Every year, roughly 3,500 third-grade students from Princeton Public Schools visit the Princeton Battlefield State Park as part of their American Revolutionary War curriculum. Students walk across the relatively open landscape, imagining the 5,000 British and American
young soldiers who stood their position on that frozen January morning, protecting their vision for the nation. What was once an open field and the site of General George Washington’s famous stand, however, will soon become a vista of apartment-style and single family housing for Institute for Advanced Study faculty. So much for the feeling of a battlefield.
Battlefields provide a truly unique location for education, commemoration, and contemplation. These living landscapes are outdoor classrooms with an unparalleled capacity to connect students and life-long learners to history in a powerful and personal way. Moreover, these acres of hallowed ground are tangible milestones along the American journey to help students of all ages explore the definition and achievement of freedom. I would know. As a
living historian portraying General George Washington himself, I have the privilege of interacting with students on the battlefield and seeing their faces light up when I explain the storied charge that saved American cause for Independence. I have spoken with students of all ages truly engaged in their surroundings, heads swiveling to imagine the British coming upon over the rise in the distance, the boom of cannon fire overhead, and the chills that come with understanding
the gravity of the situation for the more than 500 men who were killed, wounded, or captured as a result.
Educators like me understand how rare it is for students to truly appreciate and connect with the topics they learn about in the classroom. Princeton Public Schools understand this challenge, which is why they make the effort to visit New Jersey’s rich historic heritage in person. Tourists from across the world also frequent New Jersey’s historic battlefields, bringing with them beneficial economic impacts for the garden state. It seems that having a pristine, largely intact battlefield with a preserved view-shed is beneficial on many levels.
Having the chance to viscerally experience a historic battlefield is a benefit that cannot be overlooked for mere convenience for the Institute for Advanced Study faculty housing. In 2010, Institute for Advanced Study released an approved statement by Dr. Mark
Peterson from the University of California who claimed that to preserve battlefields was to “fetishize space and preserve it in amber.” I think many educators can agree that the preserved acres of Antietam and Yorktown, or even the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, are valuable pieces of American cultural and natural heritage and are not ‘fetishized spaces’. A recent study from the American Institute of Research, moreover, showed that students’ standardized test
scores improved by 27 percent when their curriculum included some type of outdoor classroom. Immersing students in our history, allowing them to see more than the photographs in their textbooks or on screens, helps us to better understand ourselves as a nation. The
Institute themselves prides their own research environment, yet seem to care little of our student’s environment for learning about American history.
We cannot allow our nation to set this precedent for irreplaceably destroying these outdoor classrooms at the whim of political pressure or a meager profit. Standing where our forebearers stood and sometimes fell, cannot and should not be replaced for fleeting housing
needs which could just as easily be met at another location. It is my wish that fellow educators and teachers would voice their opposition to this needless construction, and stand with the preservation organizations who wish to find a mutually beneficial solution that sees our history saved.
Sam Davis is a resident of Chesterfield and a science teacher at Trenton Central High School.