“The true measure of life is memory.” Walter Benjamin – Perspective
We find meaning and value through our memories. They offer reminders of our mistakes, heartaches and enduring accomplishments. They are like building blocks for our personal identity. Yet, meaning is also to be found in our future. When we look ahead, we embrace hope, and that confidence in the future brings us value of a different sort. And what about living in the moment without concern for the past or future? That requires courage, and confers to us a special sort of enjoyment and satisfaction.
Join Steve and Dan Fouts – founders of Teach Different and twin brothers with over 50 years of teaching experience – along with Scott Petri, middle and high school social studies educator and recipient of the 2021 Outstanding California Social Studies Teacher of the Year award, for a conversation on perspective, enriched by the Teach Different Method. Whether you are a teacher, school leader, or simply someone interested in experiencing the joy and fulfillment of challenging kids with big ideas, join our worldwide Community of Educators FREE for 30 days. Membership includes access to our robust library of resources, conversation plans, and lively discussions among teachers and faculty.
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Steve Fouts 00:00
Steve and Dan Fouts here. You’ve landed on the Teach Different podcast, the one and only podcast that’s devoted just to conversations. We’re about to share a quote with you, and use a technique we’ve developed. It’s going to stretch your mind, and test your ability to really think about something from all different perspectives. We believe intelligence is a process that needs other opinions and perspectives to survive, so that’s why we do what we do. We aren’t afraid to take on any topic, so sit back, keep your eyes on the road, and let’s talk about ideas that really matter.
Dan Fouts 00:37
We have an awesome show tonight with Scott Petri, a teacher from Los Angeles, I believe, right? He’s a Los Angeles, California social studies teacher with a really interesting background that he will share with us in a moment. Our quote tonight is actually a quote he used with his students. This is a first. Nobody who’s ever been on the show has used a really good quote like this with students beforehand. The quote is going to be from Walter Benjamin, who is a German literary critic and essayist. I’m going to read the quote in a minute here. It’s a very provocative one.
Dan Fouts 01:19
For those unfamiliar with the Teach Different method, we’re going to start with this really good quote, then we’re going to work through the claim, interpret it and say what it means. If some personal experiences come up, we will share those. We like to model that because when the kids share in class, it’s fantastic. Then, we’re going to work on a counterclaim to the quote. We’re going to disagree with it, or maybe push back on it, to think about the world in a different way. That’s the critical thinking piece of this, which is so important. As questions percolate, the organic questions that come from the tension of the claim and the counterclaim, we share them. That’s the method. It’s simple, but not simplistic.
Dan Fouts 02:16
Here’s our quote from Walter Benjamin. I’ll say it twice, and then Scott will weigh in. “The true measure of life is memory.” “The true measure of life is memory.” Scott, welcome to the show, give us a little bit of your background, and then give us the first stab at what this means.
Scott Petri 02:37
All right, thank you guys for having me on. It’s always nice to see people that you’ve met on Twitter. I have been a social studies teacher for about 20 years, middle and high school, in Los Angeles. I have also been an admin for a brief time, a small school principal, but I went back to the classroom because I figured out that I really like engaging with the kids. I have the same sense of humor, the seventh grade male sense of humor. I kind of fell into teaching. I had worked for Disney as an imagineer in their research and development group, and before that, I was in the private golf course industry. I often kicked myself for leaving that industry because I could be playing golf every day, and instead I’m standing in front of 30 teenagers. But, I found that I love teaching. It works with my short attention span, because just when you’re really sick of these kids, and they’re on your last nerve, they go away, and you get a new crop three months later. It takes almost a year before you’re sick of them. You can kind of use the same old dog and pony show and rinse and repeat and get better results.
Steve Fouts 03:58
What do you think the claim is? What’s the claim to truth here? How would you put it in your own words?
Scott Petri 04:07 – Claim
It’s a very interesting claim. “The true measure of life is memory.” If you have a lot of good memories, then maybe you’ve had a good life, but what about the people that don’t have so many good memories? What about the people who have short lives? It’s one of those quotes where when you first encounter it, you’re like, “Yeah, that’s good,” but then you’re like, “Well, but wait a second, maybe there’s more we could consider here.” The hard part for me is shutting up and letting my students unpack it.
Steve Fouts 04:46
You just went to claim, counterclaim organically. You almost gave the counterclaim in relation to the claim, which I think is really interesting here, because is this true, and in what way? In all cases, is the true measure of life memory? My first thought was, well, what about people who have Alzheimer’s? Are they not alive? I’m thinking in that realm as well. I’m also fixated on this word measure, the true measure of life is memory. Dan, let me bring you in here.
