Essay, Research Paper: Morrie's Aphorisms

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No bubble is so iridescent or floats longer than that blown by the successful
teacher. Sir William Osler (1849-1919), 4 Oct. 1911, Glasgow (quoted in: Harvey
Cushing, Life of Sir William Osler, vol. 2, ch. 31, 1925). Mitch Albom wrote
Tuesday’s with Morrie as a final tribute to his old college professor, Morrie
Schwartz, who intended that his death should be his "final thesis."
Grim and fascinating, Professor Schwartz’s courage in the face of a painful
death is truly inspiring. The lucidity and wisdom which Professor Schwartz
gained over the years became increasingly pronounced and focused as he
contemplated his life and imminent death, as well as his place in the Cosmos
while his frail body melted away through A.L.S. (Lou Gehrig's disease). This
paper will discuss five of Professor Schwartz aphorisms (or proverbs), which
would facilitate learning in subject- specific -and other educational venues.
The Meaning of Life “So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They
seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are
important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get
meaning into your life is devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to
your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives
you purpose and meaning.” (emphasis added) (p. 43) Professor Schwartz’s
analysis of the "meaning of life" is particularly appropriate for
teaching philosophical views and sociological concepts. Since time immemorial,
man has contemplated why he is on the Earth and what his place is in the
‘Greater Scheme of Things’. While students rush through the educational
process in a pinball-like attempt to learn what they need to thrive and survive,
they frequently overlook those aspects of their education, which are the most
important. When people become self-actualized, as Professor Schwartz did, they
are better able to view humanity from a broader angle. This "better
view" of mankind involves a commitment to others and to the community in
which one lives, but it is more elemental than that. Material possessions,
according to the professor, mean little when you are lying on your deathbed.
What is truly important is that an individual’s life is given meaning and
purpose by the degree to which that individual has served and loved others.
Admittedly, Professor Schwartz had the wisdom of years and the insight provided
by decades of philosophical research; however, the quest for the "meaning
of life" is a universal aspect of mankind and finding the right answer is
like finding the Holy Grail -- many have looked but few have seen. Therefore,
Professor Schwartz’s thought process concerning devoting oneself to loving
others and their community is particularly appropriate in a philosophical and
sociological learning environment. A better learning experience could be gained
by a requirement that all college students perform a certain number of hours of
service to the community: painting and repairing low-income housing, or
volunteering at nursing homes or veteran centers, for example. This "giving
back" to the community would reinforce Professor Schwartz’s view that we
are all part of the human family and we gain meaning in our lives through
service to others. An activity using this aphorism in the classroom was
completed by my sixth grade Literature class at Greenwich Catholic School. The
grade decided to express the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas by bypassing the
holiday gift giving and donating their gifts to a local charity of the
children’s choice. Then, each child wrote an essay on the ‘true meaning’
of Christmas and related their experience to the activity performed. This truly
put Morrie’s proverb to work. Faith and Trust “You see,” he says to the
girl, “you closed your eyes. That was the difference. Sometimes you cannot
believe what you see; you have to believe what you feel. And if you are ever
going to have other people trust you, you must feel that you can trust them, too
-- even when you’re in the dark. Even when you’re falling.” (p. 61) There
is an old saying concerning trust and faith: "Fake it till you make
it." This means that trust and faith can be learned. Trusting others is
more difficult for some people than others. Trust, then, is the basis for all
human endeavors, which involve others, since we must accept on faith that people
will act in certain ways in order to live our daily lives. For example, in a
learning environment, trust is the basis for the effective transmission of
knowledge from teacher to student. Moreover, it is the essence of living in a
civilized society, for, if we cannot trust the driver approaching us in the
other lane to not swerve and hit us head-on. If we do not trust the police to
uphold the law, there is anarchy; if we do not trust our spouses to be faithful,
there is infidelity; if we do not trust our teachers when they teach, there is
ignorance. Therefore, the application of this aphorism would be appropriate in
practically any classroom setting, but particularly appropriate in a
philosophical environment in which universal truths are discussed. More
specifically, encouraging students to trust each other (which does not, of
course, mean to naively accept everything people tell you) will enhance their
ability to learn and to interact with their peers, their family members and
society in general. An activity that could enforce this trust would involve
partners. One person would stand directly behind the other and support their
partner’s weight. Then, they would let their partner fall backward with the
promise they will catch their partner before he/she hits the floor. This would
provide a difficulty for the partners and would reinforce the fact that it is
imperative to trust others in all situations. Learn How To Die So You Can Learn
How To Live “The truth is Mitch,” he says, “once you learn how to die, you
learn how to live.” (Emphasis added) (p. 82). A scene in Remarche's All Quiet
on the Western Front described a grizzled old sergeant advising his men that
they might as well consider themselves as already dead. This motivated the troop
to find the courage required to continue to fight. While Professor Schwartz was
not saying to consider oneself "already dead," he was saying that by
accepting the nature of life and its ultimate conclusion, you are then able to
make the most of life. Dreams, which may well go unrealized, are achieved when
you realize that life is short and ultimately precious. If you let society
dictate your dreams, those are the dreams you will die with. From a motivational
standpoint in a learning environment, this aphorism is exceptional since it will
encourage students to move beyond the institutional structures, which press
heavily on civilized societies. From an educational standpoint, "learning
how to die so you can learn how to live" would be applicable in classroom
discussions. For example, let’s examine the problems associated with aging and
coping with loss. When people are able to accept their own mortality, they are
then able to make the most of their lives by realizing their ambitions, trying
new things and taking chances they would not have otherwise. In a classroom
setting, taking chances and trying new things are what it is all about: rote
learning will not provide an individual with the insight needed to achieve all
that may be possible. An example of an activity that could be used in the
classroom is a creative writing project. You tell the students to go home and
get a list of things from an adult (preferably a parent) that did not exist
thirty years ago. Then, the students can make a list of things that they use all
the time. The students can group ideas from each list and write an essay on the
similarities of their parents and themselves. This activity can point out the
changing of time and the mortality of life. Additionally, it will improve the
student’s writing skills through drawing inferences and making conclusions.
