I am living proof that mentoring works… a point that was very important for me to make in my autobiography, The Road to Home.
Born in Tabriz, Iran, raised by my illiterate peasant yet wise disciplinarian Armenian grandmother, my life was changed thanks to a series of mentors: from my elementary school teacher; to the priest who baptized me and allowed me to be an altar boy; a pharmacist; an elderly rich woman with a wonderful library who lent me books; a French diplomat who encouraged me to go to Beirut, Lebanon for my high school education, where I learned French thanks to a paraplegic poet/copy editor of L’Orient, the leading French newspaper in Lebanon; and my headmaster, who was educated in Czarist Russia and had served as the last Prime Minister of that short-lived independent Republic of Armenia (1918-1921).
Others include a history teacher who was educated in Prague’s famous Charles University and who instilled in me a love of history; an English teacher, educated at British schools in Cyprus and later at Oxford, who taught me English; then of course my professors at Stanford University who adopted me, helped me and launched my career–from San Francisco State University; to UCLA; to the University of Texas, Austin; to the University of Pennsylvania, where I served as Founding Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and its 23rd Provost; to the presidency of The New York Public Library; to the presidency of Brown University; and now, to Carnegie Corporation of New York, where I serve as president.
Throughout my career I benefited from the wisdom of other nationally renowned scholars and individuals including sociologist David Riesman of Harvard, philanthropists like Walter Annenberg, socialites like Brooke Astor, and corporate leaders like Andrew Heiskell, Richard Salomon and Alva O. Way, among others. It is because of the benevolence of these many individuals that when I wrote my life’s story I wanted to use the title With the Kindness of Strangers. However, my editor reminded me that Tennessee Williams had already used that particular phrase!
All of these individuals taught me, guided me, and assisted me in making the right choices and wise decisions through different phases of my life. Because of them, I was able to make the transition from being a student to becoming a teacher myself.
Along the way, it became clear to me that for those in the position of guiding students through what the 18th century dramatist Richard Sheridan called “the fatigue of judging for themselves” how learning becomes knowledge, it is vital to refrain from thinking of students as blank slates. Not at all. In fact, I ascribe to Plato’s notion of the role of teachers as those who have the great moral responsibility to draw out of students the talents and curiosity and desire to be educated that was born within them. In other words, not to assume that their students are empty vessels that need to be filled but rather to work with young people to help them learn to think deeply and in an organized way, so that ideas can turn into knowledge and knowledge become wisdom. Indeed, that is one of the most important qualities of a good teacher: to help a student uncover the abilities that he or she doesn’t even know they possess. Perhaps even more important is the fact that, as I have always believed, students don’t fail — teachers fail. If you are a teacher, there is no way to give up on a student; he may give up on himself but you cannot give up, because there is always a spark of interest and you have to be able to catch that spark and connect with it, engage with it, and inspire the student.
All of this is equally true of mentors, whose critical role is to provide guidance, counsel, and solidarity for those who need it, and to serve as role models, facilitators of knowledge, and as teachers themselves. In these capacities, mentors help to build bridges between the past and the future. They are being good ancestors — people who bequeath to those who follow a legacy not only of worldly goods and earthly kingdoms, such as they are, but also the seeking heart and restless, soaring spirit that is the true essence of man and woman alike. Perhaps no other field of human endeavor serves as directly and forcefully as a “flight school” for the human spirit as teaching and learning.
Along with great teachers and mentors, however, there is more we, as a society, need to be providing to today’s students. Better literacy skills are certainly near the top of the list. According to results from the key 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment, out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. The current lack of high-level math and science skills are a particular concern when it comes to today’s American student. Our nation’s well-traveled path of excellence in science, technology, engineering, and math — which put a man on the moon, led the biotechnology revolution, and transformed the way the world connects and communicates — is no longer leading us where we need to go. Education in these fields, known collectively as the STEM subjects, is not adequately preparing today’s students to solve our most pressing challenges and extend our rich history of global leadership.
For these and other related reasons, including economic and social pressures on today’s families, mentors are even more desperately needed to help young people find their way through their school years with success and fulfillment. Ultimately, the goal of this kind of excellent education is to lead students not just to jobs but to careers that will enrich them both in their personal and professional lives. As MENTOR reports, 18 million U.S. children currently “want and need a mentor, but only three million have one.” That is a gap that has to change if our nation is going to live up to its promise of equality and opportunity by helping all students go forward into the future with a real chance to excel.
As president of Carnegie Corporation, created by Andrew Carnegie to promote “the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding,” I think it is appropriate to conclude with a nod to Mr. Carnegie — a kind of great American mentor. He had an extraordinary vision for our society: he believed that with the rights provided to us by the United States comes the obligation to be caring and engaged citizens and to return to the nation even more than we are given. That means, as citizens, we have to become deeply knowledgeable about the problems and issues of our day, and to do whatever we can to contribute not only to finding solutions but also to creating inspiration. There is, I think, no greater gift a mentor can provide to those who come under his or her good and gentle wing: helping to share the joy of new ideas. Even if we all live forever, we will never have enough of them!
Adapted from an address given at the Excellence in Mentoring in America Awards presented at the Library of Congress and convened by MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership