The Lost Timeline of Learning


At the center of cultural reformation is remaking the education system, which requires a lot more than just starting another classical Christian school. In recent decades the church has seen the rise of private schools, classical Christian education, and homeschooling. Tens of thousands of Christians have pulled their kids out of government schools to give their covenant children a Christian education. This is a quality first step,[1] but it is still submission to a corrupt and broken system. For complete and total educational reform to take place Christians must seek to disrupt the system rather than conform to it. To explain what I’m talking about, we need to understand how the K-12 government education system came into existence.

History of the K-12 Government Education System

The triumvirate of American public education is Horace Mann, John Dewey, and Wilhelm Max Wundt. A name to conjure with, Horace Mann (1796-1859) buoyed the idea that school should be paid for, controlled by, and maintained by the government. His goal was to assimilate children from different religious backgrounds. How do you conform Catholic, Lutheran, and Protestant children into one civic ideal? Mann’s answer was to establish a generic, civil religion so that children saw themselves as Americans first. The idea of “public school” is by definition secular because it aims to minimize religious identity in favor of one sweeping composite known as “the public.”

As for Dewey, “the father of modern American education,” it is no exaggeration to say that he is the single most influential figure behind public education today. It should be no surprise that one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto wished to apply the document’s secular poison to Christian families. Dewey embraced subjectivism, valuing the vicissitudes of experience over Transcendent Truth. He taught that the central importance of the public school is to separate children from the prejudices of their parents, especially the sort of traditional prejudices that fail to see socialism as an ideology superior to the family. This is a key reason why the Soviets fawned over Dewey’s book, Democracy in Education, and invited him for a 1928 visit to the Soviet Union. Upon return, Dewey reciprocated the fawning with a glowing six-part series published in The New Republic, concentrating his praise on the Soviet education system.

Then there is Wundt. From the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, Wundt labored at a German university where he created the first laboratory of psychological experimentation. His lasting contribution is the priority of “self-esteem” to intellectual performance,[2] exported straight from his German laboratory to the United States by James Cattell. Wundt may be long dead, but his ideas live on in American education.

Wundt’s contributions combined with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s priority of self-absorption—which sounds too selfish, so he called it “self-actualization”[3]— to shape the “outcomes-based education” of government classrooms, where students learn what students want to learn. Teacher training colleges now offer class after class of instructional methods that all have one precept in common: avoid Transcendent Truth in favor of psychological stimuli. The permanent consequence is solipsism. The light of learning has been switched off. 

After Wundt’s death, no one continued his research, except in the United States. The United States had a developing education system that joined up with Wundt’s ideas. Dewey’s insistence on making education a self-regulating profession allowed him to replicate his ideas to teachers in training. Teachers once saw multiplication tables as a fixed truth of the universe that must be learned. Now they see it as a desirable student outcome. If a modern student fails to learn the multiplication table, it is because the right stimuli weren’t used. If the student still fails to learn, it is because of low self-esteem or systemic racism. Outcomes-based education downplays metaphysical truth in favor of emotional and social well-being. It isn’t that kids don’t learn, but they learn the wrong thing. A child’s sinful desires are considered values that need to be supported. Students learn to blindly follow their base desires and wants, and not just follow them, but justify, them, excuse them, and harvest them. Welcome to a world of ill-informed and happily thoughtless captives.

K-12 education is a rather new invention. Various experiments began in the 19th century, but K-12 education wasn’t compulsory across the United States until 1930. The system was further centralized in 1965 when LBJ signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which obligated the federal government to significant financial expenditures, distributed to each state’s K-12 school system.

The government school system was born to create a compulsory common experience for K-12 students. It was presented as a social compact—the association of the whole—where the state uses tax dollars to provide “free” education to all. Students are taught to obey only the knowledge of common bonding that requires equity. With the surge of immigrants, a common American identity was threatened. Some people spoke Italian and others, German. Cities like New York City and Boston were filled with the Irish. Students had to be taught to set aside everything that was not part of the essence of leveling, submitting their fraternal order under the supreme direction of the NEA and, eventually, the Federal Department of Education.

Jimmy Carter created the Federal Department of Education as a political calculation. Read for yourself the memo from Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan, regarding the reason for creating the Department of Education:[4]

The following are the major political considerations that you should be aware of in making this decision. Number one … the teachers organizations, particularly the National Education Association are the fastest-growing, most active, and by many standards the most effective political organizations in this country. With a membership that exceeds 2 million, they comprise one of the most committed and articulate political constituencies in our country. Two, these groups, particularly the NEA had been our political friends in the presidential campaign and our allies on many crucial legislative battles. For the first time in its 114 year history, the NEA endorsed a presidential candidate in the 1976 general election.”

The memo continues:

I would strongly recommend that you support the creation of a separate Department of Education for the following reasons: First, your unequivocal promise in the campaign to do so. Second, the teachers of this country have been our political friends in the past and can be our valuable political allies in the future. Third, the arguments for the creation of a separate department or at least as convincing as the arguments against it.”

Notice that Jordan doesn’t even try to argue that the Department of Education would improve education. It is a naked political calculation. Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education to try and appease the teacher unions. The result is that government education is top-down, from Washington, D.C. to your hometown. Someone is making policy. Someone is deciding the curriculum. Someone is writing regulations and rules. Someone is creating the structure of American education. Someone is making decisions on how to implement the LGBTQ+ revolution.

