Teaching Children History: Q&A With John De Gree, Founder of The Classical Historian

April 20, 2021 Updated: April 25, 2021

Ensuring our children are given a solid education in history is becoming an ever-pressing issue. I recently asked John De Gree, founder of the history curriculum company, The Classical Historian, about his thoughts on and tips for teaching history. Here’s what he said.

The Epoch Times: What inspired you to dedicate yourself to teaching history?

John De Gree: I received an apprenticeship in teaching history to young people from a master, and I did not realize this until I was in my mid-20s. My dad taught middle school history and then was an assistant principal for a total of 30 years. He and my mom had 11 children, and I was their 10th.

john de gree
John De Gree, founder of The Classical Historian. (Courtesy of John De Gree)

As a youngster, I remember my dad telling interesting and funny stories about his students in the classroom and about education, in general. As the family shared our mom’s meals, there were always discussions, sometimes heated, on politics, religion, and current events. My dad was a master at asking questions and challenging others to think for themselves. Sometimes, it was difficult to figure out exactly what he thought. Because I was one of the youngest kids, I mainly listened. Both my dad and mom had a sincere care for all children, and my dad had a sound understanding of communism.

From 1990 to 1996, I studied and lived in Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Czechoslovakia. While I lived in Europe, I used my father’s skill of asking questions and getting to know others as a way to help me learn German, Czech, and European history. After trying a few entry-level positions in various fields, I landed a high school teaching job in Prague. Right from the beginning, I knew that teaching history was for me.

The Epoch Times: Something often heard these days is: “Why should anyone take the time to study history? You have all of the information at your fingertips through your digital devices, don’t you?” How would you respond to this?

Mr. De Gree: Studying history involves at least two things: learning history content and acquiring the thinking skills of the historian. While some may think that all of the information in history “is at our fingertips through our digital devices,” this is not completely true. There are many websites and social media platforms that promote a false account or view of history, or they censor meaningful historical content and do not present the full picture. One can find web sources that deny the Holocaust or claim we never landed on the moon. Recently, one social media platform even censored my biographies on Margaret Sanger, Amelia Earhart, and Mildred Jackson.

A study of history requires learning skills that enable someone how to search for the truth in history. These skills include distinguishing between fact and opinion, forming judgment based on historical evidence, how to analyze primary and secondary sources, the Socratic discussion in history, writing in history, and others.

Acquiring the skills of the historian and using them requires time, patience, honesty, a good curriculum, a good teacher, and in the best of circumstances, another student or a few students to discuss and argue the meaning of the past. These higher-level thinking and rhetorical skills needed for the study of history prepare a student to make sense of all the digital sources of information available and allow him to independently ascertain connections and meanings in history.

Humans are designed to think on their own, to communicate with others, and to ponder the meaning of history. While learning history with a classical approach is natural, it has become unique. Instead of learning history content and the thinking and rhetorical skills of the historian, students in most schools are indoctrinated to memorize a certain version of the past and are dissuaded from learning how to think for themselves.

Epoch Times Photo
“Truth, Time and History” by Francisco Goya y Lucientes. (Public domain)

The Epoch Times: Why should history be a fundamental part of a person’s education?

Mr. De Gree: We need citizens who understand the past, who understand our place in history as a culture and as a country, and we need people who have and use the tools of the historian because these help a person be more human. If students understand the development of individual liberty throughout the history of Western civilization, they will be more likely to defend the truths of the past and reject falsehoods. If students understand ideas such as presentism, (which is the fallacy of judging the past by present-day morals) they will not be so quick to dismiss America’s Founding Fathers because of their imperfections.

What is currently happening in our school system in many states is a rewriting of America’s past and an effort to indoctrinate students into a particular way of thinking and acting that runs counter to individual freedom.

Revisionist historians are trying to rewrite the meaning of our past so that our youth hate their own country. If this happens, nobody will want to defend the rights and liberties that all Americans have, and we will become similar to those places in the world where there is despotism and misery.

But beyond the ramifications for our own country, the study of history enables the student to think, speak, and listen to others regarding the meaning of what it means to be a person. Appreciating and loving life comes from understanding its meaning. The study of history helps a person grapple with these issues.

The Epoch Times: Kids today seem to have a significant blind spot when it comes to history. What can parents and teachers do to reignite a genuine interest or curiosity about history in them?

Mr. De Gree: The most important thing parents can do to ignite a genuine interest or curiosity in history is to teach their children a strong sense of morality and to inspire their children to live a life of virtue. For some, this may mean following a religion that is based on love, mercy, and truth.

When children strive to be honest in the home and with their parents and siblings, it will carry over into their studies. When they study history, it will be natural for them to want to search for the truth. It will be easier for them to recognize lies and falsehoods or narratives that don’t make sense because their youth has been spent on moral training for what is good and just.

The second most important thing parents can do to inspire their children to have an interest in history is to talk with their children as much as possible and to build a loving and caring relationship.

One thing in common many successful students have is eating dinner with their families. During mealtimes, especially, children learn how their parents think and discuss and they learn how to listen. During the meals, parents should realize they are the leaders of the household and take responsibility to lead discussions, ask questions, and make sure that everyone has an opportunity to speak and share. If something of interest happened in the news that day, it should be brought up as part of the conversation, and each person should be given the chance to say what he knows and what he thinks about it.

Beyond this crucial visiting time, parents should try to take their children to visit museums, art galleries, and out in nature. These out-of-the house adventures stimulate a child’s mind and show him there is a larger world outside of his city and away from digital devices. In our family, our children don’t receive a phone until the ninth grade. We try to shower them with attention and invest time with them.

