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Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Albom

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A student's personal account of a great teacher.

Tuesdays With Morrie is a sweet book, the touching account of a man who largely forgot about his favorite professor until rediscovering him through a news broadcast and sticking with him through the decline brought along by the terrible degenerative disease ALS.

The hype surrounding this book is phenomenal. It has “changed the lives of millions” we are told. I am glad that I am not inclined to believe such hype. As it is, I enjoyed the read, but if I were expecting a life-changing experience, I would have been sorely disappointed.

I have no doubt that this book has changed lives. I also suspect that those who will find it most profound are the ones who actually stopped living long ago, wandering instead through their daily existence without giving any of it thought: why they do what they do and where they hope to be when it's all over. For those who started out idealistically and have since become zombies, merely going through the motions of life, the book will no doubt be something of a wakeup call. I suspect that this is really the kind of book that will resonate most with baby boomers, entering or nearing retirement, thinking back on their lives and comparing how they've lived and what they've done with the ideals to which they once claimed to subscribe.

The wisdom contained in this book is really just the perspective of one man. While an extraordinary teacher, we must be reminded that he speaks merely from his own life experience and the principles that he himself chose to adopt. That he is able to speak so clearly while facing his own mortality is admirable. Nevertheless we are asked to accept Morrie's philosophy, which quite frankly, seems to me to be incomplete.

Among the tones of the philosophy we're asked to swallow is a certain anti-commercial tendency, the sort of thing found frequently among academics who spend their entire lives inside of large institutions—with generous salaries, even more generous benefits, and tenure that insulates them from the forces that affect many of their students. Let us not forget that the reason that we have the universities that we do and the support that enables so many professors to be employed is because of commerce. Whatever its importance, love will not pay the professors' bills. If love alone were to do the job, we would not be able to see such a difference in the public education system at the secondary level, where underinvestment has left a hollow shell of a system, little more than a state-run daycare service. (Any rational response would be to attract investment, but rational behavior is not what one should expect of bureaucrats that work not to achieve success beyond perpetuation of the bureaucracy.)

Another feelgood soundbyte is the supposed wisdom in “tak[ing] responsibility for one another.” While it might sound nice at first, getting us to think of greater goods and to consider the needs and desires of others, the fact is that it is a solution that's worse than the problem it means to address. This is what happens when good intentions are not supported by critical analysis involving careful review of the facts and a search for unintended consequences. But consider what it means to “take responsibility” for someone else. How we handle responsibility is one of the best ways for us to demonstrate character, to show the world of what we're made. Actions speak louder than words. Take responsibility for someone else and you've robbed him of the ability express himself to the world in a way far more meaningful than what would fit on a bumper sticker or placard. Caring for our responsibilities will keep us very busy, running from one place to the next, something else that is criticized in the book.

Where I will agree is that we must never forget the larger picture, the context in which we operate. We must always remember why we have made the commitments that we have and why we bear certain obligations. In so doing, we'll be better prepared to manage them and we can avoid being overtaken, failing to deliver what we have promised, harming our organizations, communities, and families.

An additional example of how playing fast and loose with the facts leads to silly conclusions can be found in the discussion between student and “coach” on the Bible book of Job. Actually reading the text would reveal that it was not God who tested Job, but it was the Devil. The test was not intended to be a means to measure Job's faith but an instrument by which to break Job's principled attachment to God by removing everything that might have been called a God-given blessing. Failing to know the basic facts of the story led to an absurd and useless conclusion (“God went too far”). Missing this point is absurd because much of Morrie's philosophy is about knowing your principles and living by them instead of going along the path of least resistance—precisely the point of the book of Job.

That readers are implicitly asked to buy into the wisdom of a dying man is a bit much. It isn't as though humanity has existed for millennia, devoid of answers to life's big questions. Interestingly, in this Tuesdays With Morrie is quite different from another recent treatise on one's own experience. In The Measure of a Man, Sidney Poitier writes that he has no desire to play the “pontificating fool,” writing as though he has the answers to the questions that each of us faces.

Despite these criticisms of the book, I think that considerable recognition should be given to Mitch Albom for opening up as he did, for giving such an intimate look into his life at a time of major transformation. His awakening might have been a private affair that revealed itself strictly in his own life and by those who knew him directly if not for his willingness to share. Finally, a word about Morris Schwartz is in order. An extraordinary man undoubtedly carried that name. Through his own personal tragedy, he did continue to live by his principles, to give and to teach. Whether I agree with his conclusions is simply immaterial. A teacher is not one who promulgates a dogma to be assimilated, but one who raises the questions and shows enough of himself and his experience to give students the tools they need to reason and the guidance they need to use them. A teacher who can do this in his own lifetime is good. A teacher who can exert such influence beyond his own lifetime is great.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2007-05-27 11:11 PM


Posted by donetrawk at 2007-06-26 11:25 AM
nice review
I know Mitch Albom as a sportswriter, and never really had much interest in reading this book. Pretty sure it's a movie now though, maybe I'll check that out as a short version of the story.
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