The Death of the Salesmen: A Flat World Lens for Arthur Miller’s Play

Regular readers of my blog know I am really invested in backward design (Understanding by Design or UbD).  I have several UbD units posted over at the UbD Educators wiki, but I decided maybe I should explain them a little bit more just in case you are interested in using them.

After I wrote my UbD unit for Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, I was really excited to explore it with my students.  At the time, I had either just finished or was in the midst of reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat.  Friedman actually mentions Willy Loman in the book, and it occurred to me the play could appeal to my students if we looked at it through a modern lens — outsourcing, or what Friedman refers to as “the Death of the Salesmen.”  I tied one of the themes of the play — that the world has passed Willy by and gradually made him obsolete as he failed to keep up — with a very real phenomenon in our society.  Outsourcing is a huge concern in America, and over the last few decades in particular, we have also seen some jobs eliminated by technology.

My essential questions for the unit are as follows:

  • What is the American Dream? Why do some achieve it while others are cut out?
  • What is the importance of being “well liked” and popular?
  • How do we form our identities?
  • How do capitalism and modernization affect American workers?

Through exploring these question, I hoped my students would come to the following understandings:

  • The American dream is an undercurrent of American society, but is not attainable by all in our society.
  • Popularity and being well-liked do not necessarily equal success.
  • Our identities are formed in a variety of ways, including our family of origin, our career choice(s), and our hopes and dreams.
  • Capitalism and modernization are forces that have great impact on American society.

By the end of the unit, I hoped my students would be able to do the following:

  • Analyze the impact of globalization and modernization on society and compare it to the “outsourcing” of Willy Loman.
  • Synthesize information about globalization and modernization from various sources.
  • Determine what skills 21st century workers will need in order to be successful in a global economy.
  • Evaluate how globalization and modernization will impact the concept of the American Dream, how we form our identities, and how we define success or become successful.
  • Relate Death of a Salesman‘s themes and message to American life in the 21st century.

First, we read the play, all the while having discussings about how Willy could be a modern character.  The 1940′s, when the play was written, seem very far away from our students today, but I think this play is very modern in many ways, which I addressed in my essential questions.

After we read the play, we watched Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod’s video “Did You Know?” and discussed the ideas it presents:

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We watched an episode of The Simpsons about outsourcing called “Kiss Kiss Bang Bangalore”:

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Finally, we viewed a Discovery Times special featuring Thomas Friedman called “The Other Side of Outsourcing”:

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I have discussion questions for each of these videos, and it occurs to me I probably should have put them on my flash drive so I could upload them here.  I will update this post in the future and attach the proper documents to the bottom of the post.

We also read excerpts of The World is Flat; specifically, we read “Death of the Salesmen” (256-259) from chapter four “The Great Sorting Out” and chapter six “The Untouchables” (278-307).  Page number refer to the edition of the book I linked.  Again, there are guided study questions.

Finally we synthesized all we had seen and read in a discussion that centered around the following questions:

  1. How can outsourcing possibly produce more Willy Lomans?
  2. What do Americans need to do in the 21st century to avoid the fate of Willy Loman?
  3. What sort of shift do you think will happen in the concept of the American Dream?

Then I gave my students their job, which was to explore these questions in a handbook created for either high school graduates or college graduates (I assigned them randomly on the suggestion of our Learning Specialist) that would be a helpful guide for young people navigating our increasingly flattening world.  I asked the students to consider the following in their handbooks:

  1. What will the graduates need to do to ensure they always have a job?
  2. What will they need to do to compete in a global economy? What skills will they need?
  3. What do you recommend they do to stand out, to become “untouchable”?
  4. How is Death of a Salesman a cautionary tale in a flat world? — Draw a parallel betweeen the fate of Willy Loman and the possible fate of many other American workers today. What can readers of your handbook do to avoid his fate?

I am not going to lie and say the assignment was a blazing success.  I will say the reason it wasn’t was most likely due to the particular makeup of students I had and the fact that they were seniors who were checked out.  I do believe it would be engaging for different students.  It wasn’t a total failure either.  I do think the students enjoyed examining these questions and thinking about them.  Only about half of them really wanted to do the assignment, though.  That half did a really nice job.  Given the time of year and particular makeup of the class, I consider the unit as a whole a success, and I would definitely do it again.  What I like about the assignment is that it enables students to examine literature through a modern lens, and I think they enjoyed it more than they otherwise would have.

Here is a link to the UbD unit over at the wiki, and here is a printer-friendly link.

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7 thoughts on “The Death of the Salesmen: A Flat World Lens for Arthur Miller’s Play

  1. Fascinating idea and I like the UbD approach. The scenes between Howard and Willie really stick out. Willie shouting, "Promises were made across this table," really resonates with that theme.

    If you haven't seen it, the documentary Private Conversations is fascinating. It's a behind-the-scenes look at the Hoffman production.

  2. From a personal perspective, I heavily dislike how society pushes people out to make room for what they (referring to those who basically "run" most of our society: economy, individuals, beliefs, etc.) feel will advance us and take us into the next generation ahead of the game. However, as we can see, blind steps forward have actually put us back, what we hold on to now is the false belief that as a nation we are stronger, smarter and more equipped than those around us. I know the point of your blog was not a discussion on politics and world issues; however, these two aspects control our society. What I mean is that we are taught the idea that to get ahead socially and financially is to get ahead in all aspects of one's life. I'm glad you developed this lesson, I hope to reference it in my student teaching this fall. I guess what I'm saying is that in certain situations I feel that it is best to sometimes let the world go ahead and roll on by. Perhaps its my southern roots coming out and I believe in loyalty and people over making the next big buck. I also believe in a healthy world and environment over convenience. I hope to teach my students to invest in the lives of people, develop relationships and build a solid character. It is better to be loyal and steady than "ahead" (in reference to our society's termonolgy).

  3. Chris, thanks. I'll see if I can find that video.

    BMS, I hear you loud and clear. The point behind my lesson was not to necessarily get my students to view globalization as a bad thing, but to enable them to think critically about it, and I think it worked. Are you working on your degree right now?

  4. Dana,

    Thank you for sharing this unit. On one level, just the idea is enough to germinate a new design in the mind of a teacher. Taking it a step further and showing your whole lesson process is even more valuable for us.

  5. I was behind on reading your blog (my, you're prolific!!), but I'm so excited to see this post on UbD. I attended the ASCD conference on it this summer. It was my first exposure to the idea, and I really needed to hear it. So excited to find a kindred spirit!

  6. I love reading your blog. I, too, use the "Salesman" excerpt from _The World Is Flat_, but I don't have very good guiding questions. Would you mind sharing yours? Glad to trade for resources on any other topic.

    Thanks.

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