoing evolution, shows us the direction for mentoring in the future. It demonstrates that even after some forms of mentoring have proven themselves obsolete, the concept is still valid and thriving at the highest levels of business and learning.

For more information on mentoring, you can check out the relevant terminology, the in-depth explanation of the mentoring process, see the impact mentoring has or even other mentoring programs, which support social entrepreneurship or entrepreneurship in general.

And of course, if you feel inspired, click over to register as a Mentor or Mentee in our platform and reap the benefits of mentoring yourself!

This information is based on the research from the book “Mentoring – Process, Guidelines and Programs” by Assoc. Prof. Daniela Ilieva-Koleva, published in 2015.

[1] Nayab, N. (2011) Tracing The Origins Of Mentoring And Its Progression Through The Ages

[2] Hunter, D. (2007) Why Do Mentors Mentor?: A Study Of Motivations In Workplace Mentoring

[3] Dappen, L., and Isernhagen, J. C. (2006). Urban And Nonurban Schools: Examination Of A Statewide Student Mentoring Program. Urban Education, 41(2), 151-168. Doi:10.1177/0042085905282262

[4] Gray, A. (2011) Measuring The Impact Of A Mentoring Program:  Preparing African American Males For Success Beyond High School

[5] Nayab, N. (2011) Tracing the Origins of Mentoring and Its Progression Through the Ages

[6] Nayab, N. (2011) Tracing the Origins of Mentoring and Its Progression Through the Ages

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Erasmus + programme under Grant Agreement No 2016-2-RO01-KA205-024839.
This communication platform reflects the views only of the author and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.