As with parents, it’s important for teachers to strive to be honest and consistent and to be respectful of students. For teachers to ignite a genuine interest or curiosity in history, I recommend they teach young children up to the age of 11 by reading out loud, playing games, and having children give summaries of the history they are studying. Younger children are excited to please adults, to show what they know, and they are content to learn answers to the questions “who, what, when, and where.” Students through grade five love learning about how people of the past dressed, what they ate, the jobs they held, and what their daily lives looked like.

For teachers of students ages 12 and over, they should teach the tools of the historian, challenge students with open-ended questions, and engage students in Socratic discussions. These students are more interested in answers to the question, “Why” and want to share with others and learn what other students think.

These older students want to argue and very often they think they know better than others, especially their parents. Teenagers may want to argue, but they need to learn how to do this in history. Teachers have to show students that evidence from secondary and primary sources is needed to support arguments. Instead of having students simply memorize the past, it is better they grapple with open-ended questions, such as “Was Charlemagne more Christian or pagan?” or “Did the New Deal strengthen or weaken America?” Teachers then should guide students in the Socratic discussion in history, gently challenging students to argue with each other, encouraging civil debate.

The Epoch Times: Homeschooling has seen a significant rise this past year. What advice would you give new homeschoolers who want to teach their children history?

Mr. De Gree: The best thing you can do for your children is to play history games, read history books and talk about them, and commit to learning history yourself with a history book club. For children ages 12 and over, parents should learn and then teach their children the tools of the historian. Students should answer open-ended history questions by researching in primary and secondary source texts, and parents should engage them in Socratic discussions. While it can be helpful to have a small group of students for discussion, we taught our oldest son one-on-one, and he is still one of my best students.

Classical Historian publishes fun and educational history games for all ages in our History Go Fish card game series. I would set up a schedule where you have at least a once-per-week game time with your kids. Our game for ages 5 to 10 is the American History Memory Game, and for ages 8 to 18, we have Go Fish cards in Ancient History, Medieval History, American History, U.S. Presidents, and the Constitution. We are coming out with three new games by June 1: Classical Greece and Rome, Modern U.S. History, and Modern World History. In this game is one version called “Collect the Cards,” where kids have to learn history then guess the card before someone else in the group does. Children love this social and exciting game.

go fish
New Go Fish history card games from The Classical Historian. (Courtesy of John De Gree)

For a book that teaches Western Civilization and American history for junior high students and above, I recommend “The Story of Liberty: America’s Ancient Heritage Through the Civil War.” This book teaches kids how the ancient and medieval world influenced the founding of America, it shows the political philosophy that created the freest country in the world, and it traces the history of America through its most destructive war that ended slavery, the Civil War. It shows how Americans have the rights they enjoy and it explains how the United States of America is unique in the world, specifically teaching American exceptionalism and civics. There is a great need in our society for this book.

Our company’s website, ClassicalHistorian.com, has a wealth of information and tips to teach homeschool history. We offer hundreds of free biographies and history lessons, products, and services. For grades 3 through 12, we teach online courses. Classes for younger children focus on introducing youth to history and encouraging young children to observe and share what they see or notice. Classes for grades 6 through 12 center on learning history content and the tools of the historian with the Socratic discussion as the most exciting part of the process. Students can also take our writing course in history, which teaches how to take and argue a historical perspective.

For homeschool parents or for teachers of history wanting training in how to teach the tools of the historian and how to lead the Socratic discussion in history, they should become a member of The Dolphin Society, our educator’s membership service. They will find a treasure trove of help and support, a forum for discussion, and monthly live training seminars. In addition, we offer monthly History and Constitution Bees for member children.

The Epoch Times: History itself seems up for debate, with different versions appearing in different resources. How do you recommend parents and teachers vet the history resources being offered their students?

Mr. De Gree: There are two recommendations I have in this area. This first one is a long-term answer and requires time, energy, and discernment, whereas the second gives you immediate resources. For the longer answer, the parent or teacher should first acquire the skills of the historian, and then apply them in a setting that is encouraging and allows the parent and teacher to practice history discussions with other adults.

Being part of a history book club that is led by a caring teacher will give the parent and teacher practical experience in analyzing the past and sharing ideas with others who are searching for the truth in history. With this experience in using the skills of the historian, the parent and teacher will be able to discern for himself the reliability of various sources. Classical Historian offers a history book club through its Dolphin Society, and in this society are also all the tools of the historian.

The short-term answer for which resources to trust and use with students is to use everything Classical Historian uses, including our games, curriculum, and various sources for our online learning. All of the titles of our sources are available on our website.

The Epoch Times: What practical tips could you offer to parents and teachers who want to make history engaging and fun?

Mr. De Gree: I love history games. Our Memory games are ideal for kids ages 5 to 10 and our Go Fish games are perfect for kids ages 8 to 18. Each Go Fish game includes a history booklet with ideas for about 10 games. Important for the family is to set aside one day a week, or one hour a week, and make this game day. With the game day planned, just simply follow through and play a game with your child. They will love the extra attention they receive from the parent, and in the process, they will learn history.

The favorite game of the children we teach is the “Collect the Cards” version of our Go Fish games. In this game, students learn history and try to guess what is on the card based on a number of hints. It is like a ready-made History Bee that kids can play with each other.

For kids ages 12 and over, to make history fun and engaging, parents need to teach open-ended history questions and teach with the Socratic discussion in history. Every teenager believes, at one time or another, that he knows more than his parents, and that his generation will set things right.

Answering open-ended history questions gives the student the freedom to search for and analyze and then create what he thinks is the best answer to questions that have many possible answers. In discussing and arguing with their peers and with their parents, students become excited to prove their point, to learn more, and to interact with others. Learning with the Socratic discussion in history is fun because the student is thinking and engaging with others the entire time.

Follow Barbara on Twitter: @barbaradanza