These words from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle still ring true today. As many of us know from experience, our friends enhance joyful times of life and sustain us in hard times. In an education that seeks to cultivate both knowledge and virtue, a certain kind of friendship is especially important: mentorship.
Aristotle saw a strong link between friendship and virtue. In his Nichomachean Ethics, he writes that only by living a virtuous life (that is, one in accord with our human nature) can we be truly happy. What’s more, his philosophy shows that because we are social beings, one of the best avenues for building virtue is friendship.
In other words, friendship fuels virtue, virtue fuels friendship.
So if an education is to develop the whole person — not just aiming for scholarly success but also happiness — it must involve friendship.
That includes a healthy culture of friendship among students, who trust and support each other. But peers can only teach each other so much, since they have limited experience and wisdom in life. That’s why they also need mentorship. This kind of friendship between teacher and student blends authority with personal relationship.
Aristotle touches on this idea when he describes “friendship between unequals.” The word “unequal” does not mean that one participant is better than the other but rather that the two have different roles. His examples include the friendship “of a father toward a son … of an older person toward a younger … and of any sort of ruler toward the one he rules.”
In a relationship with a student, a teacher brings the experience, wisdom, and influence that a peer cannot. At the same time, the teacher also cares about the student as a person and wants that student to be happy. The authority exists not to rule but to serve, guiding the student’s growth in virtue.
So what does good mentorship look like in action? Here are three components:
1. Each student is known and loved
Middle and high school students are not adults, which means that their cognitive and emotional development has not yet matured. Even so, each one remains a unique, unrepeatable person destined for happiness. Embracing that reality compels a teacher to care for each student by listening attentively and speaking calmly in every interaction, from instructing to correcting. When a student is aware that her teacher knows and wants the best for her, she more readily responds to the guidance that teacher offers.
2. One-on-one conversation
Making time for one-on-one conversation is the only way to get to know the student as an individual, apart from the class community. In the safe haven of quiet conversation, the teacher can understand the student’s strengths and weaknesses, appreciate those qualities more deeply, and discern the best response to them. One-on-one conversation also demonstrates personalized care and attention, making advice easier to give and receive.
3. Setting personal goals
In their individual conversations with students, teachers as mentors help them set non-academic goals. By discussing opportunities for growth beyond schoolwork, such as in family life or with friends, teachers indicate that they care not just about their students’ grades but about their growth in virtue and happiness. These are the teachers we remember the most, because they propelled us not just to graduation but to something greater: a happy life.
The importance of mentoring in cultivating virtue is one reason why it plays a central role in an Oakcrest education. When a teacher sees each student not as a test score but as a human person built for friendship and happiness, she responds with a whole-hearted effort to be a friend and guide each person under her care.
That is the best gift any teacher can give.
This blog is based on the author’s senior thesis for the University of Notre Dame. That thesis, “Educating Virtue Through Friendship: How the Teacher-Student Relationship can Fuel Holistic Education,” was largely inspired by her experience at Oakcrest.
Sophia Martinson (‘14) earned a B.A. summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame in the Program of Liberal Studies and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She is a freelance culture writer. Her work on film, literature, the family, and society has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Examiner, Angelus News, Verily magazine, The New Criterion, and MercatorNet. She lives in New York City with her husband and son. You can read more of her work at sophiamartinson.wixsite.com/writer.
Source: Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. Translated by Terrence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999.