October 21 – Why Schools are Not Optional

Not far from where we live there’s a building that houses an “alternative learning center.”  I don’t know much about it, but it is advertized as a place that “… helps teenagers live and learn without school.” I am all for it.

Some teenagers just don’t do well in traditional schools. Alternatives are a good idea.

It’s pretty clear as you poke around the center’s website that their program is designed not just for kids who don’t do well in traditional schools, but especially for kids who have a serious antipathy towards traditional schools. Undoubtedly as many stories as students. Except we can’t call them students.

Just as the learning center is not a school, the teens are not students. Mostly they are referred to as teens, occasionally as “members.” There are no teachers, only mentors and a few workshop leaders. Students are not taught, teens learn. Teachers don’t teach, mentors guide.

My guess is that the learning center does more than studiously avoid traditional terms in its self-promotion. It seeks to provide a viable alternative for kids who don’t do well in traditional school. If it is able to do so, I am glad it is in our town.

The learning center has gone too far, however, with the catchy phrase they put on the banner lashed to the sign along the street in front of the building. “Learning is Natural, School is Optional,” the banner tells passing pedestrians and motorists.  I hope no one takes it seriously. Oh, I get the point and a teen or a parent struggling with a traditional school might ask some good questions because of the sign. I just hope no one takes the slogan seriously. Nothing but trouble there.

You can call a school a learning center if you like, but we better hope it is still a school. You can talk about mentors and guides with kids who have had bad experiences in traditional classrooms, but we better hope there are some really good teachers in the place. You can replace rows of desks with beat up sofas, but we better hope the kids are learning more than what they might naturally learn.

The Bible has always been suspicious of what we do naturally. We do what is right in our own eyes (Judges 21:25). We foolishly say there is no God (Psalm 14:1). We are tossed to and fro by the winds and waves of lies and deceit (Ephesians 4:14). We wander into falsehoods and myths (2 Timothy 4:3).  We sin (Genesis 3:6-Revelation 22:11). Learning may be natural, but what we learn is not all good.

Good teachers and the places where they teach, schools by any other name, are a gracious gift from God. Timothy’s earliest and best teachers were his mother and grandmother and school was in session as they held him on their laps, the classroom their kitchen or loom as they taught him the truth (2 Timothy 1:5).

The members of the post-Pentecost church were taught new and wonderful things by the apostles, teachers every one, and their classrooms were the upper rooms where they gathered for table fellowship (Acts 2:42-47).

Stephen, the teacher, was sent to teach his Ethiopian student in a chariot classroom making its was across the Gaza. The Ethiopian never would have learned his need for a savior and asked to be baptized if he was left to natural learning. (Acts 8:26-40)

Jesus, “Teacher” his disciples often called him, taught in a school on the slopes above the Sea of Galilee. One day after class the students were marveling at what they had learned and they all agreed it was something they would not have learned on their own (Matthew 7:28-29).

I don’t know much about the alternative learning center down the street. My guess is it’s a good idea. I understand why they’ve changed their vocabulary and their approach to education. I hope they succeed in what they have undertaken to do.

The banner on the sign outside the learning center needs to go, however. Too much of our natural learning gets us into trouble, and good teachers and schools are not optional. They are mandatory for human thriving and a gracious gift to those who would find new and abundant life in relationship with our loving God.

See you Sunday