Role Models

 Posted by on 14 May 2003 at 8:40 am  Uncategorized
May 142003

Eugene has some good comments on role models, particularly on how much a role model needs to be “like us.” He writes:

…while I’m not an expert on the psychological research surrounding this subject, my sense is that it’s not inherently that hard for people to find role models who differ from them in race or sex. People are capable of being inspired by people who lived centuries before them, who spoke a completely different language, had a completely different ethnicity, and lived a completely different sort of life. Ask an American classical musician, for instance, which figures in history he has admired — is he likelier to mention American or English composers, or German or Russian ones? People are capable of abstracting those factors (which in any event shouldn’t be the basis for admiration), and focusing on more important matters, such as the person’s great achievements or great character (which should be the basis for admiration). I suspect that people are likewise able to abstract race and sex as well.

But while I think people are inherently able to choose role models from either gender and any race, ethnicity, religion, and era, social attitudes can change that. The more we talk about how girls need female role models, blacks need black role models, and so on, the more we send the message that children should seek only role models of their own race and sex. And, as I’ve argued above, that message is actually harmful to those children who belong to a race or sex that — often through no fault of its own — simply does not contain role models (in the particular fields in which the children are interested) who are as great as those that have been produced by another race or sex. An excessive and highly publicized focus on race- and sex-specific role modeling is thus, I suspect, harmful to the very groups (women and nonwhites) that it’s trying to help.

I agree that people ought to look broadly within the whole of humanity for their role models. As a philosopher, I would have no role models at all if I confined myself to my own sex, that Russian Jewish woman philosopher notwithstanding. To find role models in the history of philosophy, I must look beyond the superficial similarities of race, sex, and class to the more fundamental issues of method, style, and ideas. And I’m far better off for doing so, as I can pick and choose from among the best, e.g. Aristotle, Locke, Mill, rather than from a small (and frankly mediocre) subset.

From the outside, I certainly have little in common with a misogynistic, slave-holding Greek who lived over 2000 years ago, a.k.a. Aristotle. And, despite her sex, I have little in common with a Russian Jewish immigrant fascinated with Hollywood, a.k.a. Ayn Rand. Friendship would likely have been impossible with either of these philosophers. But the whole point of philosophy (as well as other endeavors like art, science, and so on) is to transcend those cultural divides and personal preferences, to find something universal to all humanity. So to look for role models based upon superficial characteristics is to radically misunderstand (in good postmodernist fashion) the whole point of these subjects.

One final note: I could be, I suppose, a very good woman philosopher. If that were my goal, then women philosopher role models might be appropriate. But to think in such terms is limiting, patronizing, and deeply sexist. I want to be a very good philosopher, period. (I wonder if other women in philosophy think in those terms, however. At CU Boulder, about a third of the grad students in philosophy are women — and most of them are focused on feminist issues, not real philosophy. That’s disappointing, but not surprising.)

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