Hanging on many a teacher’s wall or sitting on his or her desk is that little proverb that reads, “Life is a classroom.” Half of my teachers had a variation of this framed-art maxim, right along with their globes of the world and A-B-C wall borders. Uncapping my red pen, I’ll give this saying an “A” for effort, but a big fat “F” for accuracy.
Granted, life is an instructional course; that much is sure. There are teachers who teach, disciplinarians who correct, dunces who distract, subjects that inspire, friends who assist, and bullies who persecute. But life is not a static, clean, orderly classroom. It is a laboratory where we investigate, experiment, and work things out the best we can.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the first generation of Christians with these words, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” This is his prescription for living. Life has to be entered as if we are apprentices in need of personal, practical, hands-on experience. This might make our hands quiver, but there is no other real way to learn than “working it out” as we go.
I remember sitting in an exhausting science class in high school. The instructor droned on as if she were auditioning for the whaa-whaa-whaa voice track of a Charlie Brown cartoon. Chemical reactions, the periodic table, kinetic energy, study questions, pop quizzes, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein: It never ended. We were chained to our desks, automatons taking notes and regurgitating information, learning little.
The next year, however, we had a new science teacher, one who had a “work it out” approach to teaching. On the first day of the school year he moved the class into the lab, a lab we had never been allowed to use previously, because of safety and financial concerns. It was glorious. We were issued safety goggles, rubber gloves, and vinyl lab aprons. We were introduced to the world of Bunsen burners, Petri dishes, test tubes, formaldehyde-drowned specimens, dissection, and the explosive power of certain substances and chemical reactions.
It was only after graduation that I learned that this teacher had spent large amounts of his own money for materials (and raised a good deal of the rest). He had also assumed personal liability for any problematic outcomes, all to open up the lab for the students. He was convinced – and rightfully so – that the best way for someone to learn is to “work it out” and enter the experience and experiment for oneself.
I don’t know whether it was Confucius, Mark Twain, Marie Curie, Aristotle, or some other wise person who said it, but my teacher practiced an alternative proverb to the one, “Life is a classroom.” His proverb was: “I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.”
To be sure, we set off the fire alarm a few times in the process of doing. We had to hit the plunger for the emergency eyewash station at least once, when a chlorine experiment didn’t go quite right. But when you are learning – either in life or the laboratory – it’s not always safe and clean. Sometimes the lab of life fills with smoke and the sparks fly in one huge explosion. Sometimes the results we are working toward are much more surprising than we could have ever anticipated. Sometimes our learning is costly and comes with a load of liabilities. But what other option is there?
Given the choice, few of us want to sit still, safe, and stoic and be told about life. We want to actually live life – even if it causes our hands and hearts to shake. We don’t want to be given theories about what may or may not work for our lives. We want to put living into practice.
We don’t want the security of notepads and lectures. We want safety goggles and fire extinguishers in case something goes wrong. Truth told, some things will go wrong; but there is no better way to live and no better way to learn.