Dan Fouts 05:30
Yeah, the word measure was what I was fixating on as well. I substituted the word value for measure in my head. I don’t know if you guys had a similar synonym. I teach a philosophy elective, Scott, and we’re on a unit right now on who am I, identity. This could not be more perfect timing for this quote. One of the theories that philosophers put forward to personal identity is that we are who we are because of the continuity of our memories. Over time they form a link to who we are, and that our conscious memories of ourselves at age 10, and then at age 20, and so on, form that strand of humanity for us. That’s what’s in my head. The value of that is thinking about your life as having value because of your memories. That’s what makes up who you are as a person, the collection of that. So anyway, I’m just trying to explain the claim in my own tortured language, but such an interesting quote.
Scott Petri 07:00
It is. I look at the term measure, and I want to look for something positive or negative. I want it to be empirical, almost. I know we obsess over that in academic writing, that you’re supposed to use words precisely. When you say the true measure of life, what is that? I go back to our value systems. Do you believe people are basically good, or that people are basically evil? If you throw your wallet on a student’s desk, and it’s got $40 in it, will that be there at the end of the day, or are you going to have been relieved of that money? There are all sorts of ways you can test if people are good or evil.
Steve Fouts 07:51
You’re reading into that a little bit of intention, like moral? Okay. “The true measure of life is memory.” I didn’t get the moral aspect of it. I’m considering that now.
Scott Petri 08:11 – Counterclaim
With a lot of my AP research students, they’re coming up with their own project, it’s usually a science project or something. They have to develop a hypothesis, and then they have to do an experiment that either supports it or doesn’t sustain it. I always try to scaffold them towards research questions that are empirical. Does the data suggest that the true measure of life is memory, or does it suggest that it’s not. I wanted to throw in a couple of student counterclaims too, because I do this with 80 kids a day. I throw out the quote, I give him 10 minutes to write and take their attempt at interpreting it. A few of them that I polled were, I thought, very interesting. One student said, “the true measure of life is not what’s memorable, but what is admirable.” Defaulting to the value that to be admirable, you have to do something positive. You can further unpack and define what is admirable, and is that really what is memorable? I’m thinking about the sensationalizing of these school shootings, we’re not focusing on what’s admirable. We go to wherever the biggest atrocity is, and we obsess on that atrocity for a few days until there’s another atrocity somewhere else. At first I kind of liked the what is admirable addition, but then I thought, I don’t know if that’s really precise enough to get at the heart of the quote.
Steve Fouts 09:58
Good, good. Give me another counterclaim they gave.
Scott Petri 10:03
The past should be forgotten and the future should be the main focus in life.
Steve Fouts 10:11
The reason why I’m perking up is I’m imagining being a third grader, and I get that one. That’s really… Say it again.
Scott Petri 10:22
The past should be forgotten and the future should be the main focus in life.
Steve Fouts 10:30
Boy, that sounds like really good advice for people who don’t want to have good memories. Because not all of life, as we know, is hunky dory. So if you really want to measure your life, you can’t focus on the past, you have to be more visionary, and will them into existence. That’s the measure of life. I’m just going with that.
Dan Fouts 11:00
That’s the sentiment. Yeah, that’s the sentiment. It’s looking ahead, not looking back. I really like that one. Here’s another one, the true measure of life is longevity. I’m not saying I necessarily agree with that, but that is a reasonable thing to come back with. Having a long life, which is in itself a meaningful one.
Steve Fouts 11:36
I have one. The true measure of life is how you treat other people. Now, Scott, I’m going to go with your normative sense here, and put a value on this. I thought about this before. I personally believe that how you treat other people is your passport to immortality. I say it in the sense that our physical beings, the things in our life, are going to be gone. They literally will not exist at some point. They’ll be gone. How do you project yourself while you’re living? Are you a positive person? If you are that good can be carried on, because someone can get it from you, and then pass it on to someone else. I’m thinking of how much you can project yourself out into the future as the measure of life. If you do something bad, guess what, you’re also projecting that. I’m not saying it has to be good or bad, but just…
Dan Fouts 12:51
…character. I think it’s a character thing. It’s a personality thing. The true measure of life is how you conduct yourself. I would go beyond how you treat other people. It’s also how you conduct yourself, how you treat yourself, and how you comport yourself. That’s what carries on. That’s what shows up in other people. One of the things I love to do, Scott, with students, I’m sure you do as well, they’re very unaware of the impact that they’re having on other people with their attitudes and what they say. They’re unaware of their power. To help them understand that that gets carried on because of their presence, I think, is a really important lesson.
