An Introduction to Using Morrie's Aphorisms as Teaching Tools

Categories: Morrie Schwartz

Using Morrie’s Aphorisms as Teaching Tools

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 Tuesdayis 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 Schwartzis 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

ISo many people walk around with a meaningless life.

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They seem half-asleep, even when theyire busy doing things they think are important. This is because theyare 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.I (emphasis added) (p. 43)

Professor Schwartzis 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).

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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 individualis 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 Schwartzis 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 Schwartzis 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 meaningi 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 Itrue meaningl of Christmas and related their experience to the activity performed. This truly put Morriels proverb to work.

Faith and Trust

You see, he says to the girl, Iyou 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 youlre 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,

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.

behind the other and support their partneris 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

OThe truth is Mitch, he says, lonce 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, letis 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 studentis writing skills through drawing inferences and making conclusions.

inferences and mortality of life ander parents and

Cultural Values

Hereis what I mean by building your own little subculture, Morrie said. Il donit mean you disregard every role of your community. I donit go around naked, for example. I donit 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.I (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 individualis 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 Morriels aphorism well. The class studied many different cultures and created list of each culturels 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 culturels values and attributes. These students also did an oral presentation describing their new culture to the class.

Weire All Part of the Human Family

DI heard a nice little story the other day,I 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. Hels 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! Weire all going to crash! All of us waves are going to be nothing! Isnit it terrible?” The second wave says, “No, you donit understand. Youdre not a wave, youdre part of the ocean.) (Emphasis added)

This “Morrie-ism” is perhaps the most important lesson contained in Tuesdayıs 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 treel. 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 talk.”

Works Cited

The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright 1993, 1995 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

Tuesdayis With Morrie is published by Doubleday Books. Copyright 1997 by Mitch Albom.

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An Introduction to Using Morrie's Aphorisms as Teaching Tools. (2022, Mar 31). Retrieved from

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