Three Educational Takeaways from Death of a Salesman

“…I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.” — Willy to his sons Biff and Happy in Death of a Salesman

Why must everybody like you? ….Now listen, Willy, I know you don’t like me, and nobody can say I’m in love with you…” –Charlie in Death of a Salesman

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman stirs my thinking about education and long-term flourishing in fresh ways. The play has been a close companion from my first reading in college and through much of my teaching career. Although it’s a tragedy, it makes us keep thinking about the problems that can get in the way of pursuing the grace of everyday experiences and relationships. So, here are three takeaways from two rounds of reading the play with students this fall. 

1. Learning is way more important than liking. As my introductory quotations suggest, Willy Loman is way too concerned about being liked and way too avoidant of learning. Charlie and his son Bernard know the difference. The anti-intellectual impulses of Willy and young Biff in the flashbacks to Biff’s senior year in high school show how a commitment to learning needs to balance one’s focus on sports. In the flashbacks, audiences and readers of the play see that the learning of ethics and virtue needed coached into Biff’s life as much as the skills of sports. In contrast, being liked and liking the comfort of having one’s way serve as the central teaching for Biff’s high school years. Willy realizes too late that he neglected truly essential lessons for his son and for himself.

2. Significant commitment is way more important than success. That’s common advice for folks who reach midlife, but it’s important for school-age children and all stages of life. We need older and younger generations to wrestle with those big essential questions about ethics and the meaning(s) of life. The failure to do so leaves us hollow, exhausted from frenetic activity, and without moral compasses, which is how the 60-something Willy Loman starts the play. Our current schools can easily be seduced into training students for success with high-paying jobs while neglecting the pursuit of the essential questions that are part of significant living and long-term flourishing. 

3. A few good close relationships are way more important than popularity with many people. Each fall, I share with my students that it’s probably good that Willy Loman didn’t have our social media. Ironically, a few people like Charlie do show love to Willy in practical ways, ranging from long-suffering tolerance for his strange outbursts to lending him money so that he can pretend to have a job that barely sustains him. 

Although Willy Loman berates him, Charlie is the best friend Willy can have. Tragically, Willy is so distracted by being liked (being popular) that he can’t see the love of those closest to him. The potential for Willy to have great relationships is a major part of what makes the story qualify as a classic tragedy. In the last part of the play, Willy Loman takes his own life because he thinks this will make him popular with his son, provide him with life insurance money, and help him regain his own lost popularity from his high school years. What Biff most wants is his father’s love, honesty, and openness.

Bonus Takeaway: You can’t help but worship. In Death of a Salesman, Willy thanks God for his sons, but he’s actually worshiping his son Biff as a god–both as a teenager and as a 30-something adult. Willy was looking at Biff as a source of inspiration and hope, so Willy tried to live vicariously through him in Biff’s high school years. Biff couldn’t sustain that sort of pressure, and by the end of the play, he seems to learn that such worship is too fragile to sustain life. Audiences and readers learn in one of the last flashbacks that Willy also damaged his relationship with his son when the teenage Biff discovered Willy’s infidelity, thereby feeling a betrayal of all that his dad’s values and ways of valuing. For over seventeen years, their relationship is dramatically fractured by this betrayal.

Some stronger source for worship, relationships, and forgiveness is desperately needed. For starters, Biff and Willy needed to hear and think through a graduation speech along the lines of the late David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water,” in which he explores the impulse to worship that characterizes every person. (Foster’s own life ended in tragedy too.) The real issue entails what one shall worship, how one will love and relate to others, and what source can focus and sustain a flourishing life—something to think about this holiday season. 

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