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How to Mentor

by Dr. Oliver DeMille

Dr. Oliver DeMille is the founder and Provost of George Wythe College, the only college in America specifically designed to train statesmen using the methods which educated Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington and other American Founding Fathers. Dr. DeMille affirms that "our society desperately needs leadership. We need statesmen, which in the old sense was more than just a governmental leader. A statesman is a man or woman of virtue, wisdom, diplomacy and courage who inspires greatness in others and moves the cause of liberty." In the last issue of The Link, Dr. DeMille explained the differences between three major types of education and identified the skills needed to succeed in the careers of the future. In this article, he discusses how to mentor and use the classics in your home school to train statesmenlike leaders and foster these skills.

This article is from a lecture Dr. DeMille delivered at the Link Homeschool Conference at Westlake Village, California on June 13, 1998.

Find a great leader in history and you will find two central elements of their education—classics and mentors. From Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington to Gandhi, Mohammed, Moses, Buddha and Jesus Christ, from Newton to John Locke to Abigail Adams and Joan of Arc—great men and women of history studied other great men and women. Whatever your culture, look at its greatest leaders and you will find that they were guided by at least one mentor and made a lifetime study of classic works.

A good mentor is someone of high moral character who is more advanced than you and can guide your learning. Parents are the natural mentors of youth, and they can be very effective in getting the student started on a lifetime plan for success, especially if they use some of the key techniques perfected by the great mentors of history.

My favorite model of how to mentor is George Wythe, the mentor of Thomas Jefferson. George Wythe was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He was the first law professor in America, a famous judge, and Chancellor of the State of Virginia. Perhaps his most lasting contribution was as mentor to 2 future U.S. Presidents, 2 Supreme Court Justices, and over 50 senators, representatives, governors and judges. Let's consider how the methods he used can be applied in our home schools in order to train leaders for the future.

Seven years ago I helped found George Wythe College, and one of my first responsibilities was researching just how Wythe mentored Jefferson. From that intensive research, and seven years of additional reading and studying, I have found six major things which form the core of Wythe's mentoring. I have been involved in implementing all six into the College's curriculum, and my wife Rachel and I have built our own home school around them. I have also taught these principles in many home school settings, and I have seen them successfully implemented by numerous parents. My feeling as a father is that if they were good enough for Jefferson, they are worth adopting in our home school. And in the College we have seen them repeatedly change "normal" students into excellent scholars and effective leaders. Here are George Wythe's six keys to effective mentoring:

1. Use the Classics
As one biographer put it, Thomas Jefferson's studies with George Wythe were four "years of virtually uninterrupted reading, not only in the law but also in the ancient classics, English Literature, and general political philosophy. It wasn't so much an apprenticeship for law as it was an apprenticeship for greatness." And as Allan Bloom said in The Closing of the American Mind, "When a youngster like Lincoln sought to educate himself, the immediately obvious things for him to learn were the Bible, Shakespeare and Euclid. Was he really worse off than those who try to find their way through the technical smorgasbord of the current school system, with its utter inability to distinguish between important and unimportant . . . . I do not believe that my generation, my cousins who have been educated in the American way, all of whom are M.D.s or Ph.D.s, have any comparable learning."

A classic may be defined as a work which is worth studying many times, and which proffers you more each time. Particularly about the really important things—right and wrong, good and bad, true and false, human nature and history. There are classics in every field. For example, in science study Copernicus, Galileo, and Einstein; in math, Euclid, Nichomachus, Newton; in history, Plutarch, Gibbon, Durant; in foreign language, a classic from that language like Don Quixote in Spanish or War and Peace in Russian. And classics aren't just books, but include art, sculpture, music, and so on. Of course, this is just a teaser list, there are many great works in each field.

As students become familiar with and eventually conversant with the great ideas of humanity, they will learn how to think, how to lead, and how to become great. The classics, by introducing the young mind to the greatest achievements of mankind and the teachings of God, prepare children to become successful human beings, parents and leaders in their own time. They also ensure the future of freedom, as Lord Brougham said: "Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave." And he was clearly talking about true liberal arts education, not conveyer belt job training.

2. Personalize
George Wythe built his student's learning around the classics, but each student had a personalized study program designed to fit his individual goals. Someone who goes to 20 students and says, "You all need the same thing" is not a mentor. A mentor takes each student where he or she is and says, "Okay, let's develop a program for you. What do you want to become? What do you want to create? What do you want to learn?" Once you get the answer from the student, help them develop a personal plan to achieve it. You can't train leaders on a conveyor belt; if you want to teach them how to think, their studies must be personalized.

