Elementary Principles: Problems with Process as Priority

Recently I listened to an exceptional Christian school teacher begin a class by reading the opening paragraphs of the Quran without telling the students the book’s title or origin. Finished, he asked, “Would you agree or disagree with what was said herein?” Discussion ensued. But for many, there was a paucity of biblical knowledge. One young woman’s comments made me cringe. After discovering what the book was she began to suggest that she saw little difference between Christian and Islamic teaching.

Aside from thinking to myself, “We have a great deal to teach students before they graduate!” I was reminded of a comment I had read recently: Knowledge exists only as a function of living tissue.[1] If people do not have belief tattooed in their cerebrum knowledge cannot affect thought, attitude, or behavior. Students must know something before they can act on it. The young person in the classroom had no basic biblical understanding of the Person she says she loves–Jesus.

Evolutionary emphasis on process led developmental theorists like Dewey, Piaget, and Erikson to stress how over what leading educationists to highlight method over knowledge so that the young woman in class had little catechesis but much catharsis.[2] Don’t get me wrong. How one communicates what they know is crucial for the audience. But when the audience does not know anything it is difficult to carry on a conversation much less provide rhetorical response–apart from trite, smarmy, “bumper-sticker” theology.

In the case of the Hebrews (5:11-6:2), the catechism had calcified.   Readers of the book had gone through a process but content had obviously made no impression—it didn’t “stick.” These Christians did not know “the elementary principles” (5:12).  “Elementary” comes from original materials which make up the universe (cf. 2 Peter 3:10), leading to an understanding of “the basics, the ABC’s, rudiments of knowledge.”  The word “principles” is almost synonymous with its predecessor: the origin of something paving the way for authority (Colossians 1:18).  But maturity must result because of consistent training in Scriptural truths (Hebrews 5:14).

With the onset of “March Madness” pundits will once again pontificate about primary principles.  “This team has great ‘fundamentals’” will be a recurrent phrase layered over visual images of the game.  Defense, rebounding, shooting are but a few of the basics.  Coaches consistently review the fundamentals yet demand teams build on the elementary lessons learned.  “Fundamental basketball,” then, lays expectation for improvement in the creativity and the finesse of the game.  Let there be no question—growth is the expectation.

After listening to classroom discussions I have discovered why students don’t know why they believe what they do: it is because they do not know their belief.  Instituting a catechism for student memorization is necessary. What must proceed why before we contemplate how we teach.  If fundamentals are a given in athletics, how much more should they be assumed for growth in Christ?!  I want students to interact with false belief such as is found in the Quran, but only after they have had the foundational, elemental Christian basics established as principle “to distinguish good from evil” (5:14).

“The Problem with Process as Priority” was written in the spring of 2006.  Mark focuses on content and communication at Crossroads Bible College.


[1] Kieran Egan. 2002. Getting it wrong from the beginning: Our progressivist inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget.  New Haven: Yale.

[2] Christian institutions in higher education have subscribed to the notion that numerous “methods” courses are necessary to conform to state standards.  The reality of measurements to qualify academic programs for acceptance in a world tied to quantification exists.  However, the Christian institution should take active steps in this coursework to establish content over method.  So when a student studies “Methods of Teaching Social Studies” they are taught a Christian philosophy, essential components to faith and learning in lesson planning, as well as an active acquisition of knowledge in the discipline of history.  One general course on “methods” should suffice any program since methods tend toward universality.  When students asked me at the college level what I recommended for further teaching methodologies I always encouraged courses of content.  The more a person knows in any subject the better equipped they are to answer tangential questions as well as segue what with how.

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