The Myth of the 'Role Model'



The other day I got a call from a high school teacher. Would I come to her class? ''It would be so important for our brown and black students to see you. They need good role models. They need to know that they, too, can become journalists,'' she said.

I do not like the idea of role models. Listen to the term -- how middle class it is, how flat in human understanding. Role. Model. The term reduces the influence adults might have on children to something occupational, a mere role, like an actor's mask.

Yet here we are at that time of year of graduation ceremonies and earnest valedictories. The air is full of pollen and talk of role models.

A high school dean tells me of his plan to have a ''role model week.''

An undergraduate at UCLA tells me that women need more role models in the sciences and engineering.

Black students demand more black teachers as role models.

The other day at a college in the Midwest, I heard a professor talking about ''mentors'' and ''mentees.'' I think a mentee is someone who has a role model.

When I was in college, at Stanford University, I don't think I had any role models, though I was ambitious at the time to become a teacher. Oh, I had some wonderful teachers, inspiring teachers, who taught me to read poetry and to comprehend the pleasing shape of an idea. I also had lots of busy teachers -- careerists or not. But none of them, neither the good nor the bad, shaped my ambition to become a teacher or, later, my decision to leave teaching.

Just between us: I'll trade you ten of my Stanford professors for one Sister of Mercy. I was educated in grammar school by the Irish Catholic order of nuns called the Sisters of Mercy. My Sisters of Mercy were young women of slight education. Most of them had only high school diplomas; they worked for peanuts -- 52 kids to a class. They were my best teachers. Not role models. They taught me that teaching is a vocation, not a career, certainly not a role.

On television a few weeks ago two of America's most famous role models, Gloria Steinem and Marlo Thomas, were urging parents to take their children to work for a day. In my opinion, we would have better journalists, better lawyers, we would have better doctors if we had fewer role models.

Bruce Barker is a surgeon in San Francisco. Neither his father nor his mother was a doctor. His father abandoned their family when Bruce was a baby. One of two children, Bruce was raised by his mother. They lived on welfare for seven years but his mother wanted to get off welfare. She was unwilling to be a victim, the son says of his mother. She worked ''graveyard shifts'' to be home with her sons in the daytime. His mother was the reason Bruce Barker became a doctor.

The people who matter most to a life are not role models. The people who matter are moral examples. A grandmother, an uncle, a Sister of Mercy.

I think of my mother, who worked as a typist and is now bent with arthritis. Or my father, who made false teeth for a living. They were not role models. I did not end up making false teeth, after all.

Stanford University will have its graduation ceremony in a few days. On the football field there will be a procession of black robes -- students -- followed by the colored sashes and caps of the eminent, the busy professors.

I wonder about the parents and the grandparents who will sit in the bleachers, the ones without the degrees. Those who have never read Shakespeare or Malcolm X, those who are not role models.

I wonder too about educators who find solace in the notion of role models. Is it that as adults we feel so bereft, so without moral authority, that we are forced to use that morally blank term? Is it that we so lack a sense of soul that the notion of roles is the only means we have to speak of the influence we might cast on the young?

Yes, I said to the voice on the phone. I will come to your class room.

Oh, she said, could you wear a suit and a tie?


Richard Rodriguez is author of ''Days of Obligation'' (Viking) and an essayist on the MacNeil Lehrer News Hour, from which this piece is adapted.

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