Scott Petri 13:49
I’d like to go back to the longevity piece that you added, Dan, because I think that’s debatable, too. That a true measure of life is longevity. I’m thinking of my grandmother who made it to 98. But, she was miserable for the last five years and did not have a good, high quality of life. I’m also thinking about parents, and God forbid they lose a child. How would you be able to not accept that your child had a true life, that your child was worth something just because they did not have a long life.
Steve Fouts 14:25
Those are great counterclaims.
Scott Petri 14:27
What’s great about this quote is it lends itself to so much that people can bring in and it just continues the conversation. I want to add that I used to think I was a pretty good teacher before the pandemic. I had great conversations in my class. I would videotape fishbowl conversations, book talks, presentations, my kids were really pretty good at speaking. I could show them growth over time. Since the pandemic, I can’t get anybody to talk. No one. I had one class where seven kids in a row said I’ll take the zero instead of getting up and presenting their slides. I don’t know if all teachers are experiencing this, but you talk to teachers, and they’re all saying the kids aren’t as motivated as they used to be. They’re less inclined to engage. This protocol where you get kids to really unpack the quote, and put their own interpretation, their own spin on it, I think is really key to bringing kids back to school. I have one more that I want to say. Remember, these are coming from 10th graders, 15 year olds, whose emotions whipsaw back and forth. One day, everything’s great. The next day, everything’s horrible. This one student said, not every memory measures the true meaning of life. As humans, we have many regrets throughout our lifetime. It’s normal, but it’s not a good feeling to experience. Oh, I really want to know more about what’s going on in that kid’s life.
Steve Fouts 16:11
Well, Scott, here’s the other part that we really haven’t done yet in our conversation, which really can get the kids talking, if the prompts are well placed. Ask them to share some personal experiences. That would be one where you might want to push them a little bit. You probably have. Do you want to share an experience where you had a regret? What made you think of this? This adds a lot of color to the boring claim, counterclaim idea. You’re not just playing with ideas, you want to support them with your experiences. That’s what can help bring the kids out. I’m going to put that question to you, Scott, and Dan. Do you have any experiences, and I’m thinking of them myself, that support the claim or counterclaim on this? I’ll say it myself, if you don’t mind. I probably should be waiting for some silence, by the way. If you were my students, I wouldn’t be talking.
Dan Fouts 17:22
Steve Fouts 17:23
I have to keep going. All right. I’m thinking of different times when I have a bad second period class. I find that if my memory is too good, I’m going to make my third period a bad period, because of the second period. I have to actively turn off my memory and start a blank slate. I do that because the next class deserves it. In that case, I would say maybe the true measure of life is your ability to control your memory.
Dan Fouts 18:08
Steve Fouts 18:10
Dan Fouts 18:13
Dan Fouts 18:14
Yeah, absolutely. I would totally agree with that. This is kind of related to it. With teaching, having bad classes, getting over things, you have to have a very stoic attitude to be good at this job, in my opinion, to not let things totally consume you. The true measure of life is being able to stay calm and think clearly in the midst of frustration and failure. I mean, there are so many ways… This is why I love this quote. Every single kid in your class could complete this sentence with a word other than memory, and have it be a rich discussion.
Scott Petri 19:02
Well, a personal experience that kind of comes up for me is, unfortunately, the death of my mother. My mother died younger. She lived with juvenile diabetes for 55 years, and she died when my kids were really young. I feel very guilty because my youngest really doesn’t have that many memories of my mother. And oh my god, I feel my mother laughing at me every day as this teenager rakes me over the coals and just tells me how stupid I am and how fat I am and how basically everything I’ve ever done in my life is meaningless and stupid. Trust her, she’s 15 and she already knows everything. She doesn’t need to learn anything from you. I’m often thinking of my mother and how she’s looking down from heaven and laughing because karma has come full circle.
Steve Fouts 20:01
Well, I was going to ask you to go there a little bit. It sounds like you were something of a troublesome child at times. There you go, karma.
Scott Petri 20:12
It totally is. I like to believe that maybe mom is watching and is being greatly entertained and is now feeling like her life was not in vain. She did an admirable job raising young people, and I hope I’m doing well. I hope I’m doing half as good of a job.
