At various times throughout the book, Mitch describes the book he's written as a "long paper" or a final thesis, written for the final “class” – a class containing only Mitch – that his dying college professor, Morrie, will teach. The entirety of the text, then, is centered around the idea of teaching and learning. The book takes its structure from Morrie's "class" syllabus – each week/chapter is a lecture in Morrie’s class on death – and focuses not just on what is taught but on the teacher/student relationship developing between the two men. As the book progresses and depicts how Mitch and Morrie's relationship grows, we're asked to consider where the student/teacher relationship exists, what the relationship consists of, and to what extent a teacher can affect change on his or her students' lives.
Each of the Tuesday meetings is preceded, and sometimes also followed, by one of Mitch's memories from when he was in college. These memories are primarily focused on his interactions with Morrie. This narrative tool serves two functions – first, to provide an opener or intro to the present day Tuesday meeting, and then to chart the development of trust – from their interaction in college to their relationship as Morrie is dying – between teacher and student. By doing this, the book makes it clear that while teaching and learning can be considered just a transfer of knowledge from one person to another, deeper learning and understanding depends on, and is in fact only possible through, a caring relationship between teacher and student. This relationship begins for Mitch and Morrie in Mitch's first class, when Morrie asks him if he'd prefer to be called Mitch or Mitchell. Mitch had never had a teacher before who cared what he wanted to be called.
The reason that Morrie is able to form such lasting and positive teacher/student relationships can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that he's a professor of sociology, or the study of how humans relate to each other. In effect, his job is to study relationships, which he does both within and without the university setting. Many of the college memories Mitch mentions, as well as what he teaches Mitch during their Tuesday visits, focus on the critical importance of relationships, and the importance of “relationship skills” such as love, compassion, and forgiveness. In college, Mitch dismissed many of these ideas as "touchy-feely stuff." However, over time, the relationship between him and Morrie grows from being purely student/teacher into something more familial. As their relationship evolves, Mitch becomes more receptive to Morrie's lessons and begins to apply them to his own life. Thei relationship becomes not just a way to learn, but a model for how to have powerful relationships with others.
As Morrie's death creeps closer, his sense of urgency about the need to teach what he knows and what he is learning about death grows more powerful. He begins by writing simple aphorisms on scrap paper, which develops into a newspaper article about him and then being asked to do Nightline interviews with Ted Koppel. The Nightline interviews become an opportunity to teach as many people as watch the show, and the attributes that make Morrie a fantastic teacher in the classroom – a desire to understand and connect with people – are evident on television as wel, and he even manages to teach Koppel something about friendship and compassion.
Finally, Morrie's lessons live on in this book, and in Mitch's other books, not just because they are wise and worthwhile lessons, but because Mitch’s relationship with Morrie is so profound that it compelled him to share the lessons with an even wider audience. Through the publication of the book, the reader becomes the student, and both Mitch and Morrie become teachers of these lessons.
Teaching and Learning ThemeTracker
Teaching and Learning Quotes in Tuesdays with Morrie
"Mitch, you are one of the good ones," he says, admiring the briefcase. Then he hugs me. I feel his thin arms around my back. I am taller than he is, and when he holds me, I feel awkward, older, as if I were the parent and he were the child.
Instead, he would make death his final project, the center point of his days. Since everyone was going to die, he could be of great value, right? He could be research. A human textbook. Study me in my slow and patient demise. Watch what happens to me. Learn with me.
And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn't work, don't buy it.
Holding him like that moved me in a way I cannot describe, except to say I felt the seeds of death inside his shriveling frame, and as I laid him in his chair, adjusting his head on the pillows, I had the coldest realization that our time was running out.
And I had to do something.
“I'm going to say it again,” he said. “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” He smiled, and I realized what he was doing. He was making sure I absorbed this point, without embarrassing me by asking. It was part of what made him a good teacher.
Morrie observed that most of the patients there had been rejected and ignored in their lives, made to feel that they didn't exist. They also missed compassion—something the staff ran out of quickly. And many of these patients were well-off, from rich families, so their wealth did not buy them happiness or contentment.
When you're in bed, you're dead.
“In the beginning of life, when we are infants, we need others to survive, right? And at the end of life, when you get like me, you need others to survive, right?”
His voice dropped to a whisper. “But here's the secret: in between, we need others as well.”
I blinked back the tears, and he smacked his lips together and raised his eyebrows at the sight of my face. I like to think it was a fleeting moment of satisfaction for my dear old professor: He had finally made me cry.
The last class of my old professor's life took place once a week, in his home, by a window in his study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink flowers. The class met on Tuesdays. No books were required. The subject was the meaning of life. It was taught from experience.
The teaching goes on.