|By A.D. Freudenheim||
23 October 2005
A role model, defined as a person who serves as a model in a particular behavioral or social role for another person to emulate, can be an important part of life for young kids, adolescents, and even for adults looking to improve themselves. The concept of the role model is an old one, and it is easy to see the benefits that such people have provided in almost every village around the world. From community elders or priests who have acolytes, to craftsmen with apprentices, to scholars with research assistants or pupils, to simple friendships, the construct of these admiring relationships can impart everything from basic values to essential or highly esoteric knowledge, and provide moral and emotional support when one is frustrated or uncertain about what path to choose. Anyone who has ever had a role model, someone to whom they looked for advice and support, knows how crucial the relationship can be; for those with the role of mentor, the ability to see ones values or knowledge passed along to another person can be an incomparable experience.
Writing last week about the role that communities play in teaching values, I stated that even the smallest village, with the most well-meaning citizens, can be a challenging place to grow up and one pivot point for these difficulties can also be none other than those same role models. The problem turns on three main points:
Now, the reasons why a person might decide to learn from or emulate someone elses way of doing things seems obvious: they believe it will be beneficial, that it will help them improve in some meaningful fashion. That emulation can take place in a very engaged, partnered way, with the cooperation and support of the role model or it can happen at a distance, the way that kids might emulate the style of dress of a rock star they will never meet, or an adolescent will idolize a dead philosopher. Assessing the relative merits of proximity is difficult. However, there is something to be said for having a living, breathing role model available to learn from and consult with, and this has been the traditional understanding of the term. In the villages around the world, people may learn of the history of other admirable citizens, but little can take the place of someone with whom people can engage directly.
Equally important is that a role model should be freely chosen, and readily and openly accepted. That sounds obvious, but in the the development of a village community, it may be anything but. This is particularly true when one person or group of people uses another as an unfailing example of right and proper behavior, as is common in families for example, when the parents in the Smith family point to the Jones family, and say to their kids: now thats how things should be done, the Jones family knows. The Smiths may have good reason to admire something the Jones clan has done; emulating their behavior might help the Smiths parents and children both improve and become better friends, neighbors, and citizens. But whether such a tactic will be successful hinges on how much these external role models are used that is, how much reinforcement there is regarding someone elses righteous acts and whether or not the behavior is actually worthy of emulation.
It is that last piece that is most problematic, and most often missed or misused. Unquestionably, many families have strong, positive values that might make them important citizens in their community. Those values may also be taught from generation to generation and, while the application of these values may change with each successive group of people, the core of the value and its benefit to society might remain. For example, if the Jones family has a tradition of charitable giving, the Smith family might be right to admire and seek to emulate such behavior; the Jones philanthropy likely helps their community, and the additional support from the Smiths may do even more. Here, the values of philanthropy or charity are at work, as are the role models across families and across generations that support those values. Even if the elder Joneses and Smiths contribute to cultural organizations while the younger Smiths and Joneses give their money to environmental causes, the implication and application of the values remains the same.
But: what if the Jones parents have three daughters, and all three daughters have long hair and decide to study law? If the Smith parents tell (explicitly or implicitly) their daughters You should emulate the Jones girls, keep your hair long and study law, are those reasonable role models? Maybe: if the Smith girls also want long hair, and are also interested in law, then it may be reasonable. Yet if the Smith girls are interested in neither studying law or having long hair, then their intended role models fall flat (and may even have the opposite effect). Moreover, what values are being transferred or learned there? None. The elder Smiths should take great care to distinguish between behaviors that they find meaningful to them as a matter of personal choice (i.e., having long hair, being interested in law), and whether or not there are values that serve fundamentally to underpin those behaviors.
Finally and most challengingly, and most critically is the need to understand the true intent behind someones values and behaviors when selecting a role model. However, it again requires that a distinction be drawn between values and behaviors, because while the former may affect the latter, no assumptions should be made on that point. Within the village, it may be too easy to leap to incorrect conclusions about someones values, motivations, or how such values and motivations become actions. Take the examples above, re-examined slightly:
Villagers around the world parents, children, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and others take actions every day that they believe to be helpful, meaningful, or important to others; we all do it, making assumptions about our own and others values, motivations, and actions. Yet it is possible for even the most well-meaning person to cause pain or inflict damage, physically or emotionally, because of these assumptions. I quoted one sentence from my article last week but it was, in fact, a two-sentence concluding paragraph: Even the smallest village, with the most well-meaning citizens, can be a challenging place to grow up. We do not make it any easier if we pretend that specific values always dictate specific behaviors, or by denigrating freedom of choice in favor of a uniform, monolithic approach to life. Or, put another way: for our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and others to serve as role models, to learn from them and to seek to apply their values, beliefs, and techniques in our own lives, we must first know ourselves.
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language,
Fourth Edition, Published 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
 Indeed, plenty of people see the long-dead Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, or other such religious figures, as perfect role models. But history also reveals clearly the many horrible things done in the name of such role models, who are no longer around to protest at (mis)interpretations of their intentions and beliefs.
 This is hardly a new scenario, philanthropy being used to establish or rehabilitate reputations. From the American robber barons who left behind great foundations and public institutions dedicated to the civic good, to recent allegations made against gifts by donors such as Alberto Vilar or Herbert Axelrod, it is a long and problematic tradition.
Copyright 2005, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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