Dan Fouts 20:34
Well said. As you know, Scott, when we as teachers share our personal experiences in an appropriate way, it really can have an impact in class and help kids feel comfortable doing the same. I think a lot of teachers are frightened to do that, but it can be powerful. That’s a part of this. If this method is working, we are like students in our own classroom. That’s the best kind of experience, in my opinion, as a teacher.
Scott Petri 21:09
I know we’re getting late on time, but I wanted to share one last counterclaim. Our memories do not make up our entire character. There are other aspects unknown to us that determine how we are. One thing to support this is Charlotte’s relation to Francisca. She does not have memories of her mother, but she still knows that she existed. She does not have any memories of this person. But she still knows that her other relatives have memories of her mother that live on despite her not being able to remember her mother. With the backstory I just shared, you can tell why that resonated with me too. That’s the nice thing about literature really, when you use it in a history course, or a philosophy course, everybody sees a little bit of themselves and their baggage in that quote, or in that counterclaim.
Dan Fouts 22:13
I want your students in my philosophy class, Scott.
Scott Petri 22:21
I hope they will consider that because I enjoyed philosophy. I was a philosophy minor and a political science major.
Dan Fouts 22:27
Scott Petri 22:28
My favorite story of becoming a teacher is…I was a working peon in the show business world for 10-12 years. I wrote 11 screenplays and I thought I wrote a book. I thought I would be a professional writer. I thought that would be my key to success, and then I became a teacher. I thought I’d be an English teacher, but when I went to the district with my paperwork, and they said your a political science major which means you’re a history teacher. I said, but I haven’t taken any history classes. I didn’t have any history classes as an undergraduate, it was all government and political science. They said, that’s okay, here’s the book, go ahead and be a history teacher. So, I’ve always felt like I’m a closeted English teacher, because I really care more about the story than anything else, and that’s all history is, and all philosophy is. Can you make an argument? Can you make a story? Can you make people believe in this?
Dan Fouts 23:28
Yeah, that’s great. That is spot on. Well…
Steve Fouts 23:33 – Essential Question
I have an essential question.
Dan Fouts 23:35
Yeah, go ahead. I was going to go to the questions
Steve Fouts 23:37
It’s really straightforward. What does the true measure of something mean? Just focus on that. I feel like that’s a really important question that came up in my head, at least.
Dan Fouts 23:54
What is the true measure of life? Similar to that, but you’re just more general. What’s the true measure?
Steve Fouts 24:01
What does it mean to be saying measure, the true measure.
Scott Petri 24:05
Right. It tells me that you’re going to be judged. Are you going to be judged by yourself, or are you going to be judged by St. Peter? It really depends on how you were brought up and what religious values you have. I think the true measure is some form of our valuation. I don’t know if you’re doing a self evaluation and saying my life was meaningful, because, or if only I had done X, Y and Z, then my life would have been more meaningful. That’s kind of my interpretation.
Steve Fouts 24:48
Dan Fouts 24:50
That’s my take, too. Yeah, you’re evaluating it. Well, Scott, this was a very invigorating conversation. I appreciate that you use this quote with your students and that you brought in your students’ comments. That provided a richness to this conversation that is indescribable. We’ve never had this before, and it really added a lot. We really appreciate your perspective and the work that you do. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Scott Petri 25:25
You’re so welcome. There’s one last point I want to make. I want to commend you guys for this work, because teaching teenagers that they can have contradictory and competing thoughts in their head is important because while they’re not getting Fox News, because they’re not 90, they are getting news from Tik Tok, and they’re getting opinions from social media. Being able to really think methodically and deliberately and not shoot someone down is, I think, one of the more important aspects of what we do as teachers. We do have to deliberate, not debate. Teaching them to be able to say, I don’t agree with your opinion, but now I see your perspective and why you hold that opinion.
Steve Fouts 26:17
Thank you for that. It means a lot.
Dan Fouts 26:21
All right. Well, again, thank you so much, Scott. We hope to see you in the future and we’re definitely going to stay in touch. Thanks for coming on the Teach Different podcast.
Steve Fouts 26:32
Thanks, everybody. We hope you enjoyed the conversation and you’re walking away with some great ideas, because you stepped back and had a conversation about things that really matter. All it takes is a quote, and a little intention. We hope the Teach Different method helps inspire you to try out a quote with your class, or someone close to you who is ready to expand their mind and open up to greater truths. Continue the journey with us and visit our conversation project at Convoproject.org to learn more about our private coaching programs for teachers and families. We’re ready to help everybody have better conversations, so let’s keep them going. Take care everybody.