Consider the American Founding generation. From ages 5-12 they were typically home schooled. Some started earlier, others later, according to their interests and talents and the direction from their parents. Of course, the parents really starting teaching them from birth, but it was typically around age 5 that they began reading classics and discussing them with their mentors. Their curriculum was the three R's— reading, writing and arithmetic—all based around morality and the classics. They even got their arithmetic from the classics, the Bible being the central classic.

From ages 13-17, most of the Founders went to college. In the time of Jefferson and Madison, the average graduation age of college was 16 or 17. At college, students took on the classics and went in depth. Then from 18-21 students went to work or to a professional school. The key point here is that in all these studies, learning was individualized. First by parents at home, then by other mentors at boarding school or college. If they went into law or medicine or a trade, they worked with yet another set of mentors who assessed their strengths and weaknesses and set out to help them achieve success. And the system was successful enough that the typical 1789 farmer could read and understand the Federalist Papers, something most Ph.D. students would struggle with today.

The public school conveyer belt has made us more highly trained as a generation, but less educated. And leadership therefore is lacking. The records we have of many of George Wythe's students shows that no curriculum was quite the same, each student had a personalized program designed to fit his/her needs and interests. Our home schools can do the same by simply taking each student as an individual. This is one of the great advantages of home school; we should personalize each student's program instead of just bringing the public school conveyer belt home with us.

3. Keep it Simple: Read and Discuss
The more advanced our national curriculum has become, the less educated our society is. And it's not just in the United States. You find it in ancient Rome, Greece, Chinese history, Japanese history, and elsewhere. It is almost a proverb: The more complex the curriculum, the less educated the people are. Jefferson didn't have access to our modern "advanced" textbooks and yearly updated curriculum modules. He read the classics, wrote about them, and discussed what he learned with his mother and later his mentors. George Wythe built Jefferson's whole curriculum around these three simple items: Classics, discussion, writing. The whole founding generation did the same, and the further we have moved from this simple formula, the worse our education has become.

What we need to improve education is not more curriculum, but better education, and that comes from classics and mentors. With young children you do two things: Read them the classics— things at their level like Black Beauty, Charlotte's Web, the Little House Series, fables and rhymes— then talk to them about it, teach them lessons. You may want to preview the books beforehand, read them yourself and ask if you think they are classics. Do they teach human nature and great moral lessons which you want to discuss with your children? If so, read them to the children. Read poems, stories, and brief histories of great scientists, doctors, mathematicians, artists, statesmen, etc.

And Dads should read as much as Moms, or at least as much as possible. A lot of people have the idea that moms are the home schoolers and dads just go to work. But studies have shown that the most academically effective people tend to be those whose fathers read to them when they were young. So both of you read the classics, from many fields, to the children and stop and talk to the children about what you've read. Keep it simple.

As the children get older, add some other things. Increase the depth and the difficulty level, but focus on reading classics and discussing. Of course, you can only mentor them well if you read the books too. Read the classic they're reading. If you've read it before, great, that means you have a chance of learning a lot more from it this time through. The more you read it, the more you'll learn. If you read it with the first three children, read it again with the fourth. If it isn't worth reading four times, it shouldn't be on your classic list. And the fourth child will get the better education because you're a better mentor, and each time you read it you'll get something new that you never thought of before. After you share this new discovery with your child, call the other three and tell them about it. You'll create a lifelong tradition of mentoring and learning that will be passed on to other generations.

The key to this is to have a lot of discussions, both planned and spontaneous, about these readings. For example, say you and your child-student are reading Dickens' Great Expectations. Pip is the main character. He's a young child, he's poor, no one thinks he'll amount to much in life. Then all of a sudden he gets an anonymous donation of money, so they say, "Pip, you have great expectations, you'll be wonderful." He matures and grows up and has to make some decisions about what's right and wrong and good and bad. He ends up making decisions which lead him in the wrong direction, decisions based on pride. He feels that what is socially acceptable is opposed to what he knows is most important. He alienates his old friends and the people who supported him because he wants to look right in high society. He won't let them come visit him in certain settings because he doesn't want to mix the old friends with the new. He makes a lot of mistakes and has to deal with the consequences. That's a powerful message that you can talk to your kids about, about how they act with friends, what is really important in life, what is integrity and how is it manifest in our actions, etc.