Cultural Values “Here’s what I mean by building your own little
subculture,” Morrie said. “I don’t mean you disregard every role of your
community. I don’t go around naked, for example. I don’t run through red
lights. The little things, I can obey. But the big things -- how we think, what
we value - those you must choose yourself. You can’t let anyone -- or any
society -- determine those for you.” (p. 155) Values clearly are the guiding
principles of life and teachers are in a position to teach them; however, values
are accumulated over a lifetime through parental guidance, other family members,
and pressure from peers, religious leaders and educators. Furthermore, it is
possible for teachers to encourage students to question the validity of the
status quo -- to push the limits -- to achieve the unachievable -- by
recognizing that what other people believe to be important may not be
appropriate or even relevant. Teaching students to "create a culture of
their own", encourages individual values and thought and will provide them
with the ability to think about things differently and to live their lives based
on a solid foundation of personal integrity. Professor Schwartz insight in this
regard would be well suited for educational settings, which require an analysis
of an individual’s place in society and the values associated with various
religions. This aphorism can be used in many venues such as History, Philosophy,
Sociology and Literature. An activity done by an eighth grade class at my school
reinforced Morrie’s aphorism well. The class studied many different cultures
and created list of each culture’s attributes. Next, the students took what
they most admired about each culture and created a list of their own. Then, they
organized that list into their own personal culture they could live by. Each
student created a poster board of their culture’s values and attributes. These
students also did an oral presentation describing their new culture to the
class. We’re All Part of the Human Family “ I heard a nice little story the
other day,” Morrie says. “He closes his eyes for a moment and I wait. Okay.
The story is about a little wave, bobbing along in the ocean, having a grand old
time. He’s enjoying the wind and the fresh air -- until he notices the other
waves in front of him, crashing against the shore. My God, this is terrible, the
wave says. Look what's going to happen to me! Then along comes another wave. It
sees the first wave, looking grim, and it says to him, why do you look so sad?
The first wave says, "You don't understand! We’re all going to crash! All
of us waves are going to be nothing! Isn’t it terrible?" The second wave
says, "No, you don’t understand. You’re not a wave, you’re part of
the ocean.” (Emphasis added) This "Morrie-ism" is perhaps the most
important lesson contained in Tuesday’s With Morrie. The concept of being
"part of the ocean" reflects Professor Schwartz view of accepting our
mortality so we can live more fully. It is actually more fundamental than that
-- it means that we accept the fact that although we must die physically, in a
spiritual sense, we continue to exist in the hearts and minds of those we knew
and loved. This concept would be an effective adjunct to a course on Maslow's
hierarchy of needs. As people gain experience and wisdom, recognition that we
are all part of a continuous circle of life is achieved and an appreciation for
the part we all play in the Cosmos is attained. At the high school level, this
aphorism would be effective for Creative Writing, History and the Sciences. An
activity effectively using this aphorism could be describing to the students the
effect of the food chain. As the students build the chain, the teacher can point
out the need for all creation, especially the lower species, in order for more
developed species to exist. Another effective activity can be the creation of a
‘family tree’. The student can see the importance of all who exist on a
personal level. The aphorisms of Professor Schwartz could be applied to numerous
learning environments in which values and humanity are discussed. The insights
contained in Tuesdays With Morrie took the professor a lifetime to develop and
by communicating them to us, he truly achieved his self-written epitaph of
"Teacher to the End." One last "Morrie-ism" which might be
extrapolated from the many he provides is "Knowledge can be learned but
wisdom must be earned." Professor Schwartz certainly earned his knowledge
and wisdom. By devoting his remaining days on Earth to imparting this knowledge
to us, he "walked the walk" instead of just "talking the
The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University
Press. Copyright 1993, 1995 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
Tuesday’s With Morrie is published by Doubleday Books. Copyright 1997 by Mitch

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