“And when they were within the imposing height house, he bore the lance of Athena and set it against a tall pillar in a polished spear-rack, there were set many spears besides, even those of Odysseus of the steadfast heart.” (The Odyssey: Scroll i-125)
What do Shamima Begum, Amira Abase, and Kadiza Sultana have in common? And how are these three teenage girls similar to the female protagonist of the popular erotic “romance” novel Fifty Shades of Grey? According to the New York Times – Journalism’s own “Grey Lady” – Shamina, Amira, and Kadiza are among an alarming number of ill-adjusted young women who are romantically involved with Islamic terrorists. In fact, like Dakota Johnson, the actress who plays the lead role of Anastasia in the film version of Fifty Shades and, ironically, an ISIS sympathizer in a recent Saturday Night Live skit, they are all entangled in abusive relationships!
What makes young female students ripe for exploitation? Why do they choose to follow, submit, and marry religious scoundrels that behead hostages, rape women, and vow to slaughter infidels? According to a study conducted by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), an alarming number of teen and college-aged female students travel to the Middle East and Africa to marry terrorists because they are unable to make discriminating judgments. More troubling, seduced by a “sense of danger and adventure,” some respondents indicate that they actually interpret telecasts of torture and beheading as “gut-wrenchingly awesome!”
Effectively confronting this new wave of teen naiveté will require a multidimensional approach that understands current societal struggles and provides meaningful alternatives to satisfy the adolescent quest for self-actualization. A vital component of such a methodology for specifically helping young women avoid the treacherous gravitational lure of abusive ideologies is for religious, nonprofit, and educational institutions to employ mentoring programs that introduce participants to critical thinking and healthy followership skills.
Mentoring is a fundamental form of human development where one person invests time, energy, and personal insight in assisting the growth and ability of another. Through inspirational word, authenticity, and example, mentors can help America’s youth safely transition towards adulthood.
The first modern usage of the term “mentor” can be traced to a 1699 book entitled Les Aventures de Télémaque, by the French writer François Fénelon. Its original usage, however, arises from The Odyssey to which Fénelon’s narrative is its sequel.
According to Homeric poetry, while Odysseus, sovereign of Ithaca, was absent during the Trojan War, he placed an elder named Mentor in charge of his son Telemachus. Mentor was instructed to help the young prince develop prudence, courage, and wisdom. Mentor’s meager ability to provide adequate guidance, however, was supplemented by Athena, daughter of Zeus and Goddess of wisdom, who secretly assumed the male (mentor) as well as female (mentis) persona of a more effectual mentorship.
Unfortunately, although the Trojan conflict came to a successful end, Odysseus wandered for 10 years in a vain attempt to return home. Telemachus, on the other hand, now grown, was encouraged by Athena not to give up hope but to diligently search for his father. Thanks to the goddess’ cloaked prompting, Telemachus and his father reunited and together vanquished their kingdom’s usurpers.
As a result of Athena’s encouragement, advice, and wise counsel, the name of Mentor was adopted in the English language as a comprehensive idiom denoting an individual who imparts wisdom to, and shares knowledge with, a less experienced protégé. The term gradually evolved to denote a trusted advisor, friend, teacher and/or sage — an experienced person who advises, guides, teaches, inspires, challenges, corrects, and serves as a transformational model.
Mentorship, like Athena herself, is spiritual, intellectual, and technical. Aside from Socrates-Plato, Hayden-Beethoven, and Freud-Jung, the fictional characters of Yoda and Luke Skywalker are all examples of such mentoring dyads. Like their Homeric precursor, mentors unpretentiously spur their apprentices to magnanimous action. Understood in this fashion, Telemachus is the protégé par excellence. He is the quintessential young man/women in search of authenticity. It should, consequently, not come as a great surprise for analysts to learn that teens with mentors in their lives achieve higher levels of academic success, develop stronger relationships with their peers and families, and make better choices.
According to the 2013 study “The Role of Risk: Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes,” mentoring programs provide sundry benefits for youth with varying risk profiles. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the study summarizes the following benefits of mentoring:
- Higher levels of social acceptance, academic attitudes and grades
- Higher graduation rates
- Higher levels of analysis, decision and problem-solving skills.
- Lower negative youth behaviors, substance abuse, and depressive symptoms
- Lower high school dropout rates
- Healthier lifestyle choices
- Higher college enrollment rates and higher educational aspirations
- Improved behavior, both at home and at school
- Stronger relationships with parents, teachers, and peers
- Improved interpersonal skills, self-esteem, and self-confidence
In addition to the aforementioned benefits, mentoring programs also increase high school graduation rates. In so doing, local communities save nearly $200,000 in government spending and increased taxes per child. More importantly, mentors help teens develop valuable critical thinking and followership skills. By learning how to employ self-monitoring principles, high school students are inevitably in a better position to reject extremist solicitations in favor of more prudent relational discernments. In fact, research indicates that supportive, healthy relationships formed through enhanced mentoring actually make protégés smarter, more independent, creative, and, overall, more discriminating when faced with risky followership inclinations.
