Reflecting on the importance of mentors for a virtuous society
Last week the Tocqueville Program for Inquiry Into Religion and Public Life invited Dr. Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, to deliver the 2018 Tocqueville Lecture. In addition to the lecture, the event comprised of a reception and dinner intended to honor Dr. George for his scholarship and impressively positive influence on political theory, American politics, universities, and religious issues.
One of the fundamental points of the lecture, which was entitled “Citizenship, Virtue, and the Constitution,” was that the Constitution was originally envisioned to work — and can only work — within a society where key civic institutions, such as families and churches, “play the primary role in transmitting to each new generation the virtues without which free societies cannot survive.”
As I listened to Prof. George, and especially to the toasts given in his honor by his former students and colleagues at the dinner, it became apparent to me that one of these essential civic institutions is particularly important, yet often overlooked: the role of the mentor.
As former students spoke in honor of George, they each highlighted his role as a “father figure” in their lives. From stories about how he had helped them find their spouses, to anecdotes about his amusing replies to their emails, it was evident that a great part of what makes George uniquely influential and wonderfully distinct from other academics is not merely the cogency of his arguments, or the impressive titles on his resume, but rather the serious, generous, and constant role he takes in helping others find direction in their lives. His impact on them extends far beyond scholarship and profession; he has made them better people, and thus better citizens.
While it was clear that the effects of George’s mentorship will continue to ripple through future generations, it was also easy to see that the relationships that George had with his mentors is still bearing rich fruit. In his lecture, George cited Dr. John Finnis, his Ph.D advisor at Oxford and current professor at Notre Dame, four different times.
The fact that George, as an established public intellectual, presidential and papal advisor, and Princeton professor, still frequently references his advisor speaks to the deeply lasting role that mentors can play.
The role of the mentor is not only frequently overlooked—both by people in need of direction, and by people in positions to give it—but also subtly attacked by core elements of the currently dominant culture. For instance, common phrases such as “never change,” “find yourself,” and “I was born this way” all implicitly run counter to the notion that there are aspects about ourselves that we need to work on, and that there are people in great positions to help us change.
Moreover, the general erosion of respect for elders, a thoughtless emphasis on the newest thing, and apprehension towards age-old wisdom has rendered the institution of the mentor almost obsolete among millennials.
Perhaps the most unfortunate attack on the institution of the mentor has come from the very people supposed to uphold it: coaches, teachers, and most notably, members of the clergy who gravely abused their positions. While marriage, the family, and religious institutions face more palpable political threats, the idea of a wise role model actively shaping a wide-eyed, inexperienced youth has also suffered greatly against the current culture, and is in desperate need of attention.
Having completed one full, amazing year at Notre Dame, I feel very confident about two things.
The first is that finding people who are serious about life, meeting with them regularly, and letting them help me become better person was the single most fruitful element of my first year.
The second is that many more people, both potential mentors and mentees, could really benefit from this kind of relationship. So, professors: be purposeful about trying to mentor students. Students: find great mentors, and let them get to know and challenge you! And to those of you who, like Dr. George, are willing to fight for the civic institutions of a virtuous society: continue to stand up for marriage and the family, but champion the mentor while you are at it, too. The future of our university and our republic depends upon it.
Nicolas Abouchedid is a sophomore studying in the Program of Liberal Studies, with a second major in Philosophy. He highly encourages readers to check out the Rover’s Humor section, and to write an encouraging email to Hap Burke if they find what is there amusing. Nicolas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org