Mentoring: An Old Tradition Made New Again


The ideas of education and training have been around for millennia.  The concept of schools and educational institutions, however, are a more recent development.  How did people learn skills and trades before schools existed?


We hear a lot about mentoring these days, particularly in the context of older adults taking a personal interest in younger people, and especially young people who are disadvantaged or troubled.  But mentoring is not a new concept at all.  From the dawn of time, human beings have taken it upon themselves to nurture one another, to teach one another, to encourage one another.  In ancient cultures, if someone wanted to learn a particular skill, that person wouldn’t enroll in the local university—he or she would get under a mentor who possessed that skill.  For the most part, that is how people learned, at least until schools evolved.

Fast forward to today. If you ask the wealthiest, most successful people on the planet about the secrets to success, many of them will actually advise you NOT to go to college.  Instead, they will suggest getting under a mentor and learning the secrets of entrepreneurship one-on-one.  (This is the whole concept behind the reality show sensation The Apprentice.  Who wouldn’t choose to learn business skills directly from Donald Trump as opposed to enrolling in an expensive business school?)

In fact, if you think about the people in the world who are at the top of their professions, worldwide—the best of the best—you’d be surprised at how few of them point to their formal education as the key to their success. Yes, some went to college, but some did not.  Instead, most (if not all) of these successful people will cite one or more personal mentors as keys to their success!

As you can tell, our methods of education have changed and evolved over the centuries, but the power of mentoring has remained the same.  It isn’t just about getting the knowledge. There is just no substitute for one-on-one teaching, nurturing and encouragement.  Mentors speak into our lives where teachers only regurgitate information.


Why are we hearing more and more about mentors in our world today?  Because more and more people are beginning to realize that in our changing world, formal education alone is not meeting all the needs. There is an inherent value in classroom instruction, especially when it comes to certain professions like law or medicine, and we’re not criticizing academia per se.  But there are certain needs that classroom instruction can’t meet. Consider the following:

  • Not every student responds well to classroom instruction.  In almost any class, one or more students will “fall through the cracks” because they don’t understand the material and cannot gain the understanding they need. (This is why tutoring is necessary in so many cases.)
  • Employers and firms are changing the way they look at formal education. A person with good people skills and problem-solving skills is more likely to be hired than one who only has a college degree to vouch for his/her abilities.  A college degree is no longer a guarantee of employment.
  • Some trades and professions don’t translate well to a classroom.  If you want to be a recording engineer, for example, it is far more effective for you to learn in a real studio than it would be for you to learn in a classroom program.
  • Classroom instruction doesn’t help with the intangibles.  Character-building almost always happens through one-on-one interaction with a mentor.

Formal education has its place, and it is certainly rooted in well-established traditions.  But formal education also has its limitations, and in a rapidly changing world, more people are seeing the shortcomings of higher education—especially at a time where that education is more costly than ever, and in an economy where money is harder to come by. Thus, more and more people are falling back on the age-old learning method that existed before colleges and universities existed.  They are returning to mentors.


This idea wouldn’t necessarily work for all professions, but consider this: there are many skills and trades that could be taught more efficiently through one-on-one mentoring on-the-job than through expensive classroom methods.  If modern thought leaders would begin re-thinking our education structures, it would be fairly easy to adjust many professional training programs to include professional workplace mentoring as part of the curriculum. In other words, the idea is to transition students out of the classroom into actual work places to be taught by successful people who are making a living at that particular profession.  Here are just a few examples of careers where people might benefit from one-on-one mentoring in the work place:

  • Entrepreneur
  • Graphic artist
  • Fine artist
  • Chef
  • Recording engineer
  • Film industry
  • Interior designer
  • Radio broadcaster
  • Photographer
  • Actor
  • Writer

In summary—mentoring is coming back because mentoring works. Mentoring worked before formal education existed.  It still works today, even when formal education fails.  It simply makes sense for progressive educators to consider mentoring as a key ingredient for training and nurturing the next generation.