You can do this spontaneously as you are reading and think of something. Or you can set a time to be done and have a discussion. Better still, have several students and parents read it and come together for a group discussion. And you can refer back to the book later on in life when your child is dumping old friends to look good to a more popular crowd. "You have great expectations. Are you sure about this?"

In your discussions, let the students think. Don't just tell them what it said. Ask questions. Suppose one of your kids says, "I don't think Pip made a wrong decision, I think he was right." Don't tell him he's wrong. Say, "That's really interesting. Would you tell us why?" With dad and mom there, and perhaps other children, this can be a powerful teaching moment.

In addition to discussion, have them write about what they are learning as frequently as possible. Then evaluate their writing and give them feedback, which leads to more discussion. They can also give reports to a bigger group or send their papers to others for feedback. Letters to other home schoolers on books they both read can also be valuable.

This is how real education takes place. You study and read, so does the student. Then you discuss and talk about it and see how it applies to real life and important questions and ideas. And you read classics, books worth rereading, from all topics of study. If you can't understand a particular math or science classic, get someone in the community to read it with you and help. You are the mentor, helping where you can and getting others to help where you are limited. Keep it simple: You don't need a fancy curriculum, just the greatest works of all time, some hard work by you and your student, and lots of discussion.

4. Apply Lessons to Life
The most powerful lessons occur where studies intersect with real life. Mentors must constantly have students involved in applying the things they are learning. George Wythe had Jefferson and his other students attend the Virginia parliament, court cases, and other events and then discuss the similarities and differences between current events and the writings of the classics. Thomas Jefferson was present the day Patrick Henry gave his "Give me Liberty or Death" speech, and it impacted him deeply. He discussed it at length with George Wythe and they considered how it fit Jefferson's studies of government, law and history. Wythe also used the newspaper, the primary media of the day, as a source of comparison and application of Jefferson's study of the classics.

Mentors can help students get involved in the community in many ways, but most of this application comes during discussions of how the readings apply to real life. For example, consider how you could apply the lessons learned in Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre is a great story of a disadvantaged girl whose dreams finally come true, when all of a sudden at the very last minute before she is to be married, finds out the man is already married. He tries to convince her it is right anyway because of the circumstances. She says, "No, this is wrong, absolutely wrong," and she leaves. She ends up begging for food on the street, going door-to-door asking for help, her clothes are worn out, she is totally exhausted, and she has no place to sleep, no food to eat. All she has to do is go back and accept this man's offer, and she'll be rich and have the man she loves. But she says, "No, this is wrong. There's a clear right and a wrong here and I'm going to do what's right."

There is a lot of discussion that can take place in a family about this. Mom and dad can say, "Let me tell you about our courtship and talk about some related ideas. While we're on the subject, let's talk about courtship as opposed to dating and look at the differences, and let's consider how it differs between those days and today." The whole concept of right and wrong and consequences ties in to this book and can be discussed however it is most applicable to the student and his/her family.

This works very well for current events. When you're watching television and Dan Rather says something, you say, "That's an interesting take on it. We just got done reading Marx's Communist Manifesto and Madison in the Federalist Papers. Which of those viewpoints is Dan Rather closest to?" If your student says, "He's clearly Madison." You respond, "Why? Explain that to me." Then you talk it through. If you or your student are still unclear, you go back to the books and make a list of the 7 main ideas from both. Then you watch the news together for the next two weeks and take notes, and discuss it again. Then they write about it and you discuss what they've written. And what you're doing the whole time is creating thinking and leadership because the student learns how to think, and how to apply what he or she is learning. At the same time, hopefully, they learn some clear lessons on right and wrong.

Almost any important subject you can think of is brought up in the classics; all you do is read it along with the student, discuss it together, and point out how it applies to them personally and to current events. Just like Wythe taught Jefferson: Classics, discussion, writing, application.

5. Only Accept Quality Work
If the work wasn't top notch, George Wythe said, "Do it again." And again and again until it was excellent. You can see in all Jefferson's later works that he learned this lesson well. When students do an assignment, either say "great work" or "do it again." You can help them, but make them do most of the work and never accept a low-quality submission or performance.

Parents often worry that they aren't really experts, so they hesitate to enforce high standards. For young children, the love of learning is more important than the quality of work. But at some point in their development you will do them a huge favor if you step in and set up a system of standards together and then abide by it.