According to a 2013 study conducted by Hart Research and Civic Enterprises commissioned by MENTOR, the National Mentoring Partnership, a significant mentoring gap exists in America for at-risk youth. Unfortunately, while the field of mentoring has grown significantly in recent years, millions of young people — especially those who could most benefit from a mentor — still do not have a supportive adult in their life.
More than one in three teens — an estimated 16 million — have never had a mentor. An estimated 9 million at-risk youth are therefore less likely to graduate high school, go on to college, and lead healthy and productive lives. Every year, more than 1 million students drop out of high school. If this trend continues it will cost the nation more than $3 trillion in lost wages, productivity, and taxes over the next 10 years. Fortunately, Hart Research Study findings also indicate that at a minimum, for every dollar invested in quality youth mentoring programs, a $3 yield in benefits returns to society!
Supporting the findings of Hart and the Gates Foundation, a five-year study conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health concluded that youth with mentors were more confident and had fewer behavioral problems. Most significant, girls in the study were identified as being four times less likely to bully, fight, lie or express anger than girls without a mentor. Additionally, girls were two and a half times more likely than girls without a mentor to be confident in their ability to be successful at school. Boys, on the other hand, were only two times less likely to display similar tendencies.
A similar study conducted by North Carolina State University showed that youth from disadvantaged backgrounds are twice as likely to attend college when they have a mentor. In general, when young students are mentored, they show increased belief in their abilities to succeed in school and feel less anxious when pressured by their peers to make dangerous choices. These and similar research findings should inspire religious, civic, and educational leaders to allocate sufficient resources for the provision of appropriate mentoring services for at-risk teens.
In addition to teaching critical thinking and leadership skills, institutions of higher education should make it a priority to encourage students to accept the tenets of followership. Unfortunately, the concept of followership has been given limited attention by institutions of higher education. Since followers are an intricate relational component in the leadership equation it is critical to include appropriate models in the curriculum.
Colleges and universities have traditionally placed a premium on developing strong leadership skills in their students. In fact, apart from their academic curriculum, many institutions have actually included leadership branding as part of their mission statements. While higher education’s focus on leadership is understandable, its neglect of followership negatively impacts students and ultimately society. By not focusing on followership, colleges risk excluding critical lifelong learning that could contribute to a more positive global society and a more responsible citizenry.
In his chapter “Rethinking Followership” (In Art of Followership, 2008), Robert E. Kelley, a prominent social scientist in followership studies suggests that active followership includes two intersecting dimensions, namely (a) independent/critical thinking, and (b) active engagement. Like Kelly, Ira Chaleff (The Courageous Follower, 1995) outlines five key dimensions of durable followers: (a) assume responsibility, (b) serve, (c) challenge, (d) participate in transformation, and (e) take moral action.
Unlike the weak protagonist depicted in Fifty Shades of Grey, Homer’s Telemachus exhibits the key dimensions of healthy followership. More importantly, he displays the propensity to make prudent choices and to take ownership of his actions. As ISIS and other geo-religious impostors realize that critical thinking and followership skills are currently not fully developed in youth, they see our Nation’s teens as easy targets for online propaganda recruitment.
Experts agree that certain predisposing factors facilitate teen attraction to such abusive relationships. These factors include:
- Desire to belong
- Low tolerance for ambiguity
- Cultural disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the status quo
- Lack of self-confidence
- Desire for spiritual meaning
Alternatively, when mentor/mentees are effectively matched through nonprofit organizations like Big Brother/Sisters, Women of Tomorrow, 4-H, and the United Way, teens become engaged and productive citizens. The UMB Center for Evidence Based Mentoring (http://www.umbmentoring.org) is a valuable hub providing resources and links to our Nation’s current mentoring programs. Unfortunately, due to faulty discernment and underdeveloped decision-making skills, the predispositions of at-risk high school students continue to regularly coalesce in tragic ways.
The first four chapters of The Odyssey are collectively referred to as the “Telemacheia.” Apart from developing the primary themes of the famous epic, the Telemacheia focuses on the spiritual, intellectual, and physical maturation of Telemachus. One can rightly infer, therefore, that The Odyssey is the pan-ultimate narrative of young teen’s “coming of age,” whose journey to authentic adulthood was successfully facilitated by a loving mentor.
The importance of Athena’s androgynous mentorship in Telemachus’ journey towards maturity cannot, therefore, be overstated. Whenever the prince encounters seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the mentor/mentis was there to provide the necessary assistance. This valuable role as mentor/guardian is best symbolized in Telemachus’ acceptance of Athena’s lance. Cited at the outset of the essay, the placing of Athena’s lance with spears belonging to Odysseus vividly indicate the honor and respect that her protégé afforded this cherished item. By accepting Athena’s spear, Telemachus indicated his willingness to accept the goddess’ mentorship and the gift of her greatest strength – wisdom!
In the final analysis, mentorship provides at-risk teens the valuable lance of critical thinking with which their odyssey towards maturation can be successfully pursued. By utilizing this “demiurgic” deployment, high school students may be in a better position to slay the lethal enticements of inauthentic ideologies that are currently courting the attention of the non-discerning. Only in this fashion can teens hope to successfully slay the varied shades of abusive Greys!