The System

The point of all this history is to demonstrate that K-12 American education is a behemoth. It is a system. Merely starting a parallel K-12 private Christian school is assuming too much of the system. It is assuming the basic structure of modern education, namely, that children need to be in school from ages 5-18 before they can enter college at ages 18-23. Then, from ages 23-26 they are in graduate school. Maybe we can call this program of child development the diktat timeline because it represents the imposition of a defective design. Christians shouldn’t automatically accept the prescribed division of age and expectation as if it is valid in all times and places.

In the book, The Battle for the American Mind: Uprooting a Century of Miseducation, Pete Hegseth and David Goodwin are right to suggest that reform starts with a return to classical Christian education. Certainly creating Christian schools that conform to the diktat timeline is better than feeding your covenant kids to the government school. As of right now, it’s the only option for Christian parents who are unable to homeschool. But such a school still shares presuppositions of the system. This is dangerous because the K-12 timeline is an entire perspective on life in which a proper model of biblical development is made difficult. The system is a vortex created by secular people, with secular agendas, who hold to secular presuppositions.

Conforming to the diktat timeline means conforming to three of its assumptions. First, it assumes, as previously mentioned, that children can’t graduate high school until they have completed thirteen years of school. Second, it assumes the priority of teen culture, which is also a new phenomenon. It wasn’t until 1940 that the majority of 14-18-year-olds attended “high school.” This marks the beginning of teen culture, where teens spend more time with teens than other age groups. When teenagers are crowded together in age-segregated spaces, rather than learning to take responsibility, they create their own communication, style, attitude, and moral code.[5] This age-segregated environment leads to the third assumption, namely that delayed onset maturity (DOM) is acceptable. DOM is when life revolves around consumption, programs, dating, recreation, fun, music, fast food, and social media. Maturity is delayed because responsibility is delayed.

The crying need of the hour is to wreck and wrack the timeline of the education system. Don’t submit to it or conform to it. Disrupt it. Challenge it. Cast stones. Feel the liberation. High school and college curricula are bloated, requiring too many non-essential classes. This creates the condition in which the last two years of high school and the first two years of college are redundant. But there are other reasons besides bloated redundancy to shorten the timeline.

The goal is for a young man to leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife (Gen. 2:24). This requires the young husband to shoulder responsibility and provide for his wife, a possibility that is delayed by the diktat timeline. The one flesh union should be formed with the grain of, rather than against the grain of, biological development. Proper sex is between one man and one woman in a lifelong, committed, marital relationship with each other (Mark 10:6-9). The peak sexual ages are 18-29. The Christian polis should be structured in such a way that prepares people for the responsibility of marriage closer to the front end of the peak than the back end.

By shortening the timeline, students complete their college education by the time they are 20, at which point they are prepared to get married younger, shoulder responsibility sooner, and begin full-time productive work earlier.

It’s going to take time, but consider education under the similitude of a dream, where high school ends after eleventh grade and an undergraduate degree requires only 90 credit hours (three years) to graduate. Obviously high school and college will look very different, and those details will have to be ironed out over time. One of those differences should be in how students are admitted to college. Christian teenagers ought not to feel the pressure to craft a high school resume of faux accomplishments and “leadership positions” to win the approval of a government college that is going to undermine every Christian conviction they have. How about this for an idea: Instead of trying to pass the test, let’s alter it.

When Booker T. Washington walked into The Hampton Institute seeking admission, he was barefoot, filthy, and by all accounts didn’t smell good. The admissions officer asked him a few questions. She was impressed with his answers. She told him to go into the next room and sweep it. She’d be back in thirty minutes to finish the interview. It was a test. Booker cleaned the room thoroughly, scrubbing walls, blackboards, windows, and window sills. When she returned and inspected the room, she admitted Washington to the college. Now that’s a worthy admissions process, far worthier than some trumped-up college resume and standardized test. Intelligence is working hard to clean a classroom rather than some bullet point on a resume. College admissions are just one element of the broken system that needs repair.

Because of the pervasiveness of the system, this dream will take time to develop. Nevertheless, under the current structure, there is room to be disruptive. It begins with healthy and courageous Christian schools and colleges working in tandem. This might even require the formation of new schools and colleges that somehow collapse the last year of high school and the first year of college into one.[6] Under the current structure, this can happen through exploiting dual enrollment and concurrent enrollment options. Imagine a student leaves King Alfred’s Classical School after 11th grade and enrolls at Saint Chesterton College. The first year at Saint Chesterton’s doubles as the final credits to graduate high school and the first year’s college credit.


This radical reorientation may sound like a Sisyphean task. Like the Saxon Bastille in Germany, the entrenched timeline is not easily toppled. It takes the commitment and gifts of talented people to start schools that don’t just follow the broken model but change it. The diktat timeline can be busted up. Because of how COVID changed the world, behold, now is the favorable time (2 Cor. 6:2). Even if you don’t have the gifts to start timeline-busting institutions, that doesn’t mean you can’t support those who do. So when some ambitious person pitches you an idea of a thoroughly Christian educational model that refuses to play along with the prescribed timeline, your job, dear Christian, is to support them. Contribute money, and resources, and don’t be afraid to enroll your children in a school that isn’t following the old mold. It might look a little different, but this is how we disrupt the relative stability of a failed system.

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call and the forthcoming book The Making of Evangelical Spirituality (Wipf and Stock).

[1] Currently more than 9/10 children attend a government school.

[2] Wilhelm Max Wundt, Outlines of Psychology (Lenox, MA: HardPress Publishing, 2013).

[3] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance and Other Essays (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1993).


[5] Thomas E. Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2012), 44.

[6] Saint Constantine School in Houston appears to be taking steps in this direction.