Their papers, their reports, and their assignments must be high quality. Don't give them grades. Just "great work" or "do it again." If they don't like the book or the thing they are studying, discuss it anyway. If their report is vague and they seem bored, ask them why. Talk it out, even if their response is negative. For example:.

"Well, I just didn't like it because . . ." Whatever their reason, they are thinking now. Keep questioning them.

What if they say, "I don't want to discuss this book. I hated this book."

"Why did you hate it? What was wrong with it? What was the problem?"

Some of the most powerful discussions I've had with students at George Wythe College are about the book Lord of the Flies because everyone hates it. I hate it myself. It's a really good book to hate. But there are some powerful discussions that take place when you say, "Why do you hate it?"

"Because it leaves God out of everything."

"Okay, that's a really good reason. Does society ever make that same mistake?"

"That's why I hated it, because our secular society is getting to be just like that."

"Well, if you were on that island in Lord of the Flies, how would you change things? What would you do?"

"I would . . ."

Whatever their answer, ask something like, "Okay, then how are you going to do those same things in our modern society?"

This is powerful. Take the greatest ideas of humanity and apply them to self and society. Question, probe, ponder, think, discuss, write, apply, THINK. Stretch yourself as a mentor, so that you can push your students. This is the great key to mentoring—lead out by expanding yourself even harder than you push them. And push them by requiring quality work, just like Wythe did with Jefferson.

Education of Leaders
This is how the great leaders of history learned. They read classics and had these sorts of discussions and were really pushed by mentors and then when they were in situations where they had to make difficult decisions, the Lincolns of the world were able to say, "No! This is unacceptable. Jane Eyre would have done this. Gideon would have done this, and this is what I'm going to do." Because leaders have pondered the great ideas, the great stories, they know what and how to choose the right. The classics become part of their makeup, part of who they are. Their friends and close associates are able to say, "Hey, here's what you should do. Think of Pip. You're making a decision out of pride; it's not going to turn out well." And they stop and say, "You know, you're right."

There's a powerful scene in the latest Star Trek movie where Captain Picard is about to make a fatal mistake, and another character says, "Okay, Ahab, you go right ahead." That changes the whole paradigm for him. "Ahab". He realizes, "I am Ahab," and he starts quoting Melville, and changes his mind. And the character who speaks to Picard hadn't even read Moby Dick. But there is power in those stories. The stories we associate ourselves with, whether of Moses or Hamlet or Anne of Green Gables, become powerful in our lives and when the time comes to make tough decisions we fall back on them in order to decide. When a person has come face-to-face with George Washington as a central part of his or her education, or with Esther or Ruth, they stand up in a crisis situation and say "I will not; neither will you." Because the classics are a part of them. That's greatness and leadership and all it takes is classics and mentors.

6. Set the Example
The best mentors are continually learning and pushing themselves. Read the classics. Study hard. Let your student decide what you are going to study next. "What are we going to do today, son? What is our next classic?"

"Well, I've been thinking about . . ."

"Okay, I will do that, but you have to do it too. As your mentor, I will commit to study it, ponder and think about it, and we'll discuss it." Then study hard, pay the price in your own study, and require quality work from the student. A great mentor is not only one who gives assignments, but one who accepts them and thereby allows the student to begin practicing leadership.

George Wythe studied as hard as Jefferson, and Jefferson contacted him with questions and for help until he passed away. The mentor must lead the way, by reading what the student reads and discussing it with him/her and requiring quality work.

Let me recap. The greatest leaders in history used a very simple curriculum. They read the classics, they discussed them with a mentor who only accepted quality work, and they applied those classics to real life. The more we move away from that curriculum, the less successful we'll be in educating people and training leaders. Greatness is fostered by coming face-to-face with greatness, both in mentors and classics. Jefferson was who he was much in part due to the effort and direction of George Wythe. Much of who Abraham Lincoln was came as a result of his lifelong passion of studying one man: George Washington. He read the classics; many times by firelight. He discussed it with his mentors, the first of which was his stepmother.

If you want to be successful in creating leadership education, in preparing students for the careers of the future, then teach them how to think. How? Get them into the classics, do it with them, accept only quality, and apply it to real life, over and over and over again until they leave home. And when they leave and go away to college or career, they'll be leaders and so will you.

(To contact Dr. DeMille or request information about George Wythe College, call 435